Friends are not who they seem

Friends are not who they seem

There is a saying that money can’t buy you friends. But nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed, it’s never been easier to buy a bunch of Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

The going rate is about £15 per thousand on average! Yet these friends won’t meet you for dinner or buy you a drink. In fact, they don’t exist. They are bytes on a server somewhere in cyberspace. Other times they are real people, but rewarded for liking your Facebook page with points to play online games or given free downloads.

A recent study by Marco Calzolari, a professor at Milan University, shows that a massive proportion of followers of some of the world’s biggest brands are not real at all. Based on criteria such as the number of posts from a fan’s Twitter account and the use of specific writing styles in Facebook posts, he concluded that nearly half of any brand’s social equity is probably false. Taking a leading computer brand as an example, he estimates that about 700,000 of their Twitter followers simply don’t exist.

There is no evidence to say that any of these brands have actively bought followers – automated bots often attach themselves annoyingly to people and brands without payment. But some businesses do buy a social media following. Faked personas are at the centre of a very vibrant and growing hidden economy. Your brand may be approached directly via your Facebook or Twitter account. Or if you so wish, there are plenty of offers on eBay to set up fictitious profiles.

For many businesses this is very tempting. A strong following can boost credibility and business, especially for start-ups which can look like a booming company thanks to a buzzing Twitter account. But large firms are not averse to such trickery. A small number of followers in the early stages of a Facebook campaign can be embarrassing at best and damaging to a brand at worst. Buying crowds of fans can give an artificial boost. But such boosts are rarely effective in the long term. Remember, these fans are bytes on a server. They are not real customers engaged with your brand and ready to spend money on your products.

For now, this skulduggery works. Most ordinary people do not yet know that this activity exists. They have a real trust that a brand’s social equity is real. But many brands are finding diminishing returns of large followings, whether naturally grown or artificially bought. When every brand has a huge following, any impact is considerably reduced. And consumers are starting to wise up to some of these sharp practices.

For us the impact of this activity is to question the validity of social media measurement and analytics. Artificial friends and followers greatly distort measures such as reach, share and influence, to mention a few. How can you trust these numbers when they are corrupted by some brands trying to make themselves more popular than they really are?

Consequently, there is a very strong argument for treating social media metrics with a big dose of scepticism.

Instead, we strongly recommend putting your trust for insight into more traditional means of collecting customer experience and feedback. Real people, with real views, real feedback and real opinions. Yes, social media has a use in terms of getting broad opinions and feelings about a brand, but it should never be relied upon as the only source of brand health metrics. Instead, it should always be combined with other more accountable and trustworthy sources of feedback.

So don't forget; money can buy you friends—just not very good ones. 



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