There's been a lot of talk about Twitter followers lately, including both presidential candidates, celebrities, musicians and the like utilizing services to game their numbers. Specifically, a lot of the "Top 10" have been found to have a substantial amount of fake followers, in some case to the point where 70% of their following is either bots or inactive profiles. Most articles and infographics on the subject are telling, however with a little digging you can find out that there are also social media "experts" utilizing the service to give the appearance of bloated numbers. Intrigued, and given our rare propensity to tweet as an agency, we wanted to see what the fuss was about.
So we gave it a try.
In August we saw some ads on a third party Twitter "profile checker" site saying they can send a thousand followers your way for $9. The process is pretty simple: select how many followers you want, select the account you'd like them applied to, pay, and within 48 hours -- boom -- you're in business with several thousand new followers. So it turns out for under $20 you can buy a few thousand followers. And, to the service's word, the bot-like, systematic approach worked. Our numbers went from a few hundred followers to over 3,500 in 48 hours. What was interesting to note was that there was no authentication process whatsoever involved. No OAuth. No logins. Nothing. The system we went through was to enter the username we wanted the followers "applied" to, then pay for the followers. That's it.
Who Are These People?
Upon researching their profiles, we found that most had less than five tweets, profile pictures and were scattered across the globe. Most had bios that appeared to be scraped -- but with typos -- from legitimate Twitter users. Their profile photos were random, with some female names having male pictures and vice-versa. We're still plugging away at blocking each of these people so they don't show up in our follower count as there aren't any third party apps to automatically drop them all. This takes time, obviously, but we'll right our numbers soon enough.
What Was The Value?
What we found is that doing so as an experiment told us what we already knew -- buying numbers delivered on the follower count, but that's about it. These followers don't account for a single reply, retweet, mention or other form of interaction. Instead, we have a bloated follower count that, when tracked against engagement as a percent of followers, is driving down all of our metrics that matter.
Wait, But Why Did You Do It Again?
You might ask "Why did you do this?". Is it ethical? How can an agency that claims to advise clients on social media best practices and ethics do something like this? We did it because if we don't know how it works we can't advise our clients about exactly how it works. I didn't approve this because I wanted the agency big numbers as we rarely tweet (see: our tweet number) or a big following. We advise our clients that the number isn't what's important, it's what you do with them. Engage them. Learn from them. Excite them and make them remember why they buy your products. But I digress.
If I wanted to sit up all night and day and follow people I could. I've built up over 4,300 followers "the old fashioned way" on my personal account. And I am systematically going through and blocking these new fake followers for the company account. It takes time, but eventually it'll get evened out and we'll continue the slow burn of building a following -- namely engaging with our community and providing good content.
What Did We Learn
Is it all bad? No, actually it's not. Ethically, of course, it's a complete misrepresentation of having humans follow you on Twitter and Like you on Facebook. And yes, there are also fake Facebook accounts you can have follow your brand. You might want to revisit your Page's data to see if any unexplained spikes in Likes were obtained. Back to the lesson.
What we did see is that our Twitter account started receiving new and reciprocal followers on Twitter because our follower number appeared to be high. Perception is what matters to some on Twitter, which is why they need to have the appearance of being followed. Because of the onslaught of MLM, life coach and porn spam followers on Twitter, people are more discerning about who they'll follow back. Most people will rarely follow the person or company with low numbers; it's a badge of legitimacy, even if those followers can easily be proven as fake. Is it right? No, but that's the system in which many "influencers" (including those in the social media field) have built their online empire.
Why Does This Matter for Brands?
The implications of having fake Twitter followers and Facebook Likes for brands is enormous. It goes beyond basic marketing ethics. It implicates your brand -- or agency -- as one that is unethical. Here are three reasons why this is huge:
1. Your Agency May Have Been Lying
For starters, your agency may have purchased fake followers in order to meet their goals. It would explain sudden bumps/spikes in Likes and Follows (remember you can do this for Facebook too), as well as decreases in engagement. As such, your agency may recommend additional ad buys to reach fans -- and then collecting a commission for making the ad buy. Quite a nice ponzi scheme, huh?
2. Your Numbers Undoubtedly Dipped This Summer
It's fairly obvious to spot when this account purchased followers.
3. Don't Expect So Many Likes/Follows From Paid Endorsers
For brands sponsoring celebrities, there's a major implication that is worth speaking with your lawyers about. Whenever a brand works with a celebrity - or any personality with large follower/Like counts - those numbers are factored into the negotiations of "gets" for the brand, meaning that along with things like appearances, usage of their image and rights to a song, brands have been also asking for status updates and tweets from the talent. In retrospect, it also explains why a tweet or status update from a mega star with a lot of fake followers/Likes didn't move the needle for your brand's Likes/follows as much as you were expecting.
Fortunately it's not all "buyer beware" for brands. First, you can protect yourself by checking out StatusPeople's Fake Follower tool and inspecting the blogger, celebrity, musician - or social media "expert" -- you're thinking about working with to see what percentage of followers are legitimate. This will help set expectations on reciprocal follows/Likes as well as negotiate a better rate for working with a spokesperson. Taking it a step further, brands can also check out Wildfire's Monitor tool to pinpoint the exact date in which the suspect purchased their followers/Likes. In case there were any doubts, the era of social media transparency is beyond being "here". And it's high time those in the image business and brand folks alike took note.
Update: This post has been very well received -- except by those who've tried to game the system. The account denoted in the chart above has figured out a way to game StatusPeople so that their "fake" count is now down to single digits, even after fraudulently purchasing 40k followers and unfollowing 20k. However, Wildfire still shows the massive spike -- and now decline -- in their numbers.