BuyFansToday may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen

“What fresh hell is this?” – Dorothy Parker

The notion of buying your social media audience has come up many times before.

There was that awful, lame-brained PayPerPost thing back in 2007. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a much earlier (and far more ethically-constructed) experiment by Marqui to sponsor bloggers directly  - a program that generated A LOT of noise at the time (disclosure: I ran product management at Marqui, so I’m kind of biased).

But yesterday I stumbled across something different. Something very, very different and unquestionably, immeasurably worse: an organization that sells social media fans and followers in bulk.

Make a cup of tea and get comfortable. I’m going into a full-on, extended rant here.

Here’s the background:

One of our clients was trying to figure out how a competitor of theirs went from a scant few hundred to over 14,500 Twitter followers in a matter of weeks.

Even more odd, when we looked into it, was the fact that the competitor appeared to have added the exact same number of new followers every day for a period of several weeks.

Here’s a chart from TwitterCounter that shows the growth (click to embiggenify):

The tell-tale signal here: this looks entirely inorganic.

Nothing that exists in social media is inorganic – it’s lumpy, unpredictable, and delightfully human. By definition.

This account was flatlined at 3,416 followers for months, then suddenly started adding precisely 138 followers a day, between September 5th and November 7th. On Monday of this week, something else happened – they’ve added exactly 1,422 followers each day since. That kind of steady, predictable community growth just doesn’t happen naturally.

It all smelled decidedly fishy to us, and sure enough – it is.

When we looked deeper into the competitor’s Twitter profile, their follower list included a host of sketchy-looking accounts with tiny follower numbers and (in many cases) few or zero tweets.

With help from Sysomos and some team smarts, we took a sizeable cross-section of the new followers and did some profile comparison.

The curious thing we found about many of these followers: lots of them seemed to be following all of the same companies and other accounts on Twitter.

Many of them, for example, follow this list:

Zaarly
YazeedRacing
Saatchi_Gallery
CheaterVille
SinusDynamics
Jeffbeacher
MyCauseWater

… and a host of other over-lapping or related accounts. That seemed more than a little weird in itself, but the plot… curdles.

ALL of these accounts also have one shared account that they follow in common. An account called BuyFansToday  which links to the site of the same name.

This is, as the name so clearly announces, the epicentre of some industrial-grade skullduggery.

At the BuyFansToday site you’ll learn 10,000 Twitter followers can be bought for a mere US$699.95. Want Facebook fans? 10,000 shiny news ones will set you back US$849.95

Just… wow.

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, here are three reasons why this is just a hideously, almost criminally bad idea:

1. IT’S A LIE.

The marketing rhetoric on the BuyFansToday site states:

Having a Facebook fan page with lots of fans can do wonders for any product that needs customers. A community of real fans will buy and use the product, as well as notify their friends, who will then go on to use the product as well, and to notify their friends, creating a continuous cycle of promotion.

In itself, that’s a reasonable explanation of how real network effects can drive business to companies through social media. But there is nothing about the approach BuyFansToday is taking that generates “real fans”.

Elsewhere on their site they claim:

We don’t use dummy twitter accounts when you buy Twitter followers from us.

Bullshit.

As we’ve seen above, what you’re buying is a network of shell accounts. Fake Twitter followers (and, no doubt, equally bogus Facebook fans, YouTube fans, and so on) seemingly created for the sole purpose of fulfilling a contractual obligation to follow a certain quota of other accounts. It’s a tissue-thin pyramid scheme.

It’s entirely likely they have legitimate (albeit woefully misguided) social media users in their database. I don’t doubt it. However, from an unscientific, but statistically valid, sampling of the followers for this competitor’s account, we saw an average of 9 tweets (all time) per follower, 29.85 followers, per account.

Most of the Twitter accounts we analyzed are less than 100 days old, and many of them only tweeted a few times at the beginning and have been entirely dormant since.

Analyzing a selection of tweets, a lot of them are just pure gobbledegook – spam-like phrases stuffed through the Twitterpipes to synthesize a gauzy illusion of real activity.

Three random examples pulled from three different Twitter handles:

- “Yeah, TheClevelandShow komt terug.”

- “Never stop it ahahhaa.”

- “Smh these twitter beefs need to last longer lol now the tl back to being dead.”

 

These are, by any rational assessment, dummy accounts. Pun intended.

These aren’t real people, you idiots. They don’t care about your company, they’re not even actually following you – not in any real sense of the word.

It’s all a rather pathetic lie.

2. IT DOESN’T WORK.

Marketers naturally assume that the bigger the network, the better. Nope.

For more than 100 years, the business of marketing has been predicated on reach, on scale. Impressions counts, audience volumes, counting eyeballs (eww) – if we can get our message in front of a big enough audience, we’re sure to hit our target. Spray and pray.

But this is advertising-led thinking. It’s the economic logic of spam. And that’s just not how social media works.

In social media, Metcalfe’s Law seems to be the idea many marketers chase after:

The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

Sure, there seems to be value in having a big following; in achieving a certain critical mass. But here’s the thing: in order for the value part of the equation to work in a social network context, the connected nodes actually need to be contributing something and communicating with each other; else they’re just dead links.

