How should PR address “fake fans” on social media? Interview with Danny Whatmough

By Chris Lee

Channel 4’s recent Dispatches documentary shed a little more light on the well-known practice of buying ‘fake fans’ to make brands’ content and social feeds appear more popular than they really are.

To understand more about the problem of artificially inflating numbers, NMK met up with Danny Whatmough, associate director of digital at PR firm Ketchum, who is also chair of the PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) Digital Group.

How prevalent do you below ‘faking it’ is?

It’s impossible to tell exactly how prevalent faking fans is. But, as the Dispatches programme demonstrated, it is easy and cheap to artificially inflate numbers of social media fans or followers, so the barriers are very low.

If someone wants to do it, there isn’t much stopping them. Hopefully with further awareness of the issue, continued education and industry action, we can reduce its impact in the future.

Briefly explain how fake fans are recruited or created and how you can spot irregularities

A quick trip to Ebay and a search for ‘Twitter followers’ will show exactly how easy it is to pay a relatively small amount to see your numbers soar. These ‘follower farms’ are becoming increasingly savvy in the way they inflate fans but, by tracking your following over a sustained period, you should be able to detect any irregularities quite easily. If you see an increase that seems too good to be true, and can’t be explained by advertising or high engagement, then it probably is.

Is there an undue emphasis in numbers when it comes to brands’ social media following? Surely they can’t be deriving value from fake accounts?

I like to think we are moving away from seeing social media as a numbers game. Every marketer knows deep down that the number of fans alone is not a measure of success. That’s why a balanced, rounded approach to social media measurement is needed that encapsulates qualitative and quantitative metrics. The simple fact is that there is hardly any value in fake accounts. Having a high number of fans might help a company give an impression that it is more popular, but ultimately it will deliver very little bottom line return.

Social media is now entering a maturity phase. Consumers and brands alike are increasingly savvy and that means there is more awareness of where bad practices are being used. There is still work to do but raising awareness of issues like fake fans will hopefully make people think twice about it in the future. Fake fans impact the trust consumers have in brands and that affects all of us working in social media.

You talk about transparency: explain what that means for brands

We are living in a world where transparency and trust is something that consumers are increasingly concerned about, whether it’s politicians’ expenses or companies not paying enough tax. Practices that attempt to trick or fool consumers are increasingly likely to be uncovered and the result brand reputation impact can be huge.

Agencies too must be transparent about their approach to growing social communities. Building a social network of fans or followers isn’t easy. It requires research, a clear strategy, valuable content and advanced community management. There is no shortcut to success, so brands need to be vigilant – if your community growth seems too good to be true, then perhaps it is.”

How is the PRCA addressing this issue?

The PRCA and the PRCA Digital Group in particular are tasked with upholding best practices in the PR industry and digital/social media now lies at the heart of this. Through education and awareness building, we seek to ensure that agencies and brands are taking a responsible approach to using these new channels.

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