On manufactured influence

By Dan Howe on May 10th, 2012

Faking influence in order to alter public behaviour is a very old marketing tactic. As far back as the 1930s, it was routine for promoters to hire good looking young people to wait outside concert halls for lead operatic sopranos, both encouraging actual theatre goers to join the mob for autographs and to stage a good shot for the press.

Similar activity persists today, with shops like Abercrombie & Fitch purposefully maintaining a queue out front in order to keep up the appearance of popularity and companies like HP turning the popular kids on US campuses in to paid brand ambassadors.

While it is generally accepted practice, openly discussed and debated in the media and among marketers, when it comes to applying the same principles online, you tend to get awkward silence from industry professionals.

Last year, PR Week broke a story about Covert PR, a firm apparently offering the services  of “posters” to submit online comments to mainstream media websites to “help sway and nudge the debate”  in favour of its clients.

While the agency bragging about such services turned out to be a hoax, the reaction to the article on Twitter was telling. Some readers were in disbelief that such tactics were an option. Such people are worryingly ill-informed.

This issue is particularly pertinent when we consider how companies rate their public relations functions. With Advertising Value Equivalent or AVE no longer accepted as a measure of success for PR efforts, and no generally agreed upon industry-wide replacement in sight, measuring PR success in many circumstances has fallen to counting tactical metrics such as likes, followers and pageviews.

A chart of these values plotted in an upwardly motion on a weekly report can be a reassuring sight, but while these elements can be indicators that a campaign is going well, as an overall measure of a job well done they are far too easily faked.

On the 3 April, I performed an experiment. I decided to double my Twitter followers. I paid the sum of £4 to a US-based “social marketer” found on an SEO professionals forum and overnight my Twitter follower count went from about 2,500 to 6,300.

The benefits of an artificially enhanced follower number were evident later that week. I was contacted by six different recruiters. Two of them mentioned my “impressive” Twitter following as one of the reasons they thought I’d be a good fit for the job. My inflated follower count made me appear much more influential, which in turn attracted real people relevant to my industry to follow me on Twitter.

Although my ranking on social capital measurement services, such as Klout and PeerIndex, remained the same, with the high follower count I would appear to other users to be someone with a respected opinion or who shared resourceful tweets, even though the content I was publishing on Twitter of course remained unchanged.

My followers began to disappear after three weeks, with the bought accounts either unfollowing or more likely being deleted by Twitter. But the benefits lasted: while my fake followers were present I gained an increased amount of actual followers, my tweets during the time of the experiment had a little more reach, and, if I was so inclined, I could have scored a couple of job interviews.

And, at only four quid a pop, there’s no reason why I couldn’t top up on artificial influencers again.

There is a huge market for these types of services. Freelance online labour is available on dozens of sites like Elance, Fivrr and Mechanical Turk, as well as black hat sites, offering promises of pageviews, back links, Facebook fans, Twitter follows, YouTube views, online reviews and blog comments. These are all metrics that are being looked at to rate the success of PR campaigns and in-house marketing efforts.

There is an alternative way to measure the success of a PR campaign that can’t be gamed, such as aligning PR to business goals: customer-base growth, profit or even positioning the business for acquisition. With the right investment, PR can be a powerful force in supporting real business goals.

But for organisations only bothering to use PR for meaningless pageviews or irrelevant followers, perhaps they deserve to have the success of their campaigns gamed.

There are obvious risks, should a brand purposefully decide to employ such tactics. There are reputational risks, such as embarrassment or accusations of manipulation should you be found out.

But there are benefits, too, for a company to be perceived as an influencer. For an agency or PR staff member who might be after a quick win rather than long term success, the benefits might even outweigh the risks. Shortcuts can be tempting.