Fake Fans, Celebrity tweets – is social media in crisis?

For many in the social media and marketing industry, the Channel 4 Dispatches program aired on Monday 5th August 2013 in the UK came as no surprise. You can watch a 2 minute trailer for the show below.

Titled “Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans”, the show looked at how some companies are offering celebrities “freebies” in return for a positive tweet, and also how there are “click farms” overseas that will deliver “fake likes”.

Those in the know accept that these practices happen, and those of us with integrity flatly refuse to engage in this behaviour or assist clients to do so.

When clients ask me how to “get more followers”, I ask them one simple question: Why?

In pretty much every case, they have no credible answer.

The academic answer all lies around the notion of “social proof”.

20130806-110631.jpgRobert Cialdini wrote about it in his 1994 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

It is the reason why we stop to look when a crowd forms outside a store or restaurant – we wonder “what’s so good about that place”? It is also the reason behind why we buy a certain book that appears on a “best seller list”.

As the Wall Street Journal found out in March of 2013, these best-seller lists can be gamed, and often are.

And yes, even influencer platforms can be gamed. I wrote about this a while ago, and explained that in this new world of social media, transparency becomes key.

There has been a wide range of reactions to the Channel 4 program – from amazement that this sort of behaviour goes, on, through to traditional newspapers who thought this was nothing new – saying:

“It took the moral high road and told us this: ‘Celebrities will endorse stuff for a few hundred quid.’ Wowzers. Who’d have thought small time z-listers would surreptitiously endorse things for money? Isn’t that, like, advertising?”

With the recent abuse on Twitter that has made front page headlines in the UK, it points to the fact that social media is now at a crossroad.

I will leave it to others to critique Twitter’s immediate response to the issues faced, but what I do see is the opportunity for some very smart start-up to emerge to sort out a scalable way to handle this issue. I have no doubt that the next acqui-hire at Twitter will be in the area of security and trust.

Social media in 2008

Stepping back, I can remember back to October 2008, when I attended “The Tuttle Club” – a weekly, informal gathering of what can be described as a bunch of “social media geeks”. Many people I met in 2008 during these gatherings have become firm friends.

At these meetings, we would talk about what we could do with social media, hoping that one day brands would take it seriously and we could all perhaps make a career out of it.

Well guess what. Our wish has come true. Only now, many brands are seeing social as just “another channel to market”. With the continual fragmentation of traditional media, brands are scrambling to get their product in front of people who might buy it.

Using celebrities to push products is not new.

It has been happening for years. Even journalists have sailed close to the wind. with “famil” trips and flights paid for by an airline or hotel chain. Only fairly recently (and as a result of advertising standards compliance) have we seen disclosures at the end of articles saying “xyx flew as a guest of airline abc”.

My view is that ANY product promoted by a “celebrity” is tied to some offer of payment or incentive – perhaps this is unfair, but it is often true.

With the rise of social media influencers (in effect “social media celebrities”), the line is again becoming blurred.

Bloggers aren’t journalists so may feel they don’t have to comply with the law. They do.

In the interests of transparency, I am writing this post on an iPad provided to me by UK 4G operator EE as a part of my role as an EE Advocate. You can read more about my involvement here.

While it is in my interests to be transparent, it is also in my nature.

I am very aware that I am the manager of my own “brand”. It is what gets me asked to speak at conferences, and interviewed on TV. It is my calling card.

If I started tweeting about brands without disclosing my connection, you would very quickly think less of me, and my “brand” would suffer.

The rise of the “pro bloggers”

This is becoming a real issue for “pro bloggers” who all of a sudden are being courted by big brands to endorse their products.

On one hand, the brands can provide them with a secure stream of income, but at the same time their integrity and independence may take a hit.

I blogged about the issue of bloggers “crossing the line” recently.

One of the participants in the Channel 4 program also had some good advice for these new “Celebrities” and how they need to also manage their own “brand” carefully.

What did the Channel 4 program prove?

The Channel 4 program was I believe excellent because it did one thing very well.

It exposed to a mainstream audience that some celebrity tweets are as a result of a product consideration, and fans on Facebook can be bought.

It also shows that social is now at an important inflection point.

We can all remember a few years ago when we did not receive spam emails – it was more likely to be our friends forwarding around the latest joke on email.

Nowadays, I have very powerful spam filters on my email, and I get possibly one spam email a week that isn’t trapped by the filters.

As spam became a real problem, companies emerged with technology that can be applied to combat the problem.

Looking back at what we were hoping would happen with social in 2008, recent events have shown that social is now becoming mainstream – in a good and a bad way.

The bad parts of social will hopefully be solved by technology, and programs such as the Channel 4 one help the general public who are not involved in the industry to understand the transparency issues affecting social at the moment.

I don’t believe for a moment social will go away, if anything it will be embedded more deeply inside organisations. I have a whole blog dedicated to the notion of Social Business which explains this.

The irony is that the scale and immediacy that social now brings will actually help us weed out the impostors on social more quickly.

What do you think?

Does social media have a credibility problem and what can be done to fix it?

