The Empty Promises of Social Networks
How good is social media for advertisers? It may surprise you to learn that social media may not be the panacea for advertising that it once was (if it ever was). Social media is developing a sketchy history due, in large part, to a few savvy journalists and editors.
There are three main social media companies that have been the target of massive fake account creation - Facebook, Google +, and Twitter. Google + works something like Facebook in that you sign up to the website, create a profile, and then add people to your "circle of friends." On Facebook, this is affectionately called "friending." On Twitter, you "follow" other people. When they post something, you receive their message, called a Tweet. On Facebook and Google +, you receive an update when you log into the site.
According to these social media sites, business is booming. People are signing up left and right. With all of these users on all of these social media sites, it would seem like there's an incredible marketing opportunity, right? This is essentially the pitch that Facebook, G+, and Twitter are giving to companies: "we have lots of users that you can advertise to. Check us out." According to skeptics, however, many of these users aren't real.
Former Wired magazine editor, Kevin Kelly, says that most of the half-million people that have added him on Google+ are ciphers. A cipher is someone who has signed up for a service but hasn't made a single post, hasn't filled out a profile, and hasn't posted a public image.
Kelly, and his assistant discovered that only about 30 percent of the people in his circles on Google+ have ever published anything and 6 percent were outright spammers. He found that 36 percent had not even filled out a profile.
Apparently, this is not an isolated case. Last August, it was discovered that presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claimed to have 1.3 million followers on Twitter. His actual follower count? It's probably more like 351,000. Yes, it was discovered that 76 percent of Gingrich's followers didn't have a profile biography.
What accounts for all of these ciphers and potential fake users? It's corporate advertising. Large companies want lots of followers on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. More followers makes them look like they have much more support than they really do. What's the motivation for all of this marketing mumbo-jumbo? Money.
Marketing divisions in companies have performance goals to meet. When those goals are met, it triggers performance payments. If those goals can be met by buying Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and G+ followers then so be it.
What It Means For You
With large numbers of potentially fake users populating popular social media sites, it might be best to stay away from advertising. That could spell trouble for companies like Google and Facebook. These companies rely on media buys. If more companies catch wind of fake profiles, it will greatly diminish the value of these sites.
After all, who wants to advertise on a website when half of all of the users might be fake?
It's Not Really New News
Do you remember MySpace? Fake profiles were commonplace on that site since it began back in 2003. It wasn't unusual to find a fake profile on that site. Usually, the spammer would post at least one picture of an attractive woman and then try to make friends with a bunch of guys.
Now, maybe there are a ton of hot women out there in the world, from Russia or Ukraine, that have no female friends and only one picture of themselves and an Internet connection. But a hot European woman with a bunch of guy friends selling memberships to a porn site out of the goodness of her heart? Isn't that what red-light districts are for over there?
While companies do advertise on MySpace, users started to tune them out back in 2008. While News Corp, who owned MySpace at the time, was happy with the revenue they were getting, Google went on record back then saying "We have found that social-networking inventory is not monetizing as well as expected." Things haven't changed much since then except that News Corp dumped MySpace. Apparently there wasn't enough revenue in advertising after all.
What You Should Do
Unless you can verify that there are users in your niche on social media sites, your best bet might be to keep your money in your bank account - at least for now. There's no telling whether Facebook, Google, and Twitter will clean out these fake profiles yet. There's definitely a motivation to do it though. If they don't, they could end up like MySpace.
Instead of relying on new-age social media, you should focus on the stuff that works - paid traffic. There's all sorts of ways you can pay for traffic on the web. Paid clicks are popular, and so are plain old banner advertisements. As long as you trust the network you're advertising on, you'll end up with the visitors (and hopefully the sales) you need.
Paid traffic works because you don't have to worry much about whether users are real or not. Website owners that allow you advertise on their site, or companies that sell ad space, rely on visitors being real in order to generate revenue over the long-term. It's not like a social media site where there's multiple incentives happening at once. You don't have to worry about whether a corporation has paid people to go to a website just to "like" a page or not.
People who are frequenting high quality websites are there to read. They're there to engage the website owner or whomever writes the blog posts. They may not be there to read your ad, but they are there. If your ad is in front of them, you'll be advertising to a real person, not a bot or a paid user who is only there to inflate the site's profile count.