Are My Followers Fake? Social Media Marketing in an Age of Bots

Yes, @the millions of spammy social media accounts out there, you kind of do.

Social media has a problem: hundreds of millions of accounts across the biggest social networks don’t belong to real humans. There are 275 million fake Facebook accounts. 95 million fake Instagram accounts. 48 million fake Twitter accounts. (And some of these are old numbers, current counts are likely much higher.)

The Issue of Social Media Bots

The prominence of fake social media accounts, run not by humans but by programmed bots, causes many issues. They’re annoying, for one thing. They spam Instagram comments with pornographic content. They even spread misinformation and manipulate elections.

For digital marketers, bots pose another issue (perhaps a less critical one than the future of American politics). They mess with our data.

What does having 1 million Instagram followers mean if you can’t tell whether they’re human? What good is an active comments section if the comments are all robot spam? How do we know that the thousands of advertising impressions we pay Facebook or Twitter for aren’t just bots, gleefully depleting our precious marketing budgets with their binary “brains”?

There is no good answer to these questions. Except that maybe they aren’t the right questions to be asking in the first place.

A Different Approach to Social Media Marketing

Maybe what we need is a different approach to social media marketing, one that’s less focused on numbers and more focused on what social media is supposed to be all about: human connection.

Even if every Instagram account belonged to a real human being, would having 1 million followers really mean success?

What if every one of those followers ignores your content whenever it appears in their feeds? What if Instagram’s algorithms never show your posts on anyone’s feeds? What if they like the pretty photos you post, but couldn’t care less about about your brand or what you offer? The numbers don’t mean anything if you’re not actually connecting with humans. (See Tricia Wang’s TED Talk for more on what big data can miss.)

Big data isn’t necessarily going to give you the full picture, but taking a look at the kinds of conversations that your social media is sparking — that’s where you’ll be able to find out whether your approach is really working.

If people are interested in your brand, meaningfully engaging with your content, you’ll know it.

And, of course, you can always look at the bottom line data — who’s actually purchasing your products or services. Because at much as bots like to tweet their political opinions, they’ll never buy a can of Coke.

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