The Facebook ‘Like' and the Twitter follower have created a universe of online marketing opportunities for businesses.
These popularity-generating tools help gain exposure among other social media users and, in theory, increase sales of products and services. Inevitably, an industry has been created in selling Facebook likes and Twitter followers to businesses who can't earn them quickly enough through real popularity.
A social media following is a powerful force. Genuinely earned, it is an endorsement and an engagement with a relevant audience of potential customers and clients. The viral nature of social media means that the reach of a single like, particularly from a well-connected person, can extend to many thousands.
Buying social media followers is a shady, back-alley activity and yet many businesses are tempted and many providers who use automated botnets can be found on Google and other classified services. Google explicitly bans website owners from paying for backlinks. Facebook and Twitter don't seem to mention it in their terms and conditions, but common sense says they are not going to like it and you risk your account being suspended if you are found out.
Many wonder at Facebook & Twitter's global membership. A significant proportion of the accounts could be fake.
Back-alley businesses run by Internet low-lifes trade in Facebook and Twitter accounts on a large scale. They get poor people in developing countries (Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular) to create thousands of accounts, complete with pictures and posts. They even get these accounts phone-verified. Black hat marketing firms buy these accounts for a few cents each and then use software to create likes or follows to their clients' accounts by the thousand. Some get the same disadvantaged people who created the accounts to do the following manually.
The ethical question apart (which is often enough to deter most people), the debate on how well buying social media followers works is an ongoing one. A large Facebook fan base or Twitter following can look impressive and encourage genuine people to it because it appears to be popular and established.
Businesses are often tempted to try it out because it is quick and relatively cheap to do so. A £100 investment could buy you thousands of fans and followers and send your perceived popularity soaring overnight.
The significant risk, however, beyond the fact that these followers are useless to your business in their own right, is that Facebook or Twitter could shut your account down, or perhaps more likely shut the accounts of your spurious followers down, meaning that your popularity drops and your investment is lost overnight.
For real popularity, you need real Likes. For a startup business, it could be tempting to have thousands of Fans and Likes and it might even give you a short-term boost. This is hardly meaningful as a long-term strategy, though. At some point, your real fans will notice that the bulk of your following is strangely quiet. If they discover what you've done, it could ruin your reputation with them. Concentrate on winning real followers - you'll be glad you did in the end.
For advice on how to establish and build your business' presence in social media without resorting to black hat tactics, please contact us.