By Chelsea Pineda
Image by Rosaura Ochoa.
In the real world of corporations and brands, success can be measured in numbers – revenue, customers, sales, etc. In the virtual world, Twitter success is also measured in numbers – favorites, re-Tweets, and most importantly, followers.
Sometimes corporations cut corners in business to get ahead in the numbers game, and likewise in the pursuit of garnering a high amount of Twitter followers, companies have been taking the quicker route to achieve perceived popularity online. The strategy is just a morally dubious as business malpractice: buying or creating fake users to follow the company’s Twitter account.
“Everyone wants to be part of something that’s big,” says Patrick Ip, the co-founder and CEO of Kip Solutions, a social media consulting firm. “So if you’re buying a fake following, you’re going to get that sense that you’re big in that moment.”
Jez Frampton, the Global CEO of the brand value agency Interbrand, told The Guardian that social media plays a crucial role in influencing customers to buy into a brand or product.
“There is lots of evidence which shows that you’re more likely to be persuaded into an opinion when you’re discussing it with a friend or someone who is perceived to be independent,” Frampton said. “People talk about what cars they are going to buy, what food they are going to eat, shows they’ve seen, and they trust the opinions of those they know rather than the words of an advertiser or a journalist. What used to be word of mouth has become the chatter of social media.”
In 2012, researchers including Marco Camisani Calzolari, a professor in Corporate Communication and Digital Languages at the University of Milan, did a study analyzing the Twitter followers of 39 international companies, such as Dell, Coke and Vodafone.
The researchers of this study analyzed the profiles of 10,000 followers for each company they surveyed. The measured legitimacy of a follower was based upon the profile’s user name, image, biography, a minimum of 30 followers, and a few other factors. One way of indicating if an account was likely to be fake was if the profile’s tweets contained only links to other Web sites.
Calzolari found that nearly half of Dell Outlet’s followers on Twitter were likely created by marketers. However, at the lower end, not even seven percent of Starbucks followers were deemed to be fake accounts.
It may seem surprising, or unnecessary that a company as popular as Dell would have such a high quantity of fake Twitter followers.
“There is a kind of, I would say, ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality for some people to get jump-started and it’s the same way in creating your following in this case,” says lp. “But if you’re creating your own customers that are not real, that are not paying, then what’s the use? You’re not really helping yourself. You’re not creating a loyal customer base, where that the real value in social media lies.”
In this sense, companies committing Twitter fraud are depriving themselves of the real value of social media in a marketing setting. From a business standpoint, a large Twitter fanbase is a hollow one if it doesn’t generate more sales, fake users won’t be buying your product.
The negative consequences of being exposed for Twitter fraud can be monumental, at least for a short amount of time.
Frampton told The Guardian that when companies trying to influence conversation through fake customer accounts are exposed, the news travels fairly quickly. “The backlash to doing that is likely to be much bigger than if you hadn’t got involved in the first place and had just done a good job listening,” Frampton said.
Twitter fraud is not only a strategy used in the corporate world, but in the political one as well. In 2011, Newt Gingrich was revealed to have 1.3 million fake Twitter followers, making up 92 percent of his following.
“[Gingrich] was blasted on it for a couple days. Honestly, the news cycle moves really, really quickly and two to three weeks later, people forgot that,” Ip says.
However, although this bad press may have short, yet hard-hitting consequences, Twitter fraud is still frowned upon and should not be expected to be an effective long-term strategy.
“Maybe there’s a chance that you pay ten to 20 dollars a month for 10,000 followers a month and you’re going to get some conversations and some deals for that, but you’re building that kind of relationship on a lie and I think that’s only going to hurt a brand if they decide to go that route,” says Ip.
From one standpoint, having a large Twitter following could give the impression that a company is influential and effective, but Ip argues that the social media landscape is changing over time.
“I think one of the things you’re starting to see in the overall conversation about social media is that it’s not about the followers. It’s not about the likes. It’s really about how many sales I am generating from my social media accounts. How many conversations and connections am I getting through my social media account?” questions Ip.
So what’s the best and most effective way to build a large Twitter following that will allow a company to get the most out of social media marketing? Authenticity, says Ip.
“As long as you’re authentic, as long as you’re genuine, as long as you’re really reaching out to the people that care about what you do, you’re naturally, organically going to grow,” says Ip. “Sometimes it’s slower than most people want, but I think that’s the reality, and over time, you see a lot of people create very powerful movements because they are authentic.”