Let’s be honest. Click farms aren’t exactly a big secret. Buying ‘likes’ and Twitter followers is a well-known shady practice.

What the Channel 4 Dispatches investigation on #fakefans has shown us is the process behind the (fake) stats.

Mostly, it seems to go:

  1. Brand engages social media agency (although no self-respecting social media I know would do this) which promises to craft a social media campaign that will rocket the brand’s social fan base.
  2. Social media agency decides that the most profitable way to do this work is to pay a click farm to provide fake likes.
  3. The click farm employs technological solutions, and people (who really need the money) to create thousands of fake profiles and generate even more fake likes, views and even comments.

The documentary named some big brand names and organisations, which all denied approving this practice. As far as they were concerned, their likes were genuine and if they weren’t, no one at those companies was aware. The click farmers said that the fault did not lie with them, but with the intermediary businesses – the so-called social media agencies – that paid them and created the demand.

Later, the documentary looked at how brands used celebrity endorsements on Twitter (which are fine, as long as they use #ad in the tweet) and found that some agencies were paying for endorsements, and that some celebrities were not being honest about being a paid for tweet.

Why do fake ‘likes’, comments, views and Tweets matter?

You may be tempted to think, “ah, but it’s just a few ‘likes’ on a Facebook page, no one got hurt.” But it does matter because – to some – it adds legitimacy to the brand. If millions of people ‘like’ this oven cleaner, maybe I should buy that next time I’m in the shop?

It’s easy to be dismissive of celebrity Twitter endorsements. Does anyone really care that an actress they’ve never met has enjoyed a night out in a certain London bar? Some people won’t but for some, they are role models and therefore an influencer.

The advice is pretty consistent; brands need to be transparent and authentic on social media. Brands use social media to build communities, and virtual communities are built on a foundation of trust. Fake likes, views and comments don’t help boost a community, they corrupt it.

Likes are not a measurement of success

The big problem, to me, is that many brands still measure their success on social media by the number of likes or followers they have. Not by engagement, shares, and ultimately sales (none of which a fake click is going to get you). And while brands measure by likes, agencies will be tempted to buy them.

Buying thousands of fake ‘Likes’ or having a fake profile post a comment on your Facebook page won’t drive long-term engagement, or sharing, or customer loyalty, or support sales. It won’t help develop the community. And it undermines the real value of social media to a brand.

Organically grown communities thrive on difference, debate and shared interest. A Facebook page with over one million likes with a stagnant community will not benefit the brand. It’ll develop into a zombie community (not as cool as it sounds), one where the brand can point to the numbers, but levels of engagement are tanking.

Dispatches was quite clear about where it considered the problem to lie. The middle man between brands and click-farms – the social media agencies featured in the investigation – were the ones driving the demand for fake clicks.

But should the brands have known what was going on? Should more questions have been asked about how these followers accumulated so quickly? It’s not easy to get genuine ‘likes’ on Facebook. It requires a solid social media strategy, great content and an engagement plan.

Organic farming: how to build a thriving community

  1. Encourage people to take the first step. Give people a reason to ‘like’ your page, or view your video. Maybe there’s a competition, or a promise of exclusive content. Perhaps the selling point is being a member of an elite community.
  2. Encourage them to hang around and engage. Don’t limit exclusive offers to new fans. It’s not enough for someone to simple ‘like’ a page; they need to want to keep going back.
  3. Create compelling content. It sounds so obvious but really focusing on appropriate brand content works, whether it’s witty, visually appealing or just brightens someone’s day – sticky content works.
  4. Provide a strong set of community guidelines, or house rules, for fans to follow and enforce them. Moderate content to provide the safest and most welcoming environment you can. People won’t comment on a page if they think they’ll be laying themselves open to abuse or ridicule or if it’s peppered with spam.
  5. Use a community manager who’s already a brand advocate. If it’s a game brand, it helps if the person running the page knows the culture, and understands what people mean when they say they’re having trouble collecting enough Bells to pay off Tom Nook.
  6. Be ethical. It’s one thing to ask fans to behave in a respectful manner, but if they discovered that your brand had brought thousands of ‘likes’, if they started to wonder if the Harry Smith they were responding to was a real fan, or a fake, why would they have any reason to trust the brand?

Trust and authenticity matters in social media. Any practice that encourages people to buy clicks to artificially boost a brand’s page needs to be discouraged. The practice tricks real fans, achieves nothing, and undermines the genuine value of social media.