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ONLINE MARKETING

4 Ways Click Farms Screw Your Business

Fake followers on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks can hurt your business more than you think.
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You've probably heard about people and companies buying followers on Facebook, Twitter, and heaven knows what other social media networks. So, who cares, it's just a minor distraction for losers. Right?

How to break this... no, it's not. Minting followers has become a big business in the social media world. As the Associated Press reported, there's a global market for this activity that, according to some researchers, might have hit hundreds of millions a year. Last year the U.S. State Department was criticized for spending $630,000 to buy Facebook fans and boost its popularity.

High-tech companies have tried to screen out bot-generated traffic and clicks, restoring a sense of reality to online. Google wiped out many video views on YouTube because enough people have used bot services that create views. Facebook purges users.

It's more than industry inside baseball. Click farms can have an adverse effect on your business in a number of ways:

Your competitors get an unfair advantage.

Users, likes, views, and so on are more than empty bragging rights. They create the perception that a company or person has a following--that there's something going on worth attention. Say that you and a major competitor are both on Facebook. The other company has 10 or 20 and 100 or 1000 times more followers or likes. Consumers might unconsciously check out the page of the competitor because it seems to be the place to go. How could all those bots be wrong?

Customers become distrustful.

Ultimately, click farms don't exist in a vacuum. As the AP story proves, eventually people hear about the practice. While some people won't care, enough savvy ones will begin to wonder how accurate any of the counts they see could be. Suddenly, even your numbers are suspect and people can start to assume you're as much of a fake as everyone else. Not a good attitude to cultivate.

You lose the race for talent.

Many companies are looking for employees who have a practical grasp of social media. That means they're checking follower counts when looking into someone's background. Hiring someone who seems well-qualified could mean going to the upper end of your compensation budget. If those numbers are fake, you're wasting money and probably hiring the wrong person.

You can't make informed marketing decisions.

Part of knowing where to put your online advertising dollars is seeing the reactions of social networks. If site A had 50,000 Twitter followers and B has 350,000, guess who looks better? Except, you don't know if they're real, and that should affect advertising rates and your media plans.

What do you do? On the brand image end, find other ways to organically build up your following. Do not succumb to the click farm temptation. Not only do you run the risk of losing all those followers--and the money you spent for them--if a network takes notice, but you're also losing the opportunity to experiment and find out what really appeals to customers.

As far as job applicants, competitors, and the like, there are tools--StatusPeople.com's Fake Follower Check--that can estimate how much of someone's following is fake. Do the research and make decisions based on reality, not the spamming dead.

Last updated: Jan 10, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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