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Fake Facebook Likes

Those of us working in tech are constantly learning and adapting to the newest technologies. This is the foundation of our disruptive culture: we venture out into, as Joseph Campbell said in a six-hour PBS series with Bill Moyers, “the dark forest … of original experience” where there are no pre-existing scaffolds to support our vision. The flipside, however, is that asked to quantify our success we look behind us instead of forward. Take a company’s Facebook page, for instance.

Success of a social marketing strategy largely relies on how many users a company has reached (the industry term being the number of impressions). The number of likes a page has received often serves to quantify this. The more users who like a page, the more eyes the page’s content will appear in front of. Logically, this holds up and the knee-jerk reaction is to point to this and say our social marketing strategy is effective. This also affects users: the number of likes on a page validates the value of the page, attracting more users. The single loophole in this equation is how the page attracted so many users in the first place.

Veritasium – a YouTube, science vlog – recently tackled this question. Drawing on the work of BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, Derek Muller set out to discover where Veritasium Facebook page likes were originating. In the end, he found that despite increasing page likes from 2,000 to 70,000, Veritasium still suffered from horribly low engagement. Eighty percent of his page likes accounted for one percent of total engagement.

This begs the question then, if you’re paying Facebook to advertise your page, and you have received one-, two-, even a three-hundred percent hike in page likes but are still getting low engagement, where are these likes coming from? Muller argues that spammers (he calls them click farms) from countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and India hire people to randomly like various pages so as to slip under the Facebook fraud radar. He supports this claim by showing us that most of the 70,000 likes on his page were from users living in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India and that these users liked hundreds of thousands of seemingly conflicting pages (one user liked AT&T, Verizon, and TMobile; another liked Jeep, Lexus, Mercedez, Volvo and Volkswagen). Muller then turned the finger on Facebook, arguing that Facebook maintains this status quo because it has made significant revenue from these advertisements. You can read a full write up about the scandal here. The video has been up for more than a week now and we haven’t heard anything from Facebook yet. So if you’ve experienced low engagement and the likes from users who were paid to like your page in the first place haven’t increased your revenue, then why should you continue to advertise with the social network?

You shouldn’t. Instead, cultivate the audience that values your product and/or brand, that will buy from you. When these users like your content, it is shared with their circle of friends. There’s no need to pour money into an advertising budget that will not only result in questionable page likes but also lower-than-expected ROI. Use engagement metrics (individual post likes, comments, and shares) to gauge the success of your marketing strategy. There are other ways to justify your social media-marketing budget other than page likes, alone.

Now, instead of screaming in panic, let me assure you that social isn’t broken. Facebook’s advertisements aren’t broken, either (in fact, Facebook just topped Wall Street revenue targets). We simply need to realize that in the dark forest, there are going to be dishonest characters who will try to undermine what we’ve built, which is great. What would a story be without a villain?

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