To Buy or Not to Buy – The Twitter Debate

More often than not, we are able to understand and present both sides of an argument, allowing our audience to make their own decision about the correct path to follow. There are rare instances when the negatives of a certain topic grossly outweigh any perceived positives, making it difficult to present an unbiased debate. The policy of purchasing Twitter followers, in our opinion, is one such case.

This issue has received considerable publicity recently, including a piece in the New York Times, mostly due to celebrities and politicians facing scrutiny on their seemingly impossible gain of followers in tremendously short periods of time.  Though the overview of this issue has focused on celebrities and politicians, we find it troubling to hear that some public relations and marketing professionals admit to deploying this tactic on behalf of  their clients their own agencies.

The argument has been made that purchasing followers on Twitter is a proven way to help start-ups and new business ventures, as well as older business who happen to be newcomers to the social media sphere, gain a higher level of status on the Internet playing field. A respected social media blog, listed these three “benefits that are motivating people to buy Twitter followers” 1) Gain Popularity and Authority, 2) Get More Real Followers, and 3) Increased Sharing of Content.  It is difficult to argue with the fact that buying followers might produce these results, but at what cost?  A lot more is at stake than the $5 for thousands of followers that currently offers.

What’s the downside?

  • Departure from our ethical standards – Unless you are candid and admit that you are buying Twitter followers, which is not the standard practice, then you are deceiving your audience into believing your brand is more influential than you truly are.
  • Defies the spirit of social media — The ethical implications of this practice aside, the notion of purchasing followers reeks of unprofessionalism and defies the spirit of social media completely.  According to Wikipedia, “Socialmedia includes web- and mobile-based technologies which are used to turn communication into interactive dialogue among organizations, communities, and individuals.” The emphasis on social media is that it isn’t a one-way communication broadcast tool, but rather an open conversation between audiences, hence the name “social” media.
  • Worthless to your brand – Let’s talk about what you receive when you purchase followers on Twitter.  Most likely they are hollow “bots” that are controlled by spammers.  These fake accounts aren’t providing feedback, purchasing your product, sharing your message or helping in any other way to disseminate your content. When it comes to successful social media strategies, quality followers are more valuable to your brand than the sheer quantity of followers. When you purchase a random array of faux followers, who are you communicating with? Where is your message being amplified?
  • Credibility killer – When folks realize what you have purposefully taken a shortcut to gain that number of followers, instead of organically growing your Twitter network, your brand loses credibility. You will appear underhanded and deceitful. As we have seen from the recent media coverage, people are looking for these types of practices and applications like Status People are gaining momentum to help your audience judge the quality of any account’s followers. The presidential campaigns both received criticism this summer for allegedly purchasing followers, a charge they both denied. Barracuda Labs conducted a study into this practice and developed a case study and infographic, “The Underground Economy of Buying Twitter Followers: Dealers, Abusers & Fake Accounts,” on the Mitt Romney campaign’s Twitter account. Although both campaigns have shown similar behaviors on Twitter, they have each denied purchasing followers. The hint of a scandal put this issue center stage heading into the conventions and surely took attention away from more important issues. This is an example of an unnecessary social media crisis. Can your brand afford that type of damage to its digital reputation?
  • Against Twitter policy – Although this practice is widely spread and not all that uncommon, it could get your account banned from Twitter.  The Twitter Help Center clearly describes this practice in the Spam and Abuse section of their Rules:
    • If you have attempted to “sell” followers, particularly through tactics considered aggressive following or follower churn
    • Creating or purchasing accounts in order to gain followers
    • Using or promoting third-party sites that claim to get you more followers (such as follower trains, sites promising “more followers fast,” or any other site that offers to automatically add followers to your account)

Is this an issue that you should worry about or is this something that only major brands, politicians and celebrities should fear? Though the media coverage started with tech writers and social media bloggers, it spread to national publications and last week our own Kerry Stratford was interviewed about this subject by a local television affiliate. This story isn’t going away and it is trickling down to the local level.

Run a check on your followers with one of the new apps like Status People and see where you stack up. If you have less than 20% fake followers, you are probably doing well. In the interest of full disclosure, we’ve included our score for @CaliberGroup.

At the end of the day, the notion of gaining overnight Internet success creates a strong temptation; however we strive to cultivate meaningful connections for our clients when we manage their social media efforts. We understand that building a network takes time and energy, but if you work hard, create and implement a sound business strategy before launching into social media, the return on that investment is priceless. The beautiful reality this medium brings to our profession is a real-time account of sentiment and needs of our audiences.  Social media allows us to keep in constant contact with our brand evangelists, so that in times of crisis or breaking news, there is a sound network of followers who are comfortable hearing our voice and trust us to tell them the truth.

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