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Shopping for Social Snake Oil

February 13th, 2018

“When you have a lot of followers but not a lot of engagement, it looks weird. Instead of a good first impression, you are starting the business relationship communicating that you can’t attract a real following, so you’ve bought fakes to boost your social status.” – Oliver Talamayan via Forbes 

How many times do we have to repeat the same message – social media is about relationships! Just like you can’t buy real love, you also can’t buy disingenuous social love, at least not the long-lasting, meet-me-at-the-altar kind. And these snake oil dealers, wheeling and dealing their trench coat of shiny digital objects, promising solutions that are too good to be true are usually just that – short-lived and eventually harmful to a brand.

On January 27, 2018, the New York Times published “The Follower Factory”, an expose on social media’s black market and fake accounts that generate engagement or pad an account to increase follower count. Some of these fake accounts even impersonate real people – as discovered by Jessica Rychly, a 19-year-old who had her Twitter “social identity’ stolen by a Devumi fake. Scary stuff.

The article focuses on Twitter and amplification bots which engage with tweets or follow accounts purchased by clients. Enter shiny object dealer, Devumi, a small company headquartered in Florida, purchasing followers from a wholesaler and reselling to clients wanting to grow their audience, often for influencer purposes. Many of the interviewed clients thought their new hundreds of thousands of followers were real people with legitimate accounts.

The issue is even getting attention from one the country’s top state Chief Law Officers. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into Devumi immediately after the Times’ publication of this article, calling these business practices “impersonation and deception”.

So how do you avoid being seduced by the promises of immediate popularity? Strategic social management and clear understanding of your brand’s key objectives are critical in avoiding a fall for this social version of a “get-rich-quick” scheme. What is your end goal?

The benefit of the recent media attention is that influencers are now on high-alert, knowing that their follower legitimacy will be questioned and, hopefully, audited by prospective clients. And, this should impact brands’ influencer selection processes to prefer influencers based upon relevancy to target audience, not only on following size.

There are many influencer softwares with research capabilities available to those investing in this form of marketing, allowing for a more effective process to determine influencer credibility. The tools are available to make the biggest impact for your influencer bucks. It will take time and strategy but you could avoid working with an influencer with fake followers that doesn’t help you reach your objectives.

Here are a few other questions to ask when choosing an influencer to represent your brand.

  • How does engagement compare to follower count? Low engagement but high follower count could indicate fake followers.
  • For larger influencers, do they use a trusted agency to help them book, plan and strategize with the brand?
  • Does their audience match your desired target audience?
  • On which social media platform does the influencer have the best engagement?
  • Does the influencer align with your brand safety guidelines?
  • Can the influencer seamlessly weave your brand into theirs?
  • Has the influencer grown astronomically overnight without an obvious reason for this growth?

And now, questions to ask of their followers.

  • Do all followers also follow thousands of accounts on Twitter or Instagram?
  • Do they have followers themselves?
  • Does the ratio of retweets or engagements exceed the number of original tweets?
  • Are original tweets in different languages?

Hopefully, this expose makes digital resellers or even the software wholesalers think twice before trying to swindle their clients. As a marketer, we need to perform our due diligence before recommending a software or strategy. And for those of us who work in social every day, it’s just another reminder that authentic is always the best way to go. Real is always better.

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