Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and, nowadays, Instagram are increasingly becoming integral parts of the marketing and branding efforts of many local businesses. Metrics such as the numbers of “likes” and “followers” you have are used to show how successful your social media marketing efforts are going. Unfortunately gaining these likes and followers is not as easy as it looks at first glance; that is why some businesses make the often ill-informed decision to buy social media followers (or likes, depending on the platform).
There are sites where you can pay money and, bingo, you start getting liked and followed on social media by random accounts. Some people sell you accounts or pages which already have likes or followers. In the last case, these are often legitimate accounts whose owners no longer have any use for. While there are few defensible reasons for buying audiences on social media, the cons far outweigh the pros.
Companies which sell you likes and followers can do so through any of several different ways, none of which are likely to provide you with an audience that has any shred of interest your brand. In many cases, they pay people from all over the world to like and follow accounts whose owners have paid for the service. These people often use several accounts, none of which they use for anything other than this exact purpose. If the majority of your followers are these kinds of people, it is highly unlikely that they would be interested in any in of your posts or even those of the many other brands they get paid to like or follow.
Now let us assume that your purchased audience does not completely ignore your posts, there still exists the problem of the poorly targeted marketing. If you grow your audience organically (i.e. normally) the people who like or follow your accounts are more likely to be legitimately interested in your brand and your products or services. For example, say your business is in Gweru and serves the same community; growing followers and gaining likes the hard way e.g. through advertising and inviting people to check out your social media accounts/pages is more likely to gain you your desired audience i.e. potential customers from Gweru. Compare gaining a hundred followers/likes from people who are actually in your target market (in our example Gweru residents) versus a thousand from Delhi or Abuja.
Sometimes instead of using armies of people as audiences for sale, some companies which provide this service use autonomous programs called bots which pretend to be human (with varying levels of success). Unfortunately, these bots sometimes behave unexpectedly and may start posting inappropriate comments. In some cases, this kind of behaviour is not a flaw but is built-in. You may buy an army of bots whose administrator may inadvertently decide to use as touts for dating websites, shady medication or something considerably seedier.
The practice of making money through fake likes is likely to draw in all kinds of characters. In some cases, these people whom you buy to like/follow you may decide to reap extra benefits by spamming you and their fellow followers. The bigger the size of your bought audience, the greater the extent of this problem is likely to be. Even your legitimate likes or followers may become targets of these shenanigans.
Your platform may penalize you
All social media platforms outrightly ban this practice in their terms and conditions (that lengthy document you hastily scrolled through when you signed up). This means that whenever you are discovered you run the risk of getting your account suspended and losing all those followers you paid dearly for. Accounts created solely for following other accounts or liking pages are called and are regarded as ‘fake accounts’ by social media companies and from time to time they get purged off the platforms. This means that if your paid-for followers meet enough of the criteria to be classified as fake you will lose all of them overnight.
You will ruin your reputation
Buying followers and likes is regarded as an act of deception by many people and if you are found out you will lose the trust of these people. The principle of social proof states that people are more likely to trust your company based on how many other customers you already have done business with. Business social media accounts are used to leverage this, where greater numbers of followers are often considered to be proof of your company’s reputation, competency or trustworthiness. The discovery that you bought your audience may therefore actually do more damage than having no followers can.
Why startups buy audiences
“Fake it till you make it” refers to the often controversial practice of new companies and their founders feigning success to achieve it. In the same way that all recent graduates discover that almost every job posting they should qualify for requires five years of previous experience, new businesses discover that they have better chances of getting clients if they pretend that they are already established and doing well. That is why some new companies will gladly buy social media followers or likes to facilitate this illusion.