Fake Social Profiles' First Victims Are Self-Deluded Brands

Governments usually mean well -- I'm quite an optimist on that score. However, they can often miss the point. Take the Culture Secretary offering help to the media industry on ad blockers. Really? What on earth is the government going to do? And then we have the announcement of a clamp-down on fake social media profile -- or more specifically, those used by cretins to go around trolling the vulnerable under a cowardly disguise. Is it just me wondering why the Crown Prosecution Service is going to act on something which is already illegal? Whether you're hiding under a disguise or not, harassing someone online is illegal no matter how you look at it, isn't it?

Sometimes, however, these moves do highlight an issue by mistake -- namely by the authorities trying to do something positive but slightly getting the wrong end of the stick. By highlighting trolls' fake accounts they have actually drawn attention to the huge marketing issue of fake social media accounts. The industry of setting up fake accounts so agencies and brands could buy "likes" was quite a big issue a year or two ago. However, display's woes of blocking, viewability and fraud seem to have overshadowed it. I bet social media marketers can't believe their luck.

One of the few social media conference speakers that I can truly recall as being fascinating presented research challenging the "conversation" that brands have with consumers on social. He weighed up how many millions of fans the huge brands have and compared that to how their posts only get a handful of responses. If there's a conversation going on, it's a very quiet one, he quipped. 

Ever since, I have been in the habit of looking at brands' social pages and they're very interesting. Most fail to get much response beyond a handful of likes and retweets. There are obvious exceptions when something popular lands, but generally, it's less than a dozen or so people physically interacting with each post. This could be because the message is not very interesting, of course -- and my guess is that this is usually the case. Just look at how many brands pump out pictures of their products with a quick comment, hoping people can be bothered to notice the message. 

But maybe, just maybe, there's an even more sinister underlying issue here. There is no science in what I'm about to say, just my random observations. However, just go and have a look for yourselves. Many brands have likes and retweets from a core following who say very little about themselves. Three things spring to mind. Maybe there are people out there who don't want to reveal much about themselves, other than that they regularly like a particular brand. They might be concerned about their privacy if they tell the world too much about themselves. The cynic in me, however, is wondering whether these are people who work for the brand or are associated with it in some way. The journalist cynic in me wonders whether -- even worse -- they are fake accounts set up from someone in a hurry to get some likes to get the popularity meter at the top of their page turning in the right direction. 

I have not seen any recent research, but a couple of years ago a significant proportion of social media profiles were considered fake and available for hire, and usually most were from agencies that were desperate to show their clients that social was working for them. Brands were not blameless -- they also wanted to get their popularity counter revving up in the right direction. It's easy to see why. Nobody wants to put the first song on a jukebox in a bar, but if songs are already playing, you find people are more comfortable joining in. It's the same with social. Few people want to follow a brand with hardly any followers and even fewer want to be the first to start commenting on posts. 

Social media really does have a problem with fake sites, and, yes -- many are used by vile trolls to bully people, something that is already illegal. However, the big racket going on right now is fake profiles used to make brands look more popular than they are. It doesn't do the brands any good because they -- and anyone looking at their profile page -- will do the math of dividing millions of followers by a dozen interactions and note that the conversation with fans is at whispering level. Secondly, the brand may well not only be doing itself a disservice but paying extra for the privilege. 

Like any marketing channel, there is always good and bad practice. But next time you're cruising around, look at some brands and see how many are being routinely retweeted by the same people with scant profile information. Not only are the conversations pretty quiet but part of them may well be fictitious. 

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