Fake followers – meaning either robotic accounts (“bots”) or flesh-and-blood people who, like Internet mercenaries, will follow an account for a price – are such a thorny issue because brands choose which influencers to sponsor on the basis, very often, of quantity and quantity alone. “How many followers do you have?” This is the only question that many brands ask of their prospective social media partners, having been blissfully unaware until now of the possibility that two-thirds of an Instagram star’s million-strong audience could well be “fake” and, therefore, completely unresponsive.
Faced with this situation, big brands have begun to throw down the gauntlet. Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, pledged in June not to spend any of the consumer goods giant’s £7bn annual budget on anyone with bought audiences – a gesture with the air of an ultimatum, and a rallying-cry for a sector which feels it has been cheated by the deceptiveness of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have not floundered in response to the outcry about fake followers, with each platform inflicting routine purges on its userbase in order to get rid of fake accounts. Facebook is in the midst of a campaign whose central claim is that “fake accounts are not our friends”.
What can we learn from the “fake followers” controversy, which, given the continued success of fake account vendors such as Likeservice24 and Greedier Social Media, is still something brands should be vigilant about? Perhaps the most important lesson for brands is that it is unrealistic, and actually detrimental, to focus on numbers alone. Just as it is poor strategy to obsessively monitor social media following without thinking to measure how much of these followers are actually converting, so it is dangerous to sponsor a personality based on his or her audience alone: it is much more important, not only to consider what percentage of this audience is fake, but to weigh up the suitability of the star for your brand and the quality and viral potential of your campaign itself.