Thanks to the digital age and the desire to make big online impressions, there’s a new unseemly item available for purchase: social media followers. Yes, web fans are now for sale.
I first encountered this phenomenon on Twitter. As I began to use the platform more, I noticed that my followers numbered far fewer than those of several other Twitter users who recently followed me. Now, I’m not talking about people like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, whose followers number over 73 million and 65 million, respectively. It’s understandable why these global celebrities would have more followers than the populations of the United Kingdom, Italy, and the vast majority of the world’s other countries, even though I’m not one of their followers.
No, the individuals I’m talking about just seemed like ordinary people, certainly not like anyone who could draw a following of tens or hundreds of thousands. Then I started to notice that some of the people who started to follow me had similar ads in their header photos, like the one shown above, for instance:
- 5,000 Followers, $29
- 10,000 Followers, $39
- 50,000 Followers, $119
Surprised by these offers, I did some searching on the web and found other options that were even more startling. For example, the website buyfansmedia.com promises to “help your business get all the ‘Fans’ and ‘Followers’ it needs.” More specifically, it explains the reason why one should buy Facebook Likes:
“In this crowded and competitive online marketplace, you simply cannot afford to not have a high number of Likes on your Facebook page. You will come off as unpopular, and visitors will potentially find your page unworthy of their attention and – by extension – unworthy of their business! The obvious problem here is that it can take months of promotion on Facebook to garner even a handful of Likes . . . That is why many people – especially those who understand the impact of Likes – will buy Facebook Likes.”
Buy Fans Media charges a “cheap” $14 for 500 worldwide Likes and goes up to $1,325 for 20,000 U.S. Likes. The company claims that the process is safe and says for some of the packages that there are “no bots or fake accounts.”
Jaqueline Simard, Key Accounts Supervisor for BLASTmedia, however, warns against “Buying Your Friends.” She argues that purchasing followers is unwise because:
- An organization’s number of followers will spike in one month, but decline in subsequent months.
- The web increasingly recognizes and rewards sites that have real, engaged followers, not high numbers of fake ones.
- Firms receive skewed and misleading audience insight.
- An organization’s brand will take a hit if it’s discovered to have purchased followers.
These are all good, practical reasons for not buying followers or Likes, but they miss the most important motive: a purchased social media presence is unethical. Here are two reasons why:
It’s Deceptive: Just as Buy Fans Media suggested, people draw conclusions about individuals and organizations based on their social media following. For instance, when we see many Facebook Likes for a restaurant, we assume that it’s very popular, has great food, etc. However, purchased Likes hold no such meaning. Even if the people related to those Likes really exist (i.e., they’re not fake email accounts), they’ve probably never been to the restaurant, so the endorsements are meaningless. We’re being deceived.
It’s Unjust: Justice suggests that people's outcomes should be proportional to their inputs: they should reap what they sow. When organizations purchase Twitter followers, for instance, they receive returns (e.g., notoriety, brand equity) that are disproportionate to the effort they put in: a firm doesn’t deserve to have 10,000 Twitter followers because it forked out forty dollars. Such a payout is unjust.
The buying and selling of social media followers compromises at least two societal values (honesty and justice), maybe more. Given the ploy that they are, it’s also doubtful that these practices create long-term stakeholder value—eventually people will see around the façade. So, there’s little question that the sale of social media followers represents “Mindless Marketing.”