I welcome your comments below or to @AndrewGrill

If you enjoyed this blog post you may like other related posts listed below under You may also like ...

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About 

Based in London, Andrew is an internationally renowned thought leader in the field of social business and social media networks. Andrew is a Global Partner with IBM, with a focus on Social Business.



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  • http://www.scottdylan.net/ Scott Dylan

    I argued with a brand previously who wanted lots of fans, that it was better to have 800 who would engage and buy than 80000 who wouldn’t.

    They were more interested in the “perception” of popularity online, than the return from having real engaging fans who would buy than sit there dormant without any engagement at all.

    I’ve had this argument on many occasions, and have probably lost out on projects because of trying to fight the cause of not buying fans and putting more effort into trying to get real worth while engaging ones.

  • http://londoncalling.co/ Andrew Grill

    Scott, thanks for the comment – well said.

    Let’s hope the clients you lost out on saw the show last night.

    Every CMO should ask about fake followers – when being pitched to – will be interesting to see some agencies squirm.

  • http://ebtwopointzero.wordpress.com/ Eb Adeyeri

    We live in interesting times.

    We’ve all worked with clients in which we painstaking have to explain how the social web works. Thankfully those conversations are slowly going away.

    I put many of these conversations as brands being in the ‘toddler’ phase of becoming 21st century business. They wanted to do ‘social’ as everyone else was but the only way they could justify it was with vanity metrics. Most didn’t have the economies of scale for any social network activity to significantly register on the ‘formal’ metrics scoresheet. And at the time (although it’s still the case for some) perception WAS reality. So if they appeared popular online, to them they were and to those they sought to please, they were. (After all, for the £10k/month agency fee they needed to see more than 800 fans)

    I’d like to think things have significantly changed now though as social networks are pervasive both inside and outside an organisation. While their impact might not be fully understood, companies in the main understand the notion of airing their views and opinions in an online forum or network.

    As companies get to the ‘teenager’ phase of becoming 21st businesses, they’ll cease to ask toddler type questions and ask slight more grown up ones (such as how can I understand the personality types of my ‘fans’ so I can sell them more stuff). These things don’t happen overnight and it’ll take a few years (and some financial pain for some) before many companies properly grow up. And I believe that’s when things will get really interesting.

    As I said, we live in interesting times.

  • http://londoncalling.co/ Andrew Grill

    Eb, great insights.

    How far away do you think we are from clients moving to the ‘teenager” stage of social?

  • http://ebtwopointzero.wordpress.com/ Eb Adeyeri

    I’d say it depends on the industry sector and location but probably in the next 3 years (maybe even sooner) as we start to see more digitally savvy CMOs and CEOs.

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  • http://www.twofourseven.co.uk/ Julio Romo

    Just short of 20 years ago I had the experience of doing a direct marketing campaign (A big a filthy secret!). I found it odd that we celebrated when we secured a response rate of a very respectable 3.5%. At the time I wondered and asked about the other 96.5%?

    Today, working in digital, I get asked about getting big numbers of ‘Likes’. That is it, just Likes on Facebook or followers on Facebook. The questions are always about the size of the audience, rather than the quality.

    I ask back about their plan with the big audience once they have the key to their timeline, and how they plan to convert them? I often get blank stares that confirm that they really do not want to know about their audience.

    In my opinion, the problem lies in the fact that data analysis is still not seen as something that is key to 21st Century marketing. There is still a dragnet approach to audience development.

    Of course, having 1 million Likes on Facebook and knowing what to do is a very different proposition.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, it is all about education.

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  • http://londoncalling.co/ Andrew Grill

    Julio – great points.

    You’re going to love my last post on “what makes a brand social?” at http://lc.tl/socialbrand and the slide which has the big 781 Million “impressions” on it. Here we need to be brave enough to educate the client. In this case the status quo was kept.

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  • Richard Probert

    Being a small start-up company much in need of traffic and social media interaction,We’ve been tempted to try and get more likes to give that illusion of popularity and hence drive more people to the site. Our business gives a free photography service to people in night clubs and to the night clubs themselves and We are at a difficult junction where we need to generate ad revenue by getting traffic interest to grow the business.

    I can proudly say we haven’t gone down this route and our likes are still tiny and traffic is pitiful but it is all our traffic. Unfortunately by doing things the right way, we are not a prime site for advertisers yet but I’m always on the lookout for legitimate ways to grow new and recurring traffic so any suggestions would be great.

    Manufacturing likes seems a fast track to success but I think its very short lived and its good to know there are people out there monitoring this. It gives small businesses that are doing things in the right way a chance hopefully.

  • http://londoncalling.co/ Andrew Grill

    Bravo for doing things honestly. I hope you grow your buisiness through word of mouth about how awesome your services are.

    I am going to promote your response via my social channels in the hope you get some new business

  • Richard Probert

    Thanks Andrew. Every little bit helps these days. Looking forward to getting more involved on here as well :)

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    Totally agree! We need to be braver in challenging the notion that fans and follower numbers are key. Instead we need to craft messages to the c-suite that they understand in terms if business benefits.

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