ImageI was recently involved in a discussion where a business manager raised the idea of buying Twitter followers. My immediate reaction was ‘definitely not’ but others in the conversation noted their own experiences in purchasing followers and ‘Likes’ and the results varied significantly. It’s unethical, it’s tantamount to deception, but it’s also something that many brands have either considered or have already undertaken. A recent report suggested the fake social media profile industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year, so there's definitely demand coming from somewhere. And you have to agree, upping the numbers does give a business more clout in the social space. So the question is, should you do it? There's a few things you should consider before submitting to the social media dark side.

Numbers Do Matter
No matter how you look at it, you can't downplay the importance of follower and 'Like' counts. More followers equals more popularity and, theoretically, higher influence. Having a million followers not only suggests that what that person says is important, but that by getting them to engage with you, you are also important, by extension. As an individual, that's very powerful, but as a brand, it's potentially priceless. If Katy Perry, the current holder of the highest follower count in the world, tweeted about your product, that's coverage you simply can't get anywhere else.

This same principal applies to your brand - more followers begets more followers as people want to attach themselves to the popular crowd. Even if you start with 100, 000 fake followers, it's possible that you could gain 100, 000 real followers as a result, and that’s 100, 000 potential customers you can market to. It makes sense then that buying followers would be a viable option, right?

Selling Popularity
There are a number of known methods for increasing follower and 'Like' counts. Fake profile businesses, or 'click-farms', are on the rise in third world countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, selling 1000 followers for around $10. Ethics aside, the process is highly flawed, with many fake accounts being detected quickly and subsequently deleted by the social networks (along with whatever you paid for them). Same applies to 'Likes' - when the profiles go, any 'Likes' originating from that profile also disappear. Some of the sellers offer warranties on their followers - they’ll replace the shut down accounts as soon as they’re removed - but this costs more and over time, you need to keep paying to maintain your numbers or you'll see drop-offs in the thousands, day by day (Knowlton Thomas wrote an excellent piece on his experimentation in buying followers). The use of bots is easier for the social networks to detect and is no longer widely used for this reason. The sellers are quite up-front about their businesses, they advertise openly. Buying followers is accessible, within a reasonable price range and can, if you're willing to pay a premium, deliver benefits. But then, of course, there is a major catch.

You Can't Play the System
Social networks are not going to let this slide. Everyone’s aware of the algorithm changes Google has introduced to eliminate spammers and those out to cheat their systems, you can expect Facebook and Twitter to do the same. The more this practice expands, the more it debases the customer and client experience, damaging their core product. No company would stand by and take that. As social media becomes more critical to daily business life, so too does the integrity of it's data, and you can expect the networks to roll out enhanced algorithms to crack down on fakes faster, and more widely, than ever before (Facebook's recent NewsFeed algorithm changes were intended, at least in part, to crack down on fakes by reducing the reach of posts with less engagement - if your 'likers' are all fakes, they're not going to be engaging with what you post). Influence metrics like Klout scores will also get more focus - maybe the networks will establish their own influence metrics and display those instead of follower and 'Like' counts. Such a move would definitely make life difficult for the click-farms. And then there's the question of penalties for those participating in such schemes. Public outing? Profile deletion? Either could have a significant impact on your business.

So while it might seem like a good strategy to kick off your business profile with a few thousand fake followers, invest a small amount to boost your industry status, you have to keep in mind that that decision will very likely come back to bite you. Questions of data integrity are at the forefront of the debate against social media, and fake 'Likes' are a big part of that discussion. And when there's so many click-farms operating, how will advertisers know their ads are being seen by real people? How can you trust that data? How long do you think the networks are going to let that stand?

The big catch of buying followers is that people are going to get caught out. I'd suggest you don't want your business wrapped up in that net.