Social Startup Faux Pas: Fake Followers, Engagers, and Other Turnoffs

by Lucy Leiderman | Culture

User-generated content drives a lot of new products in today’s tech industry.

And why not? It’s great. By acquiring users, companies get access to practically unlimited quantities of original, rich content that does wonders for SEO and user retention. Well, not quite. The thing is, the social structure of content creating and sharing websites is quickly evolving.

Consider the Internet of 10 years ago. It was largely a one-way conversation. You find what you want, and then the Internet gives it to you. Think of it more as "downloading information more than uploading it."

With social media and recent innovation, this distribution of information is evening out. People upload as much (often more) information than they download. Now, with so many companies vying for the user’s time in creating content, focus has shifted to, “What’s in it for me?” and thus the problem of user retention develops.

When test-driving a new social product, the majority of users don’t participate beyond the sign up. On Twitter, 95% of content is made up by 5% of accounts. AirBnB has grown 250% year over year but at least 85% of users are completely inactive (never posting or booking). Companies that have seen huge growth (Etsy, Pinterest, etc.) still have many signups that don’t develop into active users.

And thus, the race for the hearts and minds of the masses begins. Companies do a lot to retain and engage their users, but many "under the table" dealings may go sour.

Here are three faux pas you'll want to avoid:

1. Beefing up your social media: Starting at zero is tough. What you don’t want to do is buy Twitter lists or followers. Apart from negating everything social media is supposed to do for you, you’ll lose your ability to have discussions and build your company’s network and outreach through real users.

If you’re thinking, “Well at least I’ll look like a professional and that will help me get even more likes and follows!” think again. There are plenty of free tools, widgets and apps where anyone can enter your Twitter handle and find out just how many followers you’ve bought. My favourite is Status People.

120,000 followers doesn’t look so impressive for a CEO when 80% are fake, now does it?

2. Engager bots: There are so many problems with engager bots. Where to begin? Since the Internet has not evolved to this extent quite yet, bots have no self-awareness, comprehension of syntax or any kind of human understanding.

Championed by the online dating industry, these bots just can’t replace people. Despite your best developer telling you “don’t worry about it,” very few people are going to confuse engager bots with real people. And most people can figure out that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. What do I mean by this?

Social startup "A" is a music sharing website, where people upload their favourite tunes to share. They start noticing that people upload once, and then don’t come back. They find that with sharing personal taste (such as music), people are more likely to desire an audience than become somebody’s audience. So, instead of sending out auto-responders with engaging info and tips, they send out bots to "like" people’s content.

But wait! These bots look a little suspicious. They haven’t uploaded anything of their own, but like an awful lot of other people’s content. They also have weird name/number user IDs and rarely have a photo or adequate description. Something’s fishy about this.

Regardless of if it gets a user back on the site to check out who liked their content/profile, having bots liking, rating and reviewing is usually a turn off.

3. Human bots: More persistent and apt to trolling then their robotic counterparts, human bots can make a company’s reputation go down the drain very quickly. How? Well they’re usually interns or inexperienced in the subtle art of Internet conversation. They’re also more prone to be labeled spammers. What is a human bot?

Social startup "B" is a photography sharing platform, relying on their users to load images onto their site in order to make it a content rich product offering. So, as part of their marketing, they decide to go on every photography forum and general ones like Yahoo Answers and Quora, and answer any and all applicable queries with responses pointing users to their site.

You’ll quickly find the only attention you’re getting online is that you’re spamming, and regardless of the saying, there is such a thing as bad press. Negative reviews may lead to a spike in traffic, but it’s definitely not favourable towards retaining users or growing your product.

Avoiding the siren call of manipulating social interaction is tough. There are a lot of technical solutions, but companies that have managed to succeed in the past decade have largely been proponents of "getting what you give."

Tactics like incentivizing sharing (Couchsurfing), gamifying original content (Quora) or even picking on social viral ‘buttons’ like nostalgia (Instagram) have gone a long way towards creating hubs of original content where bots are not only absent, but unnecessary.

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Lucy Leiderman

Lucy Leiderman

Lucy Leiderman is the Director of Digital Strategy at Pilot PMR, an award-winning Toronto PR firm. She is also the co-founder of Canto Labs, a dev shop active internationally. With a passion for geomarketing, she has worked and consulted with industry leaders in military security organizations, non-profits, start-ups and more. She is a fan of metaphors and pop culture references. more

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