Bart Perkins: Can't buy you love

Can you buy popularity? Some people seem to think so. Perceiving that organizations and people who have a lot of followers on social media tend to attract even more followers, they try to find ways to jump-start that virtuous circle. Sometimes they try to build their social media presence quickly by buying Facebook fans, YouTube views and other social media metrics. A quick Web search will uncover many examples of this type of love for sale. But there are problems with buying popularity. Here's a look at a few of them.

You might be paying for bots.

Many services sell robo-followers, not real people. Such accounts are easy to identify, because bot comments tend to be repetitions of a handful of generalized phrases that don't add to the conversation -- and are often laced with misspellings and grammatical errors. Bot accounts either have no profile picture or a generic image, and no profile. Bot peddlers' websites also offer little if any information about the company or its management.

Some sellers are scammers.

Some sites don't even deliver bot followers. Worse, they might spam your real followers or try to hack them or target them in phishing expeditions. They get away with it because buyers -- particularly corporate marketing personnel -- rarely complain; who wants to admit to that they're engaging in such shady activity?

Social sites analyze usage patterns.

Social media companies are coy about their algorithms for detecting fake followers, but some patterns are clearly suspect. A YouTube video that goes from a handful of views to half a million in a few days could be exhibiting a legitimate viral explosion, but if few additional views occur over the next several months, then that surge was likely fake. And while your investment might have helped you pad your total number of followers, social media companies also measure engagement. Followers who don't interact with your content won't improve your Klout score.

Cheaters could have their accounts deactivated.

Most sites have serious prohibitions against actions designed to artificially increase views or followers. Initially, you might have a video deleted or get a warning from Facebook, but if problems persist, your account may be terminated.

You could damage your reputation.

Even if your account isn't terminated, if word gets out that you've been goosing your numbers, your real followers could get upset enough to drop you.

Exposure is becoming more likely.

The practice of boosting traffic with fake fans has become so prevalent that websites such as SocialBakers and StatusPeople make a business of identifying robo-followers. The list of parties whose subterfuge has been brought to light by these sites includes the the U.S. State Department. I'm pretty sure that the other organizations, politicians, celebrities and government officials that have been exposed aren't too happy about it.

Real followers form a valuable community and deserve high-quality content. And in the long run, the quality of your content will determine the quantity of your followers. Remember, if customers discover that you've been paying for popularity, they may wonder what else you've been dishonest about. Do you really want to go there?

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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