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“If large numbers of accounts are fake, and equally large numbers have no profile information, it means that there is a far less commercial value in social media networks than total numbers would suggest.”

Tom Foremski, ZDNet, February 14th, 2012 


If you buy into the idea that data is the soil in which ideas, solutions and the future of our industry will grow, then taking a deeper look into two of the most prevalent, but highly abused marketing metrics within real estate, that of the social media follower count, and platform adoption rate, can provide some interesting and timely insight into the future of these platforms.


They can also help to maintain perspective on information provided under the guise of advice for why you should adopt seemingly popular technologies. These metrics often present a false sense of legitimacy and popularity at the hands of those not seeking to solve the very real problems of real estate professionals. They distract from the serious business of getting real work done.


As technology writer Tom Foremski recently explored, there’s an increasing number of studies regarding the growth, adoption and activity within social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ which are directly pointing to much smaller numbers of real and active users populating the platforms, something which has the capability to significantly reduce the value of current social media marketing initiatives. Foremski singles out this growing trend of focusing on total user counts as one of the key aspects behind determining valuation in the face of Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), and indeed, almost all of the coverage of Facebook’s recent IPO has made at least one mention of how many users (not active users) they have. Notably, that same reporting doesn’t describe the key difference between actual users and those who have signed up but no longer have a presence there (if they even had one at all). Recent studies are pointing to active users even being as small as one-third of the overall size of a social network, a very different proposition from a valuation perspective.


When it comes to Twitter for example, nearly 50% of all accounts could either be fake, or contain no user profile information (even if they’re ‘active’), essentially rendering them useless to marketers, who use this information to reach targeted groups of people. No information? No targeting. And if there’s no capacity to reach an intended audience, then there’s a greatly diminished return on social media investment.


Foremski’s case centers around a recent study  conducted by Wired’s Kevin Kelly, who looked at the over 560,000 people who were following him on Google+. At times having to manually wade through the data to sift through who exactly had circled him on the network, Kelly concludes:


“Most of the half million people following me on Google+ are ciphers. They have signed up, but have not made a single public post, or posted their own image or a profile, or made a comment.”

Kevin Kelly, ‘The Ciphers Of Social Media‘ 


Kelly outlines how only 30% of his followers (which he extrapolates as reflective of the larger Google+ ecosystem) have ever published anything to the news feed, and a huge 36% had no public profile information filled out at all. If you place social media marketing with any importance in the future of your business, this data is reminiscent of a quote often attributed to Henry Ford (but sometimes also to Philadelphia department store owner John Wannamaker), it’s like advertising, where 50% of your budget is wasted, you just don’t know which half.


“The rise in fake users is directly related to corporate marketing campaigns that aim for large numbers of followers to show high levels of online engagement.”

Tom Foremski, ZDNet, February 14th, 2012 


This calls into question the inflated rhetoric of those advocating the adoption of new platforms simply because ‘that’s where everyone is these days’, and it might be time for that same social marketing advice to be reset and more realistic expectations to be drawn.


Douglas Main, writing in Popular Mechanics asks ‘How much of Twitter is spam?‘ Or in other words, how much of a person’s perceived follower volume are frauds? The most widely cited recent example of the notion of inflated numbers is that of current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich‘s Twitter account (@newtgingrich), which boasted a huge 1.3 million followers. Following analysis of who those followers actually were, it was concluded that only 8% of them were real people – a very different type of conclusion, and certainly a different type of political following. Gingrich’s example of overinflating social numbers to fuel a perception of popularity can also be applied to the way the platforms promote themselves of course. Fake Twitter handles are beneficial to users looking to gain a large following in order to appear legitimate and popular. And while this has ethical problems, there’s certainly value in that from a marketing perspective. But if left unquestioned, it’s still a synthetic popularity at it’s core, and therefore inherently flawed.


As anti-spam activist Jason Jones  characterizes the problem:


“It’s about providing convincing evidence that you are somebody… when you’re not.”

Jason Jones, quoted in ‘How Much Of Twitter Is Spam?‘ 


A site that’s got a rapidly growing number of people signing up to it (during the product’s launch cycle for example, as we’re currently seeing with photo curating site Pinterest), can often boast (and boost) its popularity through sharing these kinds of metrics. However, the specific breakdown into what kinds of people are using the platform, and how many of them actually use it (as opposed to just ‘being on it’) is very rarely shared. It’s more important to pass a user count milestone, than it is to focus on publicizing what those people are actually doing with your own product. This in turn, leads to a large targeting problem encountered by social marketers, where user data is essential to the health and effectiveness of advertising and marketing programs. Data that is often invisible.


Peek Analytics, who conducted one of the widest reaching and most comprehensive studies of Twitter use, concluded that only 35% of the average Twitter user’s followers are actual people, and that the more active you are, the more likely you are to be followed by spambots. Some suggest that an approach of engagement and conversation might actually result in simply being followed by more and more bots, instead of the perception that you have genuinely interesting things to say. This poses a huge problem for a platform such as Twitter, where it’s incredibly difficult at scale to detect and diagnose the multitude of spam accounts based on all the different ways people use Twitter. If you use Twitter to get the news, just by following a few news outlets, and perhaps some celebrities you enjoy, but don’t tweet at all, this can be perceived as a spam account, even though you are using the platform free of abuse and with value for you.


Similarly, with Facebook analytics (ironically called Insights on the platform), we have very limited information on how many of a brand page’s followers could be considered active, outside of those who just saw or engaged with a post, which as a brand grows on Facebook, is an increasingly smaller subset of users. There’s detailed reporting on everyone who has hit the Like button, but as a page administrator, there’s no reporting on how many of them have stuck around, and that’s where the ‘insight’ really is. There’s basic marketing information missing such as time spent with a brand’s content, something that’s increasingly important in an era of diminishing attention spans at the hands of those very same platforms.


The building of synthetic digital celebrity is a dangerous one for marketers, as these metrics can’t accurately be perceived as a measure of either popularity or success (for platforms, brands or individuals) based on these findings. But they’re the biggest numbers, and unfortunately have the false perception of being the most valuable. More importantly, they are absolutely no indication of how your content is being received, absorbed or engaged with. It’s simply the number of people who have hit like, follow, or circle.


So while a call for marketing gurus to reset their rampant expectations of platform growth might be unrealistic, having a deeper, more insightful understanding of those same metrics, which they present as conclusions for why you should make the decisions about which platforms to adopt, might be a way to maintain a healthy perspective on what to actually listen to, and what to discount.


Matthew Shadbolt speaks at RETSO on Friday, April 13th at 9am on ‘Why Social Media Makes Us All Miserable

post title photo courtesy fo Kapungo via flickr cc