With nearly two thirds of people finding it difficult to know if brands are using questionable tactics on social media, it’s vital that your activity is completely transparent.
Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) shows that:
- 47% of people would change their behaviour if they knew brands were manipulating social media
- 62% find it difficult to know if brands are using questionable tactics
- 12% have low confidence in what they see on social networks
- 38% find it easy to tell the difference between commercial and non-commercial messages
Those are pretty worrying statistics, if social media is really meant to be the medium by which we are relying on the opinions of strangers for recommendations.
So what IS social media manipulation? What are businesses doing to confuse their customers?
I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Keeping Social Honest
The CIM have created a mini-site, Keep Social Honest, and a hashtag, #keepsocialhonest, in order to help brands and business maintain trust in their use of social media.
They have created a list of ten ‘commandments’ that businesses should consider when using social media.
And they do make sense, but largely all point to honesty, transparency and teamwork.
Search engine manipulation used to be fairly common, and penalties from the likes of Google have been the only way to curb it.
Facebook in particular is removing over-promotional and irrelevant clutter from timelines, but on the other hand Twitter is harder to police and it’s rife with fake tweets, fake accounts and dubious tactics.
Under the radar
With social media, there are opportunities for manipulation to go under the radar and there are no penalties in place to stop it. Yet.
The CIM Keep Social Honest website shows that 82% agree that ‘without the threat of punitive fines or legal action, there will always be businesses employing questionable tactics on social media.’
But what are we talking about here? An over-illustrious tweet, being conservative with the truth, exaggerating the numbers? No, I’m not talking about ‘white lies’, I think we’re looking at something much deeper – the rise of black hat social media.
Many of the black hat tactics practised by search engine optimisers can now be found to be happening in social.
See: What Is Black Hat Social Media & Does It Affect SEO? – Search Engine Land
The way in which social networks ‘work’ is being mined and then undermined to root out formulaic processes, and milked for all their worth.
And, as happened in the search engine world, handing your execution over to someone else for ‘professional’ help could actually be where your troubles start.
For the very same reason you hand your accounts over to an accountant, your legal problems to a lawyer, or your computer repairs to an IT firm, businesses are handing over their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, etc, to social media consultants, and all for the same reason – it’s not their area of expertise.
Where the first three differ from the last is that you are not handing over lock, stock and barrel, you are only handing over the bits you can’t do and are best left to the professionals, and as such you could be paying £150 per hour for the services of an accountant, lawyer or IT consultant.
And you might pay the same for the services of a social media consultant presuming they had the background, but that’s a high price to pay just for sending a tweet.
You’d expect to pay for the professional aspect of creating and managing a media campaign, that’s the marketing part. The social element is best coming from within – just as you wouldn’t expect your accountant to be handling the money on a daily basis, your lawyer to be meeting your legal obligations or your IT company to be keeping your filing system in order. That’s your job. And is engaging on social networks.
Click farms, spam networks and link exchanges
But at the lower end of the market, just as happened in search engine optimisation there are click farms, like exchanges, link and spam networks and phoney metrics. The problem is, that low quality practitioners are passing themselves off as professionals and no-one knows any difference, until it’s too late.
- Click farms – clicking social media links, such as Likes, Comments, Shares, Retweet, Favourite, Pin, etc to increase engagement
- Like exchanges – an unscrupulous agency may run several accounts for customers and use them to create apparently unconnected likes
- Link networks – equally, an agency which runs several accounts may also be dishonestly using its client accounts to engage with other clients’ accounts
- Spam networks – all these activities together create a spam network of anti-value
- Phoney metrics – if the above activities increase engagement and following, that’s a success right?
It’s the last issue that creates the biggest problem, because human beings are fixated on likes and followers. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge the reputation or quality of a business by the number of followers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Only the other day, a reputable businessperson explained to me he was looking to farm out his entire social media because it was just too much effort. Would he really risk buying into these shady practices? Of course, it’s the minority that upset the balance, but they’re smart and know what buttons to push. More likes, more followers, cleansing, engaging. They’ll do all that for you, but it could be months before you realise they’ve just been pumping up the likes in their own networks and moving on.
As I say, it’s in the minority, but it is happening. The CIM know it’s happening and the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), which has recently extended its scope to include social media and online content, know its happening.
Social networks provide very little in the way of accountability. A website has a publicly listed owner, a social network account can be one of hundreds run by one company with nothing but a spreadsheet of ‘best times to tweet’ and ‘optimum number of hashtags’ to hand.
Our advice is take advice, use the resources provided by the CIM and the ASA. Rather than pay someone to run your accounts, pay someone for training. Look for an agency experienced in the media, because like it or not, if you’re using social networks, you’re now a publisher.
That’s on top of being an accountant, a lawyer and an IT department.