I recently came across this blog post. While I understand that Christopher Elliott has solid media credentials, I am amazed at his suggestion that big brands are participating in a secretive conspiracy to buy fake twitter followers and are thereby "faking it" as he put it. As Mr. Elliott recognizes, the numbers he shared "prove nothing". I would like to show just how small that nothing is.
I worked very closely with one of the airlines mentioned in this post. I was at the table with this airline from day one of their active social marketing efforts, shaping much of their strategy and advising on media spend. We never bought a single Twitter follower. This tactic was never mentioned and I highly doubt that anyone at the table other than myself even knew that this was an option.
But before we get to all the reasons that this blogger is mistaken in his presumption that major airlines are buying twitter followers, I would like to address and dispel the Great Marketing Conspiracy that wasn't.
The Great Marketing Conspiracy that wasn't
One of my junior high school teachers was obsessed with pulling us away from consumerism and evil advertising. He regularly lectured us about how Coca Cola used to replace one frame of a movie with their logo in order drive us all out to buy their product. He honestly believed that Big marketers are manipulating your minds into buying things you don't want. I can still hear his passionate voice pleading with us not to look for brand labels, as these were manipulations of our underdeveloped minds.
And if he is up-to-date and still teaching today, I'm sure he would love Mr. Elliott's post. Who doesn't love a good conspiracy?
This teacher may have been passionate, but he was mistaken on so many levels.
Big consumer-facing brands aren't coordinated, secretive or devious enough to get away with unethical communications practices. Much of the time, big brands and agencies can hardly keep their teaser campaigns under wraps while the public waits for the big reveal. While many believe that there are secret scientists at ad agencies figuring out how to manipulate people into buying things they don't want, the reality is far less exciting. Generally good natured people at decent brands are trying to ethically and effectively position and communicate their brands and products. Agency people try to push the creative and technology envelope to help them get there. Nobody is plotting an evil conspiracy. Nobody has the time, interest, appetite for risk or budget.
Did Major Airlines Buy Twitter Followers?
At least not one of the category leaders, my former client.
Here's what really happened: We went auto-follow crazy and spammers and bots took advantage of the auto-follow dynamic. Big brands had (and generally still don't have) good tools for analyzing their Twitter followers, so most were unaware of the number of fake accounts following them.
Let me explain:
In the early days of marketing on Twitter, there was a big debate over whether a brand should follow everyone who follows them. Following every account that followed the brand was an accepted practice circa 2009. A number of automated "follow-back" and "auto-DM" (direct message) tools popped up, allowing brands to automatically follow all accounts that followed them, as well as to send them an automated direct message. A number of big marketers employed tools such as these, as did many thought leaders in social media.
Spammers and bots caught on. By following a number of accounts that had an auto-follow tool enabled, the spammers and bots could easily create sizable followings of their own. The spammers and bots occasionally unfollow many of these same accounts, creating a disproportionate and favorable ratio of following to followers. However, many (I would guess, most) spammers and bots focused on following lots of brands as the brands would likely follow in kind, and did not bother to unfollow these accounts once they got their follow-back. Once they had a sizable number of followers, these guys would get into all kinds of shenanigans.
I know of a number of brands that still employ auto-follow tools. The airline I worked with never employed an auto-follow tool, and yet this report shows a good number of fake followers. They never bought a single Twitter follower. They have all of these "fake" accounts because spammers and bots are trying to get cheap follow-backs.
And to answer Mr. Elliot's final question, he only has 8% "fake" followers because he wasn't an airline in 2009. I don't know why bots targeted airlines, but it's pretty odd to blame an airline for being targeted. And let's not forget, this is a brand new, unproven, free tool. While I'm sure they are great coders, I have come across dozens of similar tools that were wildly inaccurate in the real world. If you doubt what I'm saying, ask anyone with real industry experience about the accuracy of any free "social sentiment scoring" or "social valuation" solutions.
There is no Great Marketing Conspiracy. Not in social media, not in advertising, not in packaging and not at retail. Not even on Twitter. We've all been too busy working hard, earning our relationships, our sales and your loyalty. And that is what will continue to make us successful.