Social Media Communities: Digital Potemkin Villages?

Social media stats riddled with fake accounts and cipher profilesMarketers like to talk about the 90-9-1 rule of web engagement: For every 100 people who are online, one person creates content … 9 people comment on that content … and the remaining 90 may lurk and read, but never participate in any other way.

The more we learn about social media engagement, the more we’re seeing the same phenomenon at work. To wit, studies of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are finding far fewer numbers of “real” and “active” users than the gross statistics would suggest.

Alarmingly, these evaluations are finding that as many as half of social media accounts could be fake, or are ones that contain no user profiles.

And if there isn’t a user profile, of what value is a social media account to marketers? After all, it’s the information in these user profiles that provides the data for targeted advertising and marketing campaigns.

Just how extensive is the problem?

Let’s start with Google+, one of the latest entrants into the social media sweepstakes. Kevin Kelly, an industry specialist, published author and former editor of Wired magazine, recently conducted an analysis of the ~560,000 people who have him in their Google+ “circles.”

Reviewing a random sample of these ~560,000 users, he found that the majority of them had not made a single post … had not posted their image … and/or had never made a single comment.

More specifically, here’s what Kelly found:

Only ~30% had ever posted anything
 ~6% were “spammers”
 Fully ~36% were “ghosts” … accounts lacking even a user profile

Evidently, Google+ is taking “ghostwriting” to new heights.

What about Twitter?

Several editors at Popular Mechanics magazine reported recently that only ~25% of their Twitter followers were “real.” About half were identified as fake users or spammers.

Twitter may be tweeting away … but how many people are actually listening and who’s actually engaging?

Who’s gaming the system here? Clearly, there are reasons why people are trying to show higher social media engagement than is actually occurring. Marketing campaigns love to cite metrics where the number of followers and “likes” is high. It’s great for bragging rights … and sometimes financially beneficial, too, when performance goals are met and monetary payouts triggered.

And today there are plenty of ways for people to find services that will jumpstart campaigns by garnering thousands of followers or “likes” … all for a tidy fee, of course.

It would be nice if the social media platforms would step up to the plate and show some transparency in what’s going on. It’s highly likely that these platforms have developed sophisticated ways to pinpoint which of their accounts are real … versus those that are contrived.

But will they be publishing their findings anytime soon? Don’t hold your breath.

Until marketers can get a better handle on the “real facts” behind the elevated engagement numbers being hyped, it’s best to view any such stats with a jaundiced eye.

Here’s a suggestion: Take any stats you might hear about page “likes,” viral video views and the like … and discount them by a massive percentage – say, by 50%. Then, you might be approaching the reality.

Over time, we’ll probably learn more about “authenticity” when it comes to tracking true activity and engagement in the social realm. Marketers would do well to demand it. It’s just not clear how soon it’ll happen.

Until then, keep your antenna up and apply caveats all over the place.