Always the masters of the arts of deception and misdirection, what’s to keep marketers from gaming social metrics for short-term gain?

What follows is an exploration and a survey of the grey zone in social media and marketing. (In other words, if you’re a social media idealist, this would be the time to look away.)

Be advised I am not some “black tie social” promoter espousing nefarious shortcuts to online greatness; I work for a digital marketing agency – the kind that helps B2B companies produce the virtuous stuff that makes them gain social influence organically, if a bit more slowly.

For this piece, I just want to investigate how marketers’ social mores are evolving.

Lance Armstrong may not be a world champion cyclist after all. He may not be honest. Or even a nice guy. But is the dude a marketer? Yeah, he’s a marketer.

EPOing your performance only moments before competition is a very marketer thing to do. Crafting an incredible story (a physiologically impossible story!) yep, that’s marketing. Whipping your partners to stick to the party line, totally marketing.

Like Lance Armstrong, we marketers would throw our grandmother under a bus for a big victory. Orchestrated flash mobs. Brash billboards. Cool-hunters. Overpromising copy. We kill that stuff.

Translated to social media

Then there’s social media. Do we marketers dry the muck off our feet at the door of social media? Take a solemn oath to the Cluetrain Manifesto and recite a vow to uphold the Usenet principles? Uhhh, no.

But legions of bloggers and other social media gurus have managed to inculcate an important lesson in our Machiavellian social media worldview:

Being good on social media (or at least the appearance of being good) is an important first step to being good at social media.

That is, if you produce lots of selfless blog posts, tweet love to everyone around the clock, connect like-minded people and comment on blogs all day long, then you’ll be successful. At least a little.

Now the thought of all this work with little immediate benefit makes most marketers’ ego shrivel. We think: That’s all great, but can’t I just buy it? All that work doesn’t scale.

So, can you buy it? Of course you can! Finding a vendor who will sell you followers or likes is easier than googling “buy facebook likes” (Correction: it’s exactly that easy).

A few months ago, Speed Communications’ Dan Howe wrote one of the more interesting social media articles of the year. His title: “On Manufactured Influence”. A quote:

For an agency or PR staff member who might be after a quick win rather than long-term success, the benefits might even outweigh the risks. Shortcuts can be tempting.

Tempting? How about unavoidable? As pressure mounts to do something in social media, and attach metrics to it, a marketer whose thoughts don’t turn to gaming the system one way or another may soon be out of a job.

An attempt to get scientific

Tantalized by Howe’s piece and a string of similar pieces appearing over the past half-year, I started to wonder: Have we marketers, like, totally lost our social media virginity? Are we going to spray lies and bullshit all over the pristine garden of social media too? Will we do a black hat SEO for social too? Black tie social?

When you have more questions than answers, you make a poll. And that’s just what I did. I asked B2B marketers whether they thought ten borderline social promotion practices were OK, then whether they had done them themselves.

[I know it’s the scientific equivalent of licking your finger and sticking it into the air, but I’m not looking for the Higgs Boson here].

Not surprisingly, early results suggest we’re a morally flexible lot. Of 50 self-identified marketers, about a quarter thought it was OK to buy Facebook likes or Twitter followers. One in three felt it was OK to enter like for like agreements.

However, far fewer confirmed that they had actually done any of these things.

Why not? There are a number of valid arguments against it. Econsultancy’s own Chris Lake put it succinctly in a tweet:

chris lake tweet

There’s ambiguity in that final statement, and for good reason. While we’ve been lead to believe the authentic kind of success in social is the best kind, we’re not at all certain that it’s the only kind (or even whether some authentic success was altogether authentic).

An argument for?

Howe certainly presented some compelling scenarios for gaming social metrics. There are more.

Take most B2B businesses. Nine times out of ten they’re keen to pursue social success, but in just as many cases they struggle to tie their social performance to metrics. The link between a tweet and a multi-year, multi-decision-maker, multimillion-pound deal is thin. So they gauge success on follower counts.

Or consider someone running a campaign. Why not start the campaign with an artificial boost of 2,000 likes or followers? For the first arrivals, the campaign will already have that sheen of viral success. Once the fake likes fade, few will notice (as the campaign’s updates continue to roll across their news feed).

And there’s some ambiguity about what constitutes inappropriate behavior on social networks, and what constitutes legitimate promotional activity. Connect with a stranger on LinkedIn? You can be flagged to the social network for it, but 6 of 10 survey respondents felt it was fine and an equal proportion had already done it.

Hypothesis: Many shades of grey

Right, wrong, effective, ineffective – the lines are blurrier than we’d like to think.

In other words, the guy or gal gaming social metrics may be less the freshman social media idiot, and more the calculating and cynical wizard who rises to the top of the heap. Even if that isn’t the case, I’m thinking there’s a lot more grey territory than many of us are willing to admit.

At least, it’s a hypothesis. I’d be eager to hear from any marketers who have coolly equivocal experiences or ideas on the matter (in other words, do not comment if it’s only to preach one way or another).

And here’s a link to the survey as Google Form. The bigger the sample, the better the results.