Regrets and moral debts: the perils of buying fake followers

It’s tempting but treacherous to risk long-term reputation for short-term gains

A fascinating investigation by the New York Times has shed new light on the unscrupulous fake follower industry and the proliferation of deception among some of the world’s top social media personalities. And third parties are getting caught up in the subterfuge.

The research focused on one flogger of fake followers in particular, Devumi.

The case of Devumi

Despite a veneer of respectability, the social media marketing platform has added hundreds of thousands of pretend fans and endorsements to some accounts.

Its technique of choice is to appropriate and bastardise the social media presence of innocent bystanders. By changing a single letter in a Twitter handle and/or performing some minor colour alterations on a profile picture, Devumi sets up fake profiles that can then be used to share graphic and/or offensive content.

They appear legitimate at a glance and can be used to bulk out follower numbers and engagement rates. But scratch beneath the surface and all pretence of quality control or ethical concern falls by the wayside.

As we’ve tried to show before here on Content Desk, pursuing the quick fix often does more harm than good. Just as with buying traffic, buying followers is fraught with difficulty from a marketing perspective.

B2B perspective

When you’re sorting out your social media following and need to prove the success of your content, you’re likely to be on fertile ground for a vanity metric mishap.

Boosting followers through false means may seem tempting but this research shines a spotlight on two very clear reasons for caution.

First of all measurements like number of followers, favourites or social media mentions prove nothing.

Having a big bank of fans doesn’t automatically correlate with success in terms of cold hard KPIs to do with conversions and profits. Much better than a vast faceless audience is a small highly-engaged following, accompanied as it is by sound insights and useful data.

But there’s a wider reason why sticking a follower-shaped plaster over a gaping wound of engagement is an issue: it’s simply bad business.

The New York Times investigation reflects how widespread these unsustainable business practices are. As happened to some of the marketers in the piece, buying a few followers to begin with soon snowballs into a web of mistruth on which a job or contract depends.

It’s a classic example of moral debt – a concept offering wider lessons for content marketers.

Moral debt

The idea of moral debt is adapted from the coding world where ‘technical debt’ describes addressing a problem with an immediate solution but leaving the root cause unchallenged – and therefore liable to grow.

Moral debt has a range of applications in marketing.

Buying fake followers is one example, but the idea has wide resonance. Dabbling with ‘easy’ traffic, ham-handed emphasis on ads to enhance profits rather than user experience or even an editorial process rooted in quantity over quality, moral debt can creep up across the spectrum of content marketing.

It’s not a universally bad thing and can be useful in the early days of a project to move things on to the next stage. But the point at which your business starts relying on it to drive profits is the point at which you’re in trouble.

Before long the festering growth of debt has taken over and there’s no rowing back.

The key lesson from all this from a content marketing perspective – one we’ve been trying to emphasise for some time – is don’t trade in long-term reputation for short-term gains.

It’s fraught with difficulty and usually doesn’t work anyway, especially with so many other options available for making the most of your content (like putting it to work on social media).

Content marketers take note: you don’t need dodgy debt and fake followers when you’ve got cutting-edge content on your side.

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