re·fined

Are you guilty of buying your Twitter followers? There’s a purge coming!

Richard Roeper, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times was suspended for what – to most people – will sound like a very strange, and inconsequential reason: he has too many phony followers on Twitter.

Sound like a weird reason to ban a man from the good work he’s been doing for years?

Let’s dig deeper.

The trouble started when The New York Times published an expose about influencers and fake Twitter followers. We’ve always known that Twitter is full of fake and dead accounts. Previous studies have shown that 50 to 90% of followers on influencer accounts are phony. And yet, everyone is thrashing about this week as if the New York Times reveal was new news.

What the Times did do, that was new news, was deliver concrete numbers along with the name of a company who has made an exceptionally good living out of selling phony followers to celebs and large companies. Or, more accurately, selling them to social media managers who either didn’t know better or felt pressured to do so.

I’ve spent many years working as a social media manager and the pressure to deliver is real. There’s a high expectation that a best-selling author, or a beloved actor will have millions of followers, even if they only opened their Twitter account a week ago. I have first-hand knowledge of publishers who said they wouldn’t publish a book if an author didn’t have a large number of followers. I know of startups who needed to inflate numbers to attract investors.  And if you’re looking to pay an influencer to hawk your product, the higher the follower count, the more they can charge.

That’s where this goes from an unethical move to full-on fraud. If you’re charging Big Brand X dollars to put their product in front of 30,000 people and 20,000 of them are fake and you know it, that’s fraud.

Where it gets tricky is the “you know it” part. If you bought followers, then you know it or you’re extremely naïve. I take that back. I’ve heard very intelligent people swear to me that the company they’re buying from is TOTALLY legit. Maybe they just want to believe it because it’s better than admitting your cool company only has 1,000 followers.

Even if we take the money out of the story, there’s a bigger issue: trust.

If politicians and journalists have padded their accounts with fake followers, can we trust anything they say? Am I supposed to believe that these potato chips are the best tasting chips, if the blogger who says it is lying about their numbers? On the other hand, how many celebrity Tweeters run their own accounts? How many actually knew that their publicist or social media manager was padding the rolls?

The New York Times says that in the past week, over a million followers have disappeared from influencer accounts. Accounts owned by prominent people who clearly got nervous after the original article named names.

Think an agency has padded your Twitter follower numbers? Perhaps you once bought a large following, but now have buyer’s remorse? It’s time to check your own accounts.

Note that the only way to stop a phony follower from following you is to block them. There are some tools on the market who claim they can identify fakes and block them in bulk. If you’re looking at blocking more than 1,000 accounts, that’s the only way.

As you dig through the list, you’ll also find a large number of accounts that haven’t been used for years. People quit Twitter. They make multiple accounts then can’t keep them up. Those followers aren’t doing you any good but they’re not doing you any harm.

What you’re looking for are the true fakes that were set up purely to line someone’s pocket. It’s pretty easy to tell. The company’s that create these accounts don’t put much effort into making them look legit. Some tell-tale signs include bios that don’t makes sense, bios / names / images that don’t match up, no header, nothing but reTweets in their feed.

If you look at a few fake accounts in a row, you’ll see that they all have the same spammy reTweets – a good sign that the fakes all came from the same bogus operator.

A large number of followers may make you feel like you’re conquering the social media marketing monster, but ask yourself this: how many of those followers are actually buying what you’re selling? In the end, reaching one potential buyer on Twitter is a better use of your time than blasting content out to 1,000 people who don’t even exist.

Andy’s 2 cents: When working with Twitter influencers, it’s all about that, influence. It doesn’t matter if they have 200k followers if they can’t get more than a couple of clicks or retweets. Be diligent in researching their actual engagement and influence of your target audience. Better to reach just 1000 people, if they’re the right people.

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