Monday, May 21, 2012

Can You Buy Twitter Followers?

Editor's note: The author said Twitter removed the followers he bought after this story appeared on PR Daily.

Accusations that Newt Gingrich was buying Twitter followers brought the practice to the public’s attention at the end of last year. Surely a presidential candidate would be influential enough that he didn’t need to buy followers, no?

But with many celebrities and organizations coming to the online party unfashionably late, the temptation to jump-start a fresh account must be huge. No one wants to be in that awkward zero to 100 follower stage.

Though friend-culling on Facebook became popular in recent years, Twitter remains very much a numbers game. Profiles with few followers find it harder to grow because many people associate the number with quality of engagement and discussion.

I'm guilty of looking at a person's number of followers to determine whether he or she is worth following. Someone could have great content and interesting insights, yet struggle to find an audience without a preexisting base of followers. In that case, buying followers can help boost organic growth.

Recently, I started a Twitter profile for my blog, The Corporate Lunchbox, which provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with buying followers. I tweeted the following on April 16, and the experiment began:
“Full disclosure: just spent $12.50 and apparently TCL is getting 1000 followers in return. Watch this space... #SMExperiment #SoldmySoul”
Early on, @CorpLunchbox only attracted friends, and the account was stuck on 30 followers for a while, despite my following anybody and everybody in the Auckland, New Zealand, food scene. A few days after completing the transaction with Buyrealfollowers.com @CorpLunchbox had an extra 2,000 followers (turns out the minimum purchase was 2,000).

As expected, these followers were all hollow accounts following thousands of people with no real followers themselves. They had vague bios and four to five tweets to make it look semi-legitimate—like my new follower, Eyui.



Predictably, my new, lifeless flock convinced other real people that the profile was popular and influential. It had perceived credibility, something that other profiles take years to build organically, and the rate of growth of real people following @CorpLunchbox began to increase.

I had jumped into an ethical gray area that is rarely discussed at social media events, on blogs, and in other such forums. Though some people would argue that I was the one who had been duped into buying fake followers, my conscience wrestled with the fact that people were tricked into following me because they thought I was more influential than I actually was.

Few people have the time to research accounts before following, so the number of followers becomes a quick method of assessing credibility, and unearned followers creates unearned credibility. In my defense, the people following me as a result of my perceived influence had every opportunity to unfollow if they believed my content was dry and boring.

Twitter has rules that disallow the use of third-party sites that claim to get you more followers, but it appears this isn't policed all that tightly. Buying followers was surprisingly easy, and it hasn't resulted in any disciplinary action from Twitter.

Over the next week, I'll be blocking the 2,000 bought followers, and hopefully the real ones will find the account compelling enough to continue to follow after @CorpLunchbox's real level of influence is revealed.

In the meantime, here are a few ways to tell whether someone has bought followers:

Rapid follower growth. Tools such as Twittercounter.com can allow you to see the rate at which someone has gained followers. Looking at the @CorpLunchbox follower statistics it's fairly easy to see that 2,000 followers were gained over a few days, in contrast to the usual slow growth.

Disproportionate followers to following. Celebrities, journalists, and brands will often have disproportionate amount of followers compared with whom they are following as a result of their high visibility in other forms of media. But it's rare to find people with no existing profile that would attract many followers without following and engaging with others first.

Hollow followers. Large groups of followers like Eyui with vague bios, four to five tweets, following thousands, and not being followed in return.

The purpose of my experiment and blog was to highlight the practice of buying followers and start a discussion on the ethics of this practice. I am strongly opposed to the practice, but I would be interested to hear what you think.

Bill Rundle is an account manager at Porter Novelli in Auckland, New Zealand. A version of this blog post appeared on the Porter Novelli blog.

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