As a social media instructor and administrator, I constantly get questions from clients about building their community on various platforms. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the idea of buying followers. Websites abound offering to get you thousands of followers for a fee, sometimes as low as $50. These can be very tempting to those trying to get the word out about their brand.
It is also the worst strategy you can adopt, and it is becoming a worse deal by the day. A massive inflation in Twitter followers is a sure signal something is not on the up-and-up. In fact, this unprecedented growth is making people look more closely at this unethical practice.
Amber Mac of Fast Company recently examined this issue and noted the surprising ease with which spam followers can be purchased:
According to Fast Company‘s recent Social Media Road Map, it costs a mere $77 to buy 5,000 Twitter follower bots at buytwitterfollowers.org. Using usocial.net, a more substantial fee of $617 will get you 4,000 Facebook fan bots. Earlier this month, Facebook admitted it has 83 million fake accounts and dupes – so Twitter isn’t the only platform plagued by imposters.
These are huge numbers that can bring a gleam to the eye of anyone who has been pursuing the longtail method of engaging over social media. Unfortunately, like with most things that seem to be too good to be true, it is. Especially now.
There is a new application out there, one I’ve been eagerly awaiting for years at this point. Ms. Mac gives great description of it in her article:
The main goal of StatusPeople’s web app is to find out ‘how many fake followers you and your friends have.’ The company, which creates social-media management software, released the tool as a side project in July to shed light on a user’s follower quality. While the makers emphasize on their site that their metrics aren’t perfect (for example, they only analyze a sample of your followers and, moreover, it’s possible for anyone to purchase Twitter followers for another user), there is no doubt that the results have the potential to humiliate anyone who pays money for subscribers–a dodgy practice that takes just a few minutes.
On a practical level, this means that if you have purchased followers, you should prepare to be “outed.” Frankly, I’m surprised that something like this has not been developed earlier. Of course, with social media having played such a huge part in the last Presidential election, it is only natural to see it debut on the eve of the next one.
Currently at the top of the list of those under scrutiny is Mitt Romney, whose follower count on Twitter is certainly suspicious (Ms. Mac continues):
Do a quick Google search for ‘Mitt Romney Twitter Followers‘ and you’ll find dozens of articles discussing how his follower numbers grew suspiciously. Security firm Barracuda Labs created an infographic based on its research breaking down Romney’s newfound Twitter fame, sharing that one in four of Romney’s new Twitter accounts had never sent a single tweet. No matter how the presidential candidate got these new followers, it doesn’t look good from the outside (although his Faker Score is currently sitting pretty at just 12% of 839,719 followers).
The Internet is a fantastic place to accrue attention. It is also a great place to get taken down hard if your words or actions are found to be duplicitous. The risks inherent in purchasing followers are grave for any brand, as the backlash can rapidly expand and often has much greater viral potential than most of the promotional efforts that preceded it. People do not like feeling like they have been lied to or spammed.
For those who feel impervious to consequences (the “I’ll never get caught” crowd), it is only a matter of time. Faker is merely the first software of this type, and I can guarantee you there will be many more sprouting in its wake, and they will be used with abandon.
Blogger Zach Bussey has already used findings from the tool to ID some high-profile offenders starting with the Senior VP of Shop.com @LorenRidinger – follower count 374,000/81% fake according to Faker — and rapper @ThatsShawtyLo – follower count 203,000/also 81% fake. In the days to come, we will be seeing many more, especially as the tool gains more attention and a larger user base.
In addition to the unethical nature of the purchased follower strategy, there are large and direct concerns about how useful it really is. Having a huge follow count can make you look important to the casual observer but if most of those engaged are bots, sock-puppet accounts, or empty spam profiles, they won’t give much social media punch.
The effectiveness of social media lies in having an engaged audience who values your content enough to share it and to interact with you over the platform. Bots from Russia do not retweet your content, neither do spam profiles. It is only people, the same people who have found your content interesting enough to keep up with, that will share your tweets.
The easy way is a potent lure, but people always seem to forget that there is little of worth that can be achieved through shortcuts like this.
George "Loki" Williams is the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content, community management and social media. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters and Kaiser Permanente. He is one of the organizers of the Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans, and his work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, and NOLA.com, among others.