If you're tempted to buy yourself a fast social following, read what happened when we tried it.
MOTIVE: Newt Gingrich (pictured) was accused of hiring a social-media firm to inflate his Twitter following with fake accounts.
Last summer, media news and gossip website Gawker published a claim by an anonymous ex-staff member of Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich accusing the politician of hiring a social-media firm to inflate his Twitter following with fake accounts. Gingrich's campaign denied the allegations, and the scandal died down relatively quickly, but not before shedding light on an under-the-radar tactic: purchasing Twitter followers. Just how easy is it to pad your account with paid followers? We headed to eBay to find out.
The Goal: buy random followers
After creating a Twitter account for an imaginary social-media consultant named Michael Kreznik, we logged on to eBay, where a search for Twitter followers yielded hundreds of results. We quickly engaged in a bidding war for 11,000 followers, at a starting price of $80. After the other buyer drove the price up to $180, we settled on a Buy It Now option promising 1,000 followers for $20.
The Result: Within two days, Kreznik had amassed the 1,000 followers, as promised. However, a closer look at their profiles revealed that most of the account holders had tweeted fewer than six times, and many of their bios included trite phrases, including "You'll never feel true love if you can't go through the pain." In other words, we had bought dummy followers. The seller, whose eBay handle was michalrondos, declined to provide any details about his methods.
The Price Tag: $20 for 1,000 followers
The Goal: Buy An existing account with a built-in following
We headed back to eBay and clicked on another Buy It Now listing, this one offering an existing Twitter page with 3,700 followers for $35. After we paid for the page on PayPal, the seller sent the username and password to use, along with the e-mail linked to the account. We changed all the information, creating a new account holder for the page: Dave Stone, the imaginary founder and CEO of the Stone Agency, a social-media firm.
The Result: Surprisingly, most of the page's 3,700 followers seemed to be real people, including many aspiring actors and college students. On the downside, the previous account holder had already posted dozens of questionable tweets, some comical ("Best years of my life my ass"), some typed in Russian characters, and some that equated to panhandling ("Follow me, please!"). Even if we deleted the tweets, they would remain on permanent record with Twitter and the Library of Congress, which could be embarrassing for a business. The seller (daniel2u2) failed to respond to questions about his methods.
The Price Tag: $35 for 3,700 followers
The Goal: buy targeted followers
Finally, we set out to purchase followers that met specific criteria. We turned again to eBay, searched for targeted Twitter followers, and found a Buy It Now listing for 1,000 targeted followers for $9. We bought two sets and gave the seller Kreznik's username and password so the seller could find followers for Kreznik. (Obviously, this would be a huge security risk in the real world.) Then, we supplied a set of keywords, including start-up and business, to help the seller find followers that met our needs.
The Result: Within a week, the Kreznik account had accumulated more than 2,000 followers, about half of whom seemed to be legitimate business owners, consultants, and bloggers who fit our keywords. Some of the new followers even retweeted Kreznik's posts and included him in their Twitter lists. How did the seller (antares_70) pull it off? He claims to have used a tool called Tweet Adder, which helped him search for Twitter accounts based on geography, keywords, and number of followers, as well as the number of profiles followed. The idea, he says, is to start following accounts that are most likely to follow you back.
The Price Tag: $18 for 2,000 followers
The bottom line
By the end of our three-week-long experiment, Kreznik had amassed 3,154 followers, and Stone had 3,580. Not bad for a total of $73. Still, the whole process left us feeling queasy. Is the strategy a good idea for businesses looking to build a strong Twitter presence? Probably not, says Chris Paradysz, founder and CEO of PM Digital, a digital marketing agency in New York City. A hefty Twitter following might bolster the appeal of celebrities and politicians, Paradysz says, but for companies, the risks outweigh the rewards, especially if there aren't real people behind the accounts who could eventually become actual customers. "Having that type of follower count only really matters if my last name is Kardashian," he says. "For a small business, cash is everything."
J.J. MCCORVEY is a reporter at Inc. magazine, where he covers a wide range of topics, including technology and business research. He has covered metro news for The Detroit News, and his work has been featured in Men's Fitness. @jmccorvey