The big business of faking it

As businesses rapidly move to boost their digital clout, the lure of taking the quick route to success has also been on the rise.

Recent spotlight has fallen on the lucrative business of click farms and selling fake followers, fans or likes on social media.

According to an Associated Press article, Dhaka, Bangladesh, is an international hub for click farms. Quoting CEO of Dhaka-based social media promotion firm Unique IT World, Shaiful Islam, saying he pays workers to manually click on clients' social media pages, making it harder for Facebook, Google and others to catch them. This is because this makes those accounts genuine.

The article pointed out Dhaka as the most popular city for many, including soccer star Leo Messi, who has 51 million likes. These click farms have many, usually lowly paid, workers simply tapping away on Like buttons, viewing videos or retweeting comments. While these businesses have drawn much controversy for being the digital age's sweatshops, there are much implications for brands as well.

Social media “influence” going cheap

Businesses selling followers proliferate online. According to AP, BuyPlusFollowers sells 250 Google+ shares for $12.95. InstagramEngine sells 1,000 followers for $12. AuthenticHits sells 1,000 SoundCloud plays for $9.

More examples proliferate - Marketing found more companies such as TheSocialBoost selling Instagram followers online, and another selling Twitter followers on eBay. And these are getting cheaper.

According to Jeff Hurmuses, vice-president of APAC for security solutions firm Barracuda Networks, there are currently 52 sellers on eBay selling Twitter followers who are making fake twitter accounts more affordable too.

“A year ago, 1,000 fake followers could have set you back USD25 but now the average price is USD11. At an estimate, these dealers have several thousand buyers who spend an average of USD65. In fact our researchers found one dealer who may have generated USD1.4 million just by selling fake Twitter followers,” said Hurmuses.

Nearly 63% of fake accounts are created by duplicating the information of real users by appending their screen name with a few characters while still using the same profile photo, location and description, added Barracuda.

“Spamming using Twitter lists is another trend we have discovered. Twitter accounts barely a few hours old, can add over 90,000 people to various lists,” he said. But as of now there is no way to block such activities other than by manually blocking these suspicious users.  While this may work in the short term, it will be a tedious process for users that have been added to hundreds of lists, said Hurmuses.

The big clean up - is it enough?

In 2012, Facebook made a major announcement -  a move to clean up fake likes. This move affected many brands regionally. Despite the move in 2012, a Facebook spokesperson told Marketing that it still has been needing to focus on dealing with abuse for fake accounts recently.

“We've made a lot of progress by building a combination of automated and manual systems to block accounts used for fraudulent purposes and Like button clicks. We also take action against sellers of fake clicks and help shut them down," a spokesperson from Facebook said. This includes catching fake accounts at various points of interaction with Facebook, including registration, friending, clicking the Like button, messaging.

“We write rules to catch anomalies that signal fake accounts, and we use classifiers based on machine learning to help us identify suspicious behavior. To validate and improve the quality of our automated decisions, we often use user prompts and other techniques to help us better determine if an action or account is real,” she said.

A Google spokesperson said that it had also placed methods to check for clicks and views. “And we take action against bad actors that seek to game our systems," she said. But she did not give details on how it was doing this.

Twitter could not be reached for comments at the time of writing.

The real price of faking it

While this takes place across the region, one agency executive highlighted how rampant the situation is in China.

Florian Pihs, senior planning director, strategy, innovation & optimisation, China, SapientNitro said his team comes across click fraud often. While the agency largely works on creative, his team encounters it in the analytics and optimisation aspect of the business.

“When we are trying to look at how a site is performing and segment and benchmark the traffic of paid media, especially media banners, we never see any media platform missing targets. They usually outperform their targets by up to 50%. That makes the media look good, the media agency look good and the client look good. Then when we go down into numbers on where this is from geographically, which banner did they arrive from at what time, which landing page, what did they do from there, we see a lot of irregularities - pointing to fraudulent traffic,” he said.

However, he laments that clients and media agencies have not had a genuine incentive to address the issue when brought up since both parties will temporarily appear to have achieved their objectives on clicks and traffic. Few clients are eager to get genuine traffic, added Pihs. “That is a behaviour that is rewarded in China at this point in time,” he said.

Ryan Lim, business director and co-founder of Blugrapes said that this was prevalent in Singapore more than a year ago, but he sees much less of it now that the market is more sophisticated.

How it hurts brands

"It slowed when marketers realised that they couldn't sustain it and their fans dropped when they couldn't pay," said Lim. Also, it was not promoting real growth for a brand.

The problem with this is that it dilutes a brand’s effectiveness online. “The impact of your digital activation is reduced by the amount of fake traffic,” said Pihs. “Right now what you are measuring is just clicks and traffic, you are hoping that awareness will lead to preference,” he said. But these fake clicks will do nothing towards that goal.

In the long term, bought fans are all cost and no benefit, and will cripple a brand’s ability to justify an ongoing budget for social media said Ian McKee, CEO and founder of social media agency Vocanic, adding that he has sent this outside of China in the region as well.

“Bought fans are empty calories, while the fan count will grow, the engagement rate will plummet with no possible way to lift it. The brand is left with a dead weight to manage,” he said.