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The Beatles once sang, "All you need is love" and thanks to the rise of social media, it's not just humans looking for it. Brands, once largely relegated to communicating with consumers through one-way mediums like television and radio, have flocked to services like Facebook and Twitter in search of long-term relationships.
If the millions of 'Likes' and followers some of them have attracted are any indication, social media could be the foundation of a happy marriage between brands and consumers. But under the surface, this relationship may not be as solid as it appears.
According to Gartner, brands are increasingly turning to paying for positive reviews, 'Likes' and followers on popular social networking sites and by 2014, the research firm estimates that over one in ten of these will be fake.
Gartner is predicting that within the next two years, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be forced to take action, and that at least two Fortune 500 brands will face litigation over their shady social tactics.
According to Gartner VP Ed Thompson, brands are at a crossroads and CMOs "will need to weigh the longer-term risks of being caught and the associated fines and damage to reputation and balance them against the short-term potential rewards of increased business and the prevailing common business practice in their market, often regardless of ethics."
It's so easy
As Ryan Skinner, AD of B2B marketing agency Velocity, pointed out in a guest blog post here on Econsultancy, "Finding a vendor who will sell you followers or likes is easier than googling 'buy facebook likes.'" With such an active, accessible trade in fake social actions and followers, it's not entirely surprising that some marketers decide to take the plunge.
And why shouldn't they? The metrics by which social success is often measured are not always so easy to grow organically, but they're cheap to manipulate. And a marketer looking for a reason to indulge in that manipulation can easily justify questionable tactics: the more [insert social media metric here] I have, the more legitimate ones I'll attract.
Are Facebook and Twitter to blame?
Of course, most of instinctively know that followers and 'Likes' probably aren't the best metrics by which to measure social success. In fact, most of us accept that they're probably more akin to clicks than they are to conversions.
So why are we so focused on metrics that are often so flawed? There are several reasons:
- Quantifying abstract terms like engagement and influence is really, really difficult.
- The metrics marketers have access to are largely determined by the operators of the social networks.
- Those metrics are always subject to change.
In short, many marketers put themselves in a position where they're almost entirely dependent on the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. Instead of taking their analysis to the next level by correlating performance against important business KPIs, they use the limited and often flawed metrics they're given.
To be fair to companies like Facebook, helping marketers establish that ROI exists is a top priority, but marketers should remember: the goal of that exercise is, for Facebook, to sell more ads. Caveat emptor still applies.
You're not fooling anybody
So where does this leave marketers debating whether or not to cook the books? It's worth considering that the only ones fooled by online love-buying are the marketers engaging in the tactic.
A timely case in point: American wireless carrier AT&T won the battle for the most 'likeable' ads during the summer Olympics this year, but in the past two year it has ranked in last place for customer satisfaction. The lesson: likeable ads, lots of followers and more 'Likes' than you can count in a year are nice, but when it comes to earning an individual's business and keeping it, trust, respect and satisfaction are far more important. And you can't purchase those.