By Sam Fuhrer
“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” -Scott Goodson
Over the last five years I’ve managed and created over a dozen social media accounts. It started with my band, Sam & Margot, from 2013–2016, and then I created accounts for my eCommerce office furniture site, Stand While Working. In early 2017 I started OliveGram with my business partner, Eli Graham, which is a digital marketing agency that focuses on branding and growing business on social media. We create content, everything from photo shoots, videos, graphic design images, landing pages, websites, etc. And we run ads on that content to help get eyeballs on the work, ultimately converting followers into customers.
We have paid large sums of cash (in the mid five figures) to people based on their following counts and understand the value and social currency that comes with having a large social media following.
We have started working with our clients in different stages. Sometimes they’ll have healthy accounts that have been up and running for years and they just want to scale and engage their current audience, while other times we’ll start a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter page from zero. Early on we discuss strategies to gain more followers, and often are faced with the inevitable question of whether or not we should just buy them to get the momentum rolling.
The New York Times recently published a piece on how many popular accounts, including politicians, pop stars, CEO’s, actors, doctors, media personalities and brands, have been buying followers to gain influence and traction on various platforms. In many cases these people have been able to convert their large ‘fake’ followings into book deals, brand deals, media coverage, high paying performances and sales. This may seem appealing and create the illusion that buying followers is a good strategy for building a social media account, but the answer is far more complicated than that.
This is a controversial topic among digital marketing gurus, and while I believe buying followers does more harm than good, I see the value fake followers bring in creating immediate business opportunities. I am not religiously opposed to buying followers but based on what I’ve learned and experienced, would never recommend it to someone serious about building a long term brand. It’s like doing steroids in the MLB in the 90’s and early 2000’s. If you didn’t do them, you were at a significant disadvantage, but maintained your reputation and avoided the health problems that come later in life.
Those of us who know even just a little bit about how to judge a social media account know to look for other metrics other than the following. When assessing how effective an account may be, we look for likes, comments, other influencers appearing in their posts, and most importantly, the quality of each engagement. Are people actually interested or is there just some bot commenting emoji’s? There is no Instagram or Twitter algorithm that can actually grow your business long term.
What works long term is creating good content that gives a legitimate representation of the brand, collaborating with other influencers in a similar space to gain exposure from separate audiences, and posting high quality content on a daily basis. This builds brand equity and a good reputation, creates authentic followers with people who legitimately care about you or your brand.
Buying followers is good for surface level legitimacy, which I don’t want to undermine. It matters. This is the concept that perception creates reality. If people perceive your company or brand as successful, they will treat it that way. For example, I have a friend who does PR at WeWork who was recently looking for an electric vehicle company to collaborate with. When sorting through two competitors she instantaneously chose the brand with 8,000 followers over the brand with 652.
It took me less than a minute of scrolling through the account with 8,000 followers to realize that they were getting about 48 likes per photo and three comments, none of which seemed authentic. Point being, the followers weren’t legit and they had no real fan base. With that said, if I wasn’t there to dispute her decision, that account would have won the WeWork business, proving that it was a smart decision to buy the followers.
In the mature marketplace of social media, a large follower count is becoming the cost of entry for anyone to take you seriously. At the same time it is beginning to seem odd that so many people and businesses have hundreds of thousands to millions of followers. In many cases these followings are legitimate, but in more cases than we probably realize, they are fake.
Why do people buy followers? While there are some legitimate business purposes, I think the overwhelming force is insecurity. Having followers, even if they’re not real, is an ego boost. It’s like having a nice car that you can’t afford. While it looks good to the outside world, it secretly implodes your psyche. Ultimately, the platforms will get better at recognizing who is a legitimate user and who has a legitimate following, otherwise advertisers will lose interest. With that said, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” The social media companies have the incentive to sell your data and even fake versions of your data to advertisers in order to snatch up marketing dollars.
What does this mean if you’re a marketer or advertiser? It’s more important than ever to distinguish who is legit and who is not. When choosing influencers, do not simply choose based on following, but on authentic engagement, past campaigns, and depth versus width of the quality of their content. If you are starting to invest in social media to grow your brand, I strongly recommend patience and persistence over buying followers. But this is just one man’s opinion…