My corollary to Metcalfe’s Law would be:

The value of a social network is proportional to the square of the number of engaged contributors to the system.

Note: it’s “contributors to” not “users of“.

In any audience group, only a percentage of the members will be active participants. In a social media audience group you’ve acquired through BuyFansToday, that percentage is going to be vanishingly small.

Indeed, it’s questionable whether the word “audience” is even valid in this context. If these people aren’t actually looking at you, they ain’t an audience.

It’s like you sold out the Albert Hall, only to walk on stage and discover only six people were actually in their seats. Oh, and you didn’t even sell the tickets – you paid people to be there.

I was chatting about this episode with a good friend and colleague at another agency, who commented:

“…through their eyes, they have 14,000 followers so they are sitting on top of a goldmine…but are they? If you look at their following through a qualitative lens, they are really sitting on top of a fool’s goldmine (yes…I just went there).”

Nicely put. It’s the quality versus quantity point that is most important here. Followers and fans are only of any value if they:

  • have consciously chosen to follow or Like you, and;
  • are engaged in spreading the word about you among their own circles of influence

The followers you’re buying wholesale through scams like this clicked a button, got paid, and have absolutely no interest in who you are or what you do. They may never visit your site, are not sending you any traffic, are not buying your products, and will almost certainly never even see any of your tweets – let alone respond to them or share them among their (questionable) networks.

That dog don’t hunt.

3. IT DAMAGES YOUR BRAND.

Contrary to what the founders of organizations like BuyFansToday evidently think, people aren’t sheep. And this is the key thing:

Social Media is like Soylent Green. It’s made of people.

When those people see you inflating your audience numbers with spammy behaviour, they will judge you.

Prudent, intelligent, thoughtful people (the kind, I hope, you’d want to number among your fans and followers) make decisions to follow brands, in part, based on the influence of their peers, friends and others they aspire to emulate. When they look at your followers and see an endless list of spambots, fake accounts, and anonymous weirdos – how well does that reflect on who you are?

Looked at this way, you can think of your followers as reputation votes. When someone credible awards you the gift of a Like or Follow, it reflects well on your brand. When you hoover up hundreds of dummy followers through some automated system, it makes you look lame and foolish.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re an up-and-coming new line of innovative sports equipment. If sports is my thing, and I hear about your products, I’m going to be interested to see who else is following you in social networks. Pro athletes, perhaps? Coaches? At the very least, I’d expect to see a bunch of like-minded sports fans in your lists.

If I look at your Twitter profile and all I see is an endless parade of sketchy-looking accounts, with typos in their bios and no apparent connection to sports performance, I’m going to feel, at best, confused.

More likely: I’ll conclude that your online behaviour seems to be attracting spam accounts, for whatever reason, and I’ll opt not to follow you. I’ll also think a lot less of your brand because of the unflattering pall being cast upon you by the quality of your followers.

That sounds arrogantly dismissive, perhaps, but I’m human. Understand this: your brand isn’t what you say. It’s what people say it is.

 –%–

*deep breath… exhale*

So… yes. I know I’ve ranted long and hard about this, but it just really, truly frosts my nuggets. Hard.

Why? I think it’s rooted in that Soylent Green analogy.

Social media is people. The Internet is people. Forget about the fact that there are billions of dollars and huge corporations all over this thing and go right back to where we started. Go back and read the Cluetrain again:

Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

 

If we lie down and just let clueless douchenozzles like BuyFansToday corrupt and pollute the communities and spaces we’re building online, then we’ve squandered the whole point and true potential of social media. It’s just wrong, dammit.

Do you like how advertising and marketing worked back in the unidirectional, broadcast-only, pre-Internet world? Do you really want to return to that?

If not, then I believe it’s your duty to spread the word about clueduggery such as this as far and wide as possible. Alert your clients. Friends don’t let friends dunk their budgets in crazy.

My apologies, by the way, for being coy about the name of my client (and their competitor) here. Cluelessness benefits from sunlight, I know, but I’m not comfortable directly outing the competitor for what, I hope, was simply a really bad decision based on a poor understanding of how this stuff works.

Buying a service like this is, I’m convinced, utterly misguided – but we can’t blame the ill-informed clients for the fact that such a service exists. They just took bad advice.

And yes, I know, I’m probably being hypocritical by directly linking to a number of the other BuyFansToday users, above. I’m astonished that even respectable institutions such as London’s Saatchi Gallery seem to have fallen for this particular variety of snake oil.

Perhaps they’ll come across this post in their analytics and come to understand the error of their ways.

UPDATE: Related reading from the latest Inc. Magazine (thanks to Heather Kernahan for the tip): Does it pay to buy a Twitter following?

19 thoughts on “BuyFansToday may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen

  1. Demand side economics at work, I’m afraid. It’s the fools who are chomping at the bit for unnaturally fast fan growth who are providing the business case for the likes of BuyFansToday to flourish. As long as the demand is there for ways to game the system, there will be some dodgy outfit along to sate that appetite. We have much work to do edumacating….

