Fake followers jumped to the forefront of the media in 2018 when Twitter purged millions of fake or inactive accounts, but the problem remains with shocking numbers. According to the service Twitter Audit, more than 11 million of the New York Times' 42 million followers are fake, and nearly 7 million of President Donald Trump's 59.9 million followers are bogus accounts.
A fake follower can mean a lot of different things. It could be a bot that may or may not have nefarious purposes. It might be a fake account created to inflate a brand's number of followers. Some people create fake accounts to qualify for online sweepstakes or giveaways. The bottom line is there are not real people behind these accounts and they do not engage.
The need for the initial purge stemmed from the belief that the more followers you have, the more successful your account will be. Many Twitter users look at follower counts as a bellwether of how many people the posts are reaching. That's a huge misconception, according to Alex Hinojosa, senior vice president of digital marketing and media at 4media group.
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Companies that measure their social influence by follower count often believe there's a greater opportunity for payoff with a larger number of followers, but the most important element of social media these days is engagement.
"It's not about the following size," Hinojosa said. "It's about the level of engagement. It takes an understanding of the value of [social media] to see this. Businesses need to build credibility through content so when they're ready to ask for something, the followers are willing to give. That doesn't happen because of following size."
Why are fake followers bad for business?
Fake followers can mess up your engagement rate, lower your ranking in users' news feeds and affect your conversion rates. They can also negatively affect your credibility and even get you banned from the platform.
"Trust and transparency are two critical components of any successful brand," said Linda Pophal, owner and consultant at Strategic Communications. "Taking part in fraudulent practices like buying fake followers isn't a good way to build trust."
Followers who don't feel they can trust your brand will not engage with your content, which could have disastrous consequences for your business. Fake followers are dead weight when it comes to engagement. [Interested in social media marketing solutions for your small business? Check out our best picks and reviews.]
"Fake followers can't do anything for you," Hinojosa said. "You can't drive legitimate engagement – and, ultimately, web traffic. It's more valuable to have 500 dedicated followers who actively engage than 5,000 who don't."
Followers who actively engage with your posts will drive you higher on news feeds and Google result pages, and they have stronger potential to gain you new followers. Hinojosa offered three additional steps to help smaller brands gain more valuable social media followers:
Identify your target demographic. Knowing the target market for your product or service is "Startup 101," and the same principle applies to social media. Understand the demographic you're trying to reach, how they behave and operate, and, perhaps most importantly, where they are. Each social network has its own specific audience, so make sure you're focusing your social media efforts on the channels your target consumers use.
Create content that appeals to your audience. Good social media marketers know that compelling content is the best way to capture followers' attention. Social accounts that only include calls to action ("go to our website," "buy our product," etc.) without any real information for consumers are likely to be ignored.
- Engage with your followers. Building engagement on social media is a lot like networking: You won't meet anyone if you're a fly on the wall, Hinojosa said. Follow or tweet at industry influencers or customers, reply to brand mentions, and share or repost their content to show consumers you're willing to create meaningful conversations via social media.
"Be wary of the quick fix," Hinojosa said. "Social media has incredible value as a lead generator, but take it seriously. If you're not going to truly get into the game, don't fake it."
How can you spot fakers?
The easiest way to catch fake accounts is by looking at follower counts vs. engagement levels. If a user's profile says they have 6,000 followers but they average two likes per tweet or photo, that is a big red flag. Authentic followers will engage with the content the account posts, and the follower and engagement numbers will reflect each other.
Another quick check is how many posts the account has. If it has fewer than 10 posts but thousands of followers, it's likely that many of those followers were purchased.
There are also several services and tools designed to help users and businesses catch false accounts. For example, SocialBlade tracks progress and growth on various social platforms and makes the data free and available to the public. You can use this to monitor if an account has an unusual spike in followers. Twitter Audit allows you to check how many of a given Twitter account's followers are real, giving you clear real vs. fake numbers and an audit score. Botcheck.me is a machine-learning tool that observes accounts and lets you know if it exhibits common bot behavior (it also offers a Chrome extension).
"[You] can guard against fake followers by proactively removing bots as they begin to follow [your] account," said Megan Zaleski, social media coordinator at HeraldPR. "[Make sure to] perform your due diligence."
Kathleen Hayn, PR account manager at Slice Communications, recommends going through your followers quarterly to make sure they are still active and have not turned to spam.
As social media and social media influencers continue to grow, so does the proliferation of fake and spam accounts. But by sticking to tried-and-true methods of gaining real followers and staying vigilant against fake accounts, your business is sure to build engagement and make an impact where it matters.