On a recent Monday morning, I made the questionable decision to buy myself some followers on Twitter.
Egged on by a colleague and a feeling of intrigue, I plugged in my details and purchased 1,000 followers for the princely sum of £8; the speed and ease of the exchange was astonishing and within 24 hours my numbers had broken the 1,300 barrier. However, as I watched my follower count rise, the novelty of the original idea began to wear off. “I sort of did it for a joke” was proving an inadequate answer to those enquiring after my suspicious follower count, and the mounting social pressure of carrying over a thousand false friends inevitably resulted in a torturous Sunday morning spent blocking my 1,100 new disciples.
The whole charade was not completely futile, however, as the brief foray introduced me to the business of purchasing followers, likes, friends and even YouTube views; a practice becoming increasingly commonplace for celebrities, brands and even regular folk like myself. I was totally unaware of the exercise, and was stunned at the number of ‘fakes’ flying around social media, and Twitter in particular. Allegedly, only 28% of people following the 20 most popular Twitter accounts are real, and it has been reported that only 15 million of Justin Bieber’s 38 million followers are authentic. This is likely to be through no fault of his own, as the Twitter-bots and inactive accounts who sell themselves for money attach themselves to real accounts as a way of avoiding detection by Twitter’s supposedly effective spam filter.
Indeed, a quick flick through my new followers unearthed a few dubious characters (Jarvis Wenger, Jason van Smith) and a few incomprehensible names that seemed to be a random combination of numbers, letters and punctuation (I’m looking at you, SL:17-cv7).
However, not all big-name characters with large social media influences are completely innocent when it comes to artificially inflating their social media profile. Mitt Romney fell under suspicion for impossibly immediate rises in followers during the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, whilst 50 Cent and Diddy are alleged to have shown that even the coolest cats are not averse to social media ego-massaging.
The pertinent question that arises from this is why people would bother with this practice in the first place. The answer for the most part is credibility. Nick Ashton, the creator of fake online guru Santiago Swallow, argues that on social media it is easy to confuse popularity with credibility. Much like a long line outside a restaurant, having a weighty Twitter following can be an easy way of enhancing reputation in the eyes of others. Even at my lowly level, this was exhibited by a friend receiving a text from a colleague asking ‘”Who is Rob Guppy and should I be following him?” Despite the predictable “definitely not” response, it is easy to see that a larger number of followers can make you stand out from the crowd.
However, beyond this initial mirage of credibility, is there any benefit to artificially augmenting follower counts? In other words, is there a correlation between number of followers and one’s social media influence? My personal score on Klout, a site that analyses social media behaviour, certainly suggested that this was (infuriatingly) not the case and, given that there was zero interaction between myself and my new mates, this was hardly surprising. The whole operation seemingly only served to improve the external aesthetic of my Twitter profile page.
This leads us to a more significant area of discussion for people and brands that chase social media love and focus purely on numbers of likes, views and followers they accrue. As recently expressed on the Synergy blog, pure figures are no longer sufficient and ‘participation’ is now crucial in any interaction between brand and consumer. The difference between an inactive follower and an interactive one is immeasurable. If connecting with the right people, this level of ‘participation’ can be incredibly valuable in introducing consumers to brands and influencing their behaviour.
The reasoning continues that it would be more valuable for a company to have 100 highly engaged consumers than tens of thousands of seemingly passive onlookers. Indeed, sponsorship is one way of sparking this conversation and increasing the engagement between brand and consumer.
In short, I believe my short-lived experience can be seen as a microcosm of a brand chasing Twitter followers: admittedly, my social media profile was slightly raised by my follower count increasing five-fold, but beyond that I gained nothing (not even a single re-tweet). The 200-odd followers I had previously earned legitimately tend to direct me towards content, interact with me and, to a degree, educate me, but the one-way process of me tweeting at the 1,000 Twitter-bots and inactive bods brought me nothing. The whole process underlined that whether real or not, purely chasing followers or likes for the sake of it is an out-dated concept. Level of participation will be the new measure of a brand’s social media influence, with those parties that successfully engage with consumers and catalyse conversation the ones that will benefit most.
By Rob Guppy on May 20th, 2013