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?

Thoughts on Google+

It occurs to me that in all this talk about Google+ vs. Facebook, Google+ vs. Twitter (and Google+ vs. ALL THE THINGS!!) we’re kind of missing another important perspective.

As usual, many of us have fallen into the all-too-easy assumption of OR logic. We’re examining and considering all the ways Google+ might OR and, potentially, NOT other social services.

Will Google+ kill Facebook? Does Google+ render Twitter irrelevant?

This kind of binary thinking makes a certain sense, of course. We’re naturally inclined to see things in competitive terms and it’s certainly true that Google themselves have represented G+, in part, as a competing alternative to Facebook, Twitter and their ilk.

But if we only look at things in terms of this OR that (or, even more extreme, in terms of this NOT that), we’re assuming that there must be one SocNet to rule them all (and in the ToS grind them).

This is not the lesson we ought to be taking from the history of the space. Social Networks rarely die; they just find their niche.

Sometimes, that niche is relatively small and defined by geographic, demographic, or industry-specific parameters (think MySpace, Orkut, Badoo – emphasis on “relatively” small).

Sometimes the “niche” is huge and, I guess, no longer a niche (Facebook, Twitter), but that still doesn’t mean the other SocNets have been killed or rendered irrelevant by the gimungous dominant players.

In other words, AND logic is often much more applicable than OR or NOT here.

Sure, there’s a natural and understandable race for dominance among the big players – fueled, in large part, by the needs of investors as much as it is by the lust for power, fame & glory on the part of the management teams. And yes, one (or more) of the big SocNets will always “win” for a while.

SixDegrees.com was the early winner, way back in ’97. Then it was Friendster, then Orkut. MySpace came along and held the pole position for a long time. Now Facebook is on top of the heap and getting bigger all the time.

But with the exception of SixDegrees, none of the other, earlier SocNets has entirely ceased to exist. They just found the niche that allowed them to coexist with the rest of the networks out there. In the same timeframe, other significant networks have also arisen and achieved enormous followings (look up the user numbers for Badoo some time), without too much speculation over whether they’ll OR/NOT the others.

Facebook didn’t kill MySpace. It may have rendered it less relevant from the perspective of investors, advertisers, and many users (particularly the influential digerati), but MySpace still seems to be going strong in many markets around the world.

So, right now, Google+ has a (large, rapidly expanding) niche. That niche – for the moment at least – is geeks, phreaks, early adopters, and the digerati. People like you and me, in other words. No, it’s not your Mom’s social network – but then neither was Facebook when it launched.

Can Google+ grow to the point where it “kills” Facebook? That seems unlikely and, more to the point, historically UNevitable :)

Sure, it’s growing incredibly fast (I’ve seen reports suggesting 20 million+ users by this weekend), but a more reasonable projection would be that Google+ AND Facebook will settle into their respective, very large, niches – that each will continue to be relevant in different ways for a long time to come. This would also seem to suggest that increasing overlap and content integration between the two services should naturally continue to evolve – an entire after-market of third-party integrations will arise to bridge (and, essentially, erase) the divide between the services.

It’s AND logic. Both services can and, most likely, will continue to be relevant to different markets or for different purposes.

One other aspect worth thinking about is the extent to which the various social networks can become infrastructural – deeply integrated and woven through the fabric of the web.

There’s been some discussion out there about what happens if Google+ reaches 750 million users (the most recently-published Facebook user count), but this is in some ways a less interesting question than considering which of the various SocNets might end up becoming accepted as an infrastructure service.

This is interesting to me because the different approaches of Facebook and Google seem to represent opposing ideas about how the web should work.

We can’t truly understand Facebook’s ambitions and machinations, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that Facebook intends to, in essence, BE the Internet for the majority of people. It’s the old AOL view of the world: that the Web should be packaged up and filtered for us. The “walled garden” approach.

The Facebook “Open Graph” thing, that has Facebook Like and Share buttons popping up all over the web, is a key pillar in this strategy. Facebook wants to be everywhere, and everything is pulled back into Facebook.

Google’s approach might appear similar on the surface (+1 buttons appearing everywhere, everything pulling back into Google indexes), and yet Google already feels a lot more infrastructural in so many ways.

They already have a truly web-native OS in Chrome (to say nothing of their role in Android – the fastest-growing mobile OS right now). This suggests that Google, with Google+, Chrome, Gmail, YouTube and Google Apps (if they can get the damn things integrated) may have a much stronger chance of being an infrastructure play than Facebook ever could. And I’m actually kind of OK with that idea.

I find it a little hard to define, but Facebook seems to want to pull everything in to its playground, whereas Google seem rather more inclined to make their toys show up wherever you already are. Sometimes, anyway – although I sense their thinking about all this is probably as confused as mine is.

So. Where does this all leave us? I have absolutely no idea. I just know that Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are not likely to disappear off the map anytime soon just because of Google+. I project a good few years of confusing coexistence still to come.

For now, though, I’m enjoying the Google+ experience and can see myself spending an increasing amount of my time in here.

It’s entirely natural, by the way, that Google+ is, at the moment, positively choked with discussions about what Google+ is.

No surprise here. Back in the early days of blogging, a lot of what we used to blog about was, in essence, “whither blogging”.

In the first 9 months or so of Twitter, most of the people on Twitter were talking about Twitter.

And so with this new shiny social media object: the vast majority of discussions inside Google+ today are discussions about Google+

This is simply because we’re all following the fundamental rules of Social Media Club:

The first rule of Social Media Club: you talk about Social Media.
The 2nd rule of Social Media Club: you TALK ABOUT Social Media
Rule 3 – If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out: Twitpic it.
Rule 4 – Unlimited Likes to a Circle.
Rule 5 – Multiple conversations at a time.
Rule 6 – No shills, no spammers.
Rule 7 – Threads will go on as long as they have to.
Rule 8 – If this is your first time at Social Media Club, you HAVE to comment.