Since businesses discovered the revenue potential of fans and followers, they have been clamouring to acquire them. But what gives greater value? Those you acquire through good social media strategy and engaging content, or those you buy.
Another fan buying enterprise, Bird Bird Fans, has recently launched its service of buying high volumes of fans to boost the Facebook pages of small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) new to the market.
According to Mark Macias, Founder & Managing Partner of 3M Media Group, the company behind Big Bird Fans, multinationals spend "$100k a month on social media fan acquisition." He claims Big Bird Fans will bring this technology and acquisition techniques only used by large brands to SMBs.
Macias believes some people just want fans from anywhere and organic fans have too high a cost. For him, targeting is something that large companies are looking to do, not SMBs but it really depends on the client's goals. "Most companies starting out don't need a customised approach. It's more about the image. Sheer numbers count first."
"We're in the beginning stages of power marketing with Facebook," Macias continues. "Until someone figures it out, and I hope it takes them a decade, [Big Bird Fans] will help separate my PR firm from any other PR firm."
But is this ethical?
A number of PR managers and small businesses would seem to disagree with Macias's fan buying ethos.
"The line from services like this is that "thousands of fans will make any restaurant or lounge look like the hottest spot in town," said Max Tatton-Brown, account manager at PR firm, EML Wildfire.
"In truth, this is like saying you should hire a fleet of actors to fill up your restaurant on week nights. Generating the veneer of popularity is no replacement for actually looking into who your advocates are and giving them a reason to express their support online. While you're busy paying to fake it, you risk competitors increasing their lead in doing the hard work of creating true communities online."
Macias professed that Big Bird Fans was just the service for restaurants and bars in major centers across the US. Jesse Alexander, owner of family run EN Japanese Brasserie in New York’s West Village, has had slow and steady growth on Facebook but it was all done organically.
“Restaurants have a small profit margin. Very low profit. So I have to be super picky on choices. $2000? I could never imagine that $2000 coming back to me so I don't see advantage as a business owner.
More important than cost, is how I run my business. A lot of the decisions I make are based on my principals and philosophy of how to handle business. And that's all about honesty. If I'm dishonest, I believe it will come back to me.
If something goes bad, I won't sell it. I won't tell one customer one thing and another something else. And I wouldn't buy fans as it's dishonest and it's dishonest to the rest of my Facebook fans. I'm not a dodgy business man."
Charles Powne, owner of Portland-based Soleilmoon Recordings, had never heard of businesses buying fans especially a service like Big Bird Fans where a base package costs $1500 for 2000 fans.
"My business has 1352 fans (I just looked), and certainly having fans brings in sales for me, but I'd never pay that much to get 2000 more fans, especially since its 100% certain that they'd never convert to paying customers. It wouldn't be cost effective, in other words. The best way to grow your social media community is to employ methods that work organically and authentically. Growth for its own sake may look good, but if it's faked then it's not terribly meaningful."
Pinball Publishing's Laura Whipple thinks buying fans is a bad investment.
"It's fake, and it's really easy for people to detect false sentiment in social media realms. I think it would be better for small to medium businesses to find creative ways to build a true fan base on their social media sites. It will take longer, but it's a more lasting strategy. Fans are another name for potential customers, so if your social media network is just flooded with fake potential customers, it will be much harder to communicate with the real ones."
"Fan falsification is a big problem in the US and globally for social networks," says Phil Sheard, Associate Director of Hotwire's specialist digital agency, 33 Digital. "These 'get rich quick' style schemes undermine the hard work of those brands that put in work to get real results - and these brands pay the bills through advertising so they'll get looked after. Don't be surprised when fan purchasing schemes get stamped out, by the social networks themselves or if not through rules like the Federal Trade Commission policy on blog disclosure. People surely flock towards popular places but this isn't real popularity so companies could face a backlash when they get found out."
Is it true that how you get fans doesn’t matter?
The Emerging Media Research Council report on "Facebook and Twitter: Measuring the value of the Web's most powerful communities" believes organically grown fans and followers will yield more return. "The consumer who opts-in to an organization’s Facebook or Twitter presence is far more likely to engage with that organization’s content than the fan who is delivered for a fee just as repeat donors are far more valuable to fundraisers than people who have never given before."
What about the numbers?
On Quora, users are discussing the worth of fans. Christopher Tuff, Director of Earned and Emerging Media at 22squared, is seeing efficient buys with the new "sponsored stories" ad units. "Users that click through to the landing page for non-fans, we see a conversion rate of about 50% (as opposed to 25% without a like-gate)." Once you have fans that are interested in your brand, you could see 20 times more visits to your site verses those from non-fans.
Costs can range. Socialbakers has compiled a list of average advertising costs on Facebook by country. The average cost per click (CPC) in the US is $.68 and the average cost of cost per impression (CPM) is $0.29. This varies by how popular your target area is (a little like bidding on Google ad words) but you can choose who you are aiming for.
If you still want to get into the pay for play game...
Big Bird Fans will cost you $0.75 per fan as a starting rate. As that price doesn't look for fans that are relevant to your brand, it will cost more for a targeted approach. Any old fan will do in their eyes for clients who just want to boost their numbers, even if they are half way around the globe and your restaurant is in Brooklyn.
Though you could gain more targeted fans yourself, there are other companies in fan acquisition such as uSocial, who offers fans starting at $0.14. Do keep in mind that uSocial has been served with cease and desist orders before. Not ideal when you're trying to build a credible brand.
But that’s not the type of brands Alexander thinks Big Bird Fans are marketing to. “If I was out of touch and was trying for a way to get in “with the kids”, it may appeal to me. But this product is not for people with a head on their shoulders.”
If that doesn't turn you off, then buy to your heart’s content. Hopefully your true fans don't find out. As Sheard deftly commented, "What's the point in having 2,000 fake fans if your restaurant is still empty on Saturday night? Is that a risk worth paying for?"
Editor's Note (Jan 30, 2012): Mark Macias came back to us after we published this post and wanted to clarify a few things. Here is his response:
First off – let it be clear that these fans we acquire are not “fake fans” as implied by the critics in this story. These Facebook fans are real people with real accounts who have Facebook accounts just like you and I have. There is not one “fake” person or “fake” account that we acquire to our knowledge.
BigBirdFans.com also offers a customized solution, which can help any business locate any targeted fan – all the way down to interest, sex, zip code, you name it. That is a part of our business model.
My company, 3M Media Group, has grown the Facebook fan base organically for reality TV personalities, restaurants, nightclubs, lounges – among many. We grew their fan base organically using incentives just like every other business offers. We gave away drinks, coupons, free appetizers, produced original videos and posted pictures of beautiful customers and savory food so people would like my clients’ Facebook pages.
BigBirdFans.com acquires fans via the same ethical strategy of organic campaigns, but we are using a proprietary technology and software to help us find these fans.
Every business pays for fans, even though they might not see it in the grey world we live in. I challenge all of the critics and business owners in this story to pull out their calculator and figure out how much they paid per fan acquisition when including labor and discounts given to customers. Now go to BigBirdFans.com and see how you can use technology to find a more targeted fan at a better cost.