One metric, and one metric alone, tells me everything I need to know about a social media presence -- whether that belongs to an individual, a brand or whatever. Here it is: When they share something, what percentage of their followers interact with it?
If you have 75,000 followers on Twitter, and less than 100 people interact with your tweet in some way, that leads me to ask several questions:
- Are you tweeting at the wrong time of day, and you're just missing them when they're checking in on Twitter?
- Is your content not good? Maybe you've gone astray of what built your following in the first place
- Do you have fake or ill-gotten followers?
That last question is a loaded one. To accuse someone of having purchased followers or obtaining them through less-than-sterling means, you've got to have the goods. There are whisper campaigns, I'm sure, about plenty of abnormalities in that follower-engagement ratio, but taking the step of publicly accusing someone of dishonestly padding their follower count is a big one.
However, New York Times reporting confirms something a lot of skeptical people have intuitively known for a long time: Hundreds of thousands of people -- if not a number reaching into the millions -- have purchased fake followers. They've done it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And it doesn't stop there. They've bought fake traffic to pad their podcast download and listen counts. They've arbitraged website traffic, buying bot-based and human-based floods of traffic that they hope they can recoup some of the cost of obtaining through advertising. Basically, if there's a metric in social media or broader online media that matters, and it helps sell ads, make someone money or increase their brand's value, there is a service to game, pad and falsify it.
Sometimes the game is really simple. It's just padding follower accounts. After all, there is an expectation of permanent, thermonuclear growth for #brands. If you're not growing, you're useless. Or at least that's the perception (though that's starting to change, thankfully). If you're not gaining followers organically, then maybe you purchase some fake followers to create the illusion of hyperbolic growth.
The return on paying a few cents per phony follower surely outweighs the ROI of advertising your account on each platform in hopes of luring followers. The average cost of getting a follower through each social platform's advertising arm can range from $0.10 to $2 each. You're spending a lot just to get the followers, and then you're going to have to reach them. On Facebook, that almost exclusively means pay-to-play on sharing content that leaves their platforms. They're hitting you twice. If you just want followers, skip that and buy some. Then you can use the ad platforms on each service to create the illusion of engagement. Buy an ad for pretty much every post, even if just a few dollars, and it all looks legit. After all, these platforms are reluctant to tell organic followers which posts are paid for and which haven't been promoted. If the consumer -- or the ad buyer, or another important stakeholder -- only comes across the paid posts and sees great engagement, they may make the leap of faith that everything is like this. Success!
But, if you purchase followers that aren't also required to engage with your posts in some way, then it's pretty easy for a competitor or detractor to sense something's up. Then that leads to talk behind your back, rumor spreading and other problems.
Of course, one of the common defenses for people accused of buying fake followers is that they didn't buy the followers but the followers came to them. And that's a legitimate defense. Research (and personal analysis of my own Twitter account) shows that bots tend to, if arbitrarily, follow legitimate accounts to throw off the scent that they're bots. They usually have alpha-numeric handles on Twitter, often with an Anglo-Saxon name and a bunch of letters and/or numbers after that. They follow about 200 people, and some of those poor schmucks follow back. It works out great for the purveyor of the phony accounts, allowing them to lie in wait until they're needed when a purchase order hits. Then the bots are awoken, and they go to follow the new client in swarms. Fake follower purchases seem to be fulfilled in a matter of days, also part of an effort to cover up the scent.
On Twitter, the sheer laziness in setting up the account makes bots easier to detect, but there are millions of legitimate users on the service who don't tweet and just follow people they like. Or they set up an account to try out the service, follow a bunch of people, hate it, leave and tweet maybe a handful of times. Or perhaps they're goofs who follow back all the bots. So, it's not a slam dunk.
On Facebook, it's easier. You can take the time to see bots and fake accounts coming from countries like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other developing or poor countries. Odds are, if they're suddenly following your American brand, they're not real or legit.
On Instagram, the volume of phony accounts is unreal. Picking up on the fake accounts is more like Twitter, scanning a profile to see if the pic appears clearly stolen or if there are lots of follows and few followers, while combined with few or no pictures shared. Or, even more telling, a private account following a lot of people.
Again, though, a jacked follower count is easy to suspect without corresponding engagement. So, to deflect attention, buyers of fake followers often also buy fake engagement in the form of likes and retweets and shares. Sudden floods of likes and retweets on Twitter just seconds after an otherwise mundane tweet is shared is a telltale sign of false engagement. True Twitter engagement usually takes time and builds up like a wave, not happening all at once. On Instagram, a flood of likes on a video that has few views is usually telling.
On Facebook, it's not as big of a deal to chase engagement when even skeptics know the platform is designed to only deliver a page's messaging to less than 5 percent of their total following. You gotta pay to get to them all. So showcasing follower engagement isn't as important, at least in theory.
Even knowing all of this, it's very difficult to easily prove someone has purchased followers. Unless you're sitting on their account pages and hitting refresh to see the exact minute a swarm of bots follow that account, you won't catch them in the act. And, even if you did see that massive, sudden uptick, that account may be gaining legitimate followers, even if it's dishonestly.
Let's take about follower churn.
There is a cottage industry of social media mavens -- or wannabes who have Googled something like "how to get a lot of Instagram followers fast" -- who use a purely legitimate, albeit time-consuming, game of gaining followers. They'll follow thousands of accounts per day, up to the max allowed on Instagram and Twitter, hoping that the person behind the account in question is so thrilled by the follow that they'll follow back. Then, maybe a minute, a day or a week later, the churning account will unfollow that wave of people they just followed, absorbing the gains on their follower count.
Then, they'll do it again for a different wave of people, which often includes many of the same people in the original wave. They'll keep going like this until they build up a massive following. Meanwhile, the people who followed back typically assume they're still among the lucky few this suddenly well-followed account follows itself. (They're not.) Now, when the churn victims look at the churning account's profile, they realize they're following a popular account. They usually stick around if the #content is OK.
Meanwhile, the expanded reach helps play the algorithm of these services, which show content to the followers of the churn victims because there's an assumption the content one account likes will also be enjoyed by that account's followers. The churn account gets extra reach and more organic follows. All of a sudden, with a month's hard work, a churning account could have a five-figure following. And it's legit.
That doesn't necessarily mean these followers will engage with the content shared by the churning account, but it's a surprisingly successful strategy typically employed by accounts without much original content. On Instagram, they are typically aggregation farms, stealing other people videos and pictures, racking up views and likes because most people on social media don't give a damn about the original source of something. Funny? Cute? Like and share, doesn't matter the content's provenance.
In short order, these accounts have big followings that marketers want to tap into. It's called influencer marketing. So they get paid to do a sponsored post -- which probably isn't labeled properly -- and they profit off of faking out their followers and stealing other people's stuff.
Look, in any business where nebulous numbers exist, and their true value can be shielded from public view, there will be book-cooking. Not everyone does it. In fact, it's a very small sliver of people who engage in it, whether it's accounting or tweeting. However, it's important to know that not everything is always as it seems, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the engagement you're seeing on social media. As mentioned, it's almost impossible to catch someone in a dishonest act like buying followers and engagement, but there are signs that could make you wary of working with an account or brand.
Trust, but verify.