August 06, 2013

Buying fans = Social suicide

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If you didn’t tune in to last night’s C4 Dispatches documentary Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans you probably should do. It was a definite eye-opener. For me, as someone who works in this space (both as my full-time career and as a hobby) I found it insulting to the social media marketing industry as a whole, for two main reasons:

1) for making digital marketing look completely two-dimensional; and

2) for assuming consumers are mindless idiots.

The documentary exposes online workshops called “like-vendors”. Literally, to sell “likes” to Facebook pages. Yeah. These “like-vendor” companies get paid to build a fake network of people whose job it is to “like” certain online properties in order to create the illusion that these brands are popular and well-respected.

The worst part is that this process is so manual. These workshops create thousands of Facebook accounts per minute just to add another number to the scoreboard. It’s deceitful to consumers, and it undermines the great work that many ethical brands do online to create strategic campaigns for their actual fan-bases.

Obviously nothing is ever only solely based on something as two-dimensional as a simple click of the “like” button; it is simply the first thing people can see before you delve into the full story. This is what these “like-vendors” took advantage of, and so did the agencies that outsourced this type of underhand work. One of the scariest parts of the documentary for me was that some of the brand directors appear not to care. They just turned a blind eye and wanted the numbers, hard and fast.

I hope this documentary has made people rethink the notion that popularity and “likes” and “numbers” are synonymous. There is always more analysis to be done to reach any proper conclusion. There are no short-cuts in building an audience. There is no ‘easy way’ to getting people to “like” you.

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A few weeks ago, I saw a few tweets circling from a popular group of fashion bloggers. Things had turned a bit grim, after one of the bloggers had publicly outed a fresh newcomer as having bought ‘fake followers’. The other fashion bloggers were furious – firstly with the girl for pretending to be something she wasn’t, but also because they felt cheated. Why had someone got more followers than them in a matter of days, when they had spent years and years building a large following online?

Then another male fashion blogger was outed. He had over 100,000 followers on Twitter and had been approached by big glossy fashion magazines to do fashion shoots. These well-respected magazines had thought this guy was the next big thing, when in fact 99% of his followers were empty fake accounts. He had nothing special to offer.

What this documentary successfully brings to light is that this behaviour is so easy to mask, at first. There are now stringent protocols in place by main social networking sites to prevent this happening and I am glad that we can see action being taken. I must admit, I was really shocked by all of this back-alley wheeling and dealing.

It’s not rocket science: “Likes” are actually meaningless, unless each likee is an actual active fan of the brand. It’s like hosting a dance party for a load of mannequins who can’t move.

The thought of anyone purchasing YouTube views also gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I did think, if the video is crap, actually it doesn’t matter if you have a million views. No one will care afterwards.

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The celebrity endorsements aspect of the documentary is slightly different. The celebrities themselves have a huge following in their own right. Talent contracted to work with brands is nothing new. It is as old as time: there has always been a link between celebrities and the endorsement of products.

Savvy people know that [insert celebrity] has been paid an extortionate amount to wave their glossy hair around holding a bottle of L’Oréal. We don’t ask them for details about their pay packet. We just know that they are endorsing it. Do the same rules apply on Twitter? 

If my best friend sent me a sample of her new product would I need to be transparent in endorsing the brand, or just say I love it, because I actually do? Where’s the line? Has anyone drawn it yet?

In the documentary, they implied that any celebrity saying ‘thank you’ to a brand automatically shows that the tweet has been paid for.  I don’t think it’s fair to jump to that conclusion every time. I think it’s up to us, the viewer, to make an educated guess when a celebrity is over doing it with branded tweets. It would be good if they did do it – and brands should definitely encourage that they put a hashtag after their tweet – but for a special gift is it necessary? PR companies have been schmoozing journalists with freebies for years and years – and yet journalists never put in a line at the end of their article to say “these words are in exchange for a pedicure at the Hilton Hotel!”

Anyway, I’m glad that these issues have been brought into the mainstream. The documentary was well-made. Overall, I really hope people stop thinking that “likes” are the be all and end all. It’s about real human communication, transparency and using social media platforms in a honest, engaging way.

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  • I love this article! I watched the documentary and gaped open mouthed at the screen as the realisation of fake-followers hit me. Not so much the brand endorsing. As you said, it’s such old news and has been done for hundreds of years. (way before Twitter/Facebook/’insert any social media site here’ began. As you also said, it is all about human communication. I don’t write my blog for ‘likes’, bottom line is, it’s my diary. If people read it, heck that’s flattering but it’s not EVERYTHING!

    Brilliantly written, thanks for sharing!

    Katie <3

  • Thanks Katie!! x

  • Love this post. A recent colleague of mine was regularly “buying” followers for various client accounts – I find it really a really terrible and dishonest behaviour in the digital marketing world. The worst part is, she’s a respected journalist and marketer, and seems to be getting away with it. Sigh.

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