  2. Yes, indeed. It’s bitter truth, but there’s an endless supply of venal cupidity even in a world where we’re supposed to have moved beyond all that. I am overwhelmed by misanthropy when I encounter this kind of bollocks.

  3. So does this mean that we should regularly purge our follower list of dubious followers to avoid being stigmatised by keeping the wrong company?

    I must confess I haven’t bothered to examine the composition of my followers for a long time, but casual observation would put the relevant/irrelevant ratio at somewhere round 80/20 (as expected).

    Cause for concern?

  4. Is this different than buying the microphone to speak at a conference?
    (Where peeps are already also paying to hear the speakers?)

    Just wondering…

  5. Good question. We all attract dubious followers and spam accounts from time to time. I guess it’s a function of the overall impression created by one’s follower list considered in aggregate. If I see a handful of spammy followers in a list, I’m likely to shrug, wearily, and ignore it. If almost the entire follower list is clearly bogus, that’s something else. With bigger accounts, I know the magnetic attraction is that much greater – once you pass something like the 50K mark, I’m sure the ratio of crud-to-good surely shifts, inexorably, closer toward the crud end of the scale. As Andrea says in the comments here, it’s demand-side economics working to corrupt and pollute, alas. Makes me want to punch a kitten.

  6. Great post! This is only going to get worse before marketers realize the numbers mean nothing. Its about the meaningful conversations with your company’s audience. There is an article in inc. Magazine this month that compares various kinds of these services that you should check out as well, it will further fuel the objection!

  7. Facebook fans and Twitter followers are meaningless if they don’t convert into sales, votes (for your candidate), donations (for your charity) or whatever behavioral change you’re seeking in order to meet organizational objectives. Until companies realize this, they’ll continue to be taken in by scammers who sell them “likes” and followers.

  8. The grade school equivalent of buying friends… wasn’t there an 80′s era Patrick Dempsey movie on this involving a ride-on mower?

    Completely worth it for the “(click to embiggenify)” which has now been permanently added to my vocabulary. Dead brill.

  9. Uh oh, really? Hope coverage in Inc. doesn’t legitimize this kind of BS in any way. Off to hunt down that story.

  10. I’m sceptical about things like Klout, but a good friend pointed out that these BuyFansToday douchetards have 66K followers but a Klout of only 18.

    So I’m now looking at this as a social experiment in purity. My Klout score this morning was 59 – down from the dizzy heights of 79 a few months ago.

    I believe the real secret to creating a strong online presence is to create good content that real people choose to distribute freely through their networks. It takes work, in other words. If my theory holds, and my content is good enough, then let’s check back in a couple of days and see where my Klout score is at :)

  11. I take issue with most of the influence-peddlars such as Klout and whatever Johnny-Come-Lately is in the game. The problem is that marketers are trying to impose lab-conditions techniques to the real world: outcomes generated under controlled and finite conditions is hard to extrapolate accurately into the messy, uncontrollable and infinite conditions of real life.

    These modern-day snake oil peddlers are selling what people want to buy: that there’s some elixir that will bring them a fountain of gold. Ooh, so and so has a Klout score of whatever, so if I market to them successfully, they will somehow influence the lemmings who worship at their altars and unquestioningly (is that a word?) drink my Koolaid. That may work, and it may not.

    Fact is, we are all influencers in our own social networks. I have personally been responsible for the equipment choices of my scuba diving students and customers. I haven’t the foggiest what my Klout score is because it’s irrelevant.

    Wow, that’s quite the rant, although it does remind me of the conversations we used to have at the office! By the way, now that you mentioned kittens, you’re probably going to have a high Klout score for kittens this weekend.

  12. I would never Klout a kitten. That’s just wrong. Rub their wee nosies in it, maybe. But no further than that.

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  14. Earlier this summer I discovered a similar spammy circle of twitter accounts that are associated with one *social media consultant* in Asheville, I then was immediately followed by many bot type Asheville NC accounts…who have never engaged at all. So I wrote a post about wrote about it on my blog, The Connection Maven Writes, and it and was enlightened about the situation.

    Unfortuntately until this week Facebook’s edgerank favored stories from pages with 1,000+ fans. They *say* they have fixed this… http://www.allfacebook.com/facebook-pages-engagement-2011-10.

    I generally block all twitter accounts that follow me with suspicious tweets, low engagement and spammy tweets. Just will not participate in upping their numbers.

    You’re right to be angered at the mis-use. I am too.

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  16. Thanks for this Cheryl. I just read the post in question at your blog and I think you pretty much nailed it.

    Unfortunately, many of the social networks we first loved for their quirky simplicity have reached their awkward “Internet adolescence”. They’ve grown up too fast and are all gangly and uncoordinated. They’re starting to suffer from poor skin – obvious, unsightly blemishes popping up all over, masking the still-attractive core. Plus they’re raging with over-active/imbalanced hormones leading to all kinds of foolish mistakes and embarrassing moments.

    I’m hoping we all get past this soon, but I don’t have high hopes.

  17. Hey Michael, can you email me? I have more details regarding this company that may interest you and would like permission to use your analysis to help in shutting down their illegal activy permanently.

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