According to market researchers Nielsen, 1.8 million people - about 40 percent of the population - are interacting via social media in this country. This is compelling evidence of the growing popularity of these channels.
Within businesses, social media now commands an important place in the marketing tactics. Corporations such as Air New Zealand, Telecom and Vodafone consult with businesses on the best ways to grow their audience on social media platforms, as many companies have realised the importance of an active presence on websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and others. Local channel firms are also using these sites in growing numbers.
Promoting a business on social media is attractive because the up front costs are lower than traditional forms of advertising, but it is a competitive environment as businesses jostle for brand awareness and an engaged community of fans and followers.
Consequently, social media advisors and businesses offering to help grow your company’s social network audience numbers are on the rise.
Reseller News’ online search revealed several companies offering to sell packaged bundles of fans and followers. One such venture has established a presence in New Zealand.
Erika Bradley, account manager for Thinksocialmedia.co.nz, says the company is still growing its customer base here, but its main clients are small to medium businesses. “It is mainly the tourism industry and online retailers trying to attract foreign markets,” she says.
On the site, buyers’ options include paying $495 plus GST to get “2500 Facebook Fans” or $349 plus GST for “2500 Twitter Followers”. Bradley says she knows of companies who create fake accounts but Thinksocialmedia’s service is “manual and personal”. She says all of its followers are real people with a genuine interest in the business they are following. Promotion to gain the followers offered to buyers is done through “over one-hundred social media platforms”, says Bradley, adding that this promotion is an ongoing task requiring a considerable time investment. The account manager says her company has never fallen short of the number of followers it offers to sell to a business.
The company’s terms on its website state users “will be delighted by using our services” and that Thinksocialmedia.co.nz will “work hard on all requests”. The terms state it does not guarantee that all fans or followers will meet the customer’s exact requirements nor that fans, followers and ‘likes’ will join within the quoted timeframe. “We accept no liability for deadlines that are missed and for any costs you incur,” the terms say.
Auckland-based social media specialist Cate Owen says buying followers is neither legitimate nor helpful for businesses. “It would be like purchasing a list of unused email addresses simply so you can appear to have a number of people signed up to your email list. It simply doesn’t equate to sales or engagement,” she argues.
Furthermore, Owen wonders if these packages of fans or followers will give businesses a genuine audience. “I believe it is highly improbable that a company can have thousands of actual New Zealand Twitter users ready to follow and engage with a business at their request,” she says. “You want your social media platforms to be alive with a passionate community that is there because they want to be there - not because you’ve paid them.”
For Owen, the number of followers a person or company has on a social media platform such as Twitter or Facebook should always be a matter of quality over quantity. Owen posted her opinion on Socialmedianz.com, which resulted in a written reply on the Thinksocialmedia.co.nz website, in which a post by “admin” disagreed with that view and added that “having a Twitter account with no or little followers is worthless to business”.
Owen says companies need to engage with customers through social media platforms and make themselves known to the right audience. “Businesses that buy followers from these kinds of websites might as well be flushing their money down the toilet,” she claims. “It would be much more prudent to invest in Facebook advertising, which can cost as little as 40 cents a ‘like’ - and you can be sure they’re real people behind the accounts.”
Keith Norris, director of public affairs for the Marketing Association, also wonders if followers offered as part of sold bundles have given their consent to be part of that business. “We would regard this as a very poor business practice, which would almost certainly not meet the strict conditions of our industry Codes of Practice,” Norris believes. “I also doubt that such lists would meet the requirements of the Unsolicited Electronic Communications (anti-spam) Act, which requires the consent of the individual to receive commercial messages or principal 3 of the Privacy Act [which refers to the collection of information from subject].”
According to Norris, the Marketing Association is currently working on the development of best practice guidelines for social media. These guidelines will focus on businesses being transparent when communicating through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. “The core values of honesty and trust in the message-sender must be upheld, or a business will damage its brand image rather than enhance its reputation. Social media users are very quick to condemn any activities that they consider to be underhand or dishonest,” says Norris.
Genevieve Gill, an Auckland commercial and IT lawyer, says the rise in social media networks as promotional vehicles for companies has brought with it new security and privacy questions, some of which are yet to be addressed.
“Some of these [social media] services are designed to create the impression that you have a more established reputation than you actually do. There is an integrity issue around this,” says Gill. As well, she questions whether buyers of followers can be assured the followers are real people or whether they are part of a farmed database.
Rae Nield, a solicitor specialising in marketing law and a columnist in this publication, believes it is important to establish whether or not there is value in businesses offering social media consultancy. Nield says it is important that any company working to develop a company’s social media strategy, makes it clear who they are and what their terms are.
Gill claims some social media consultancy services are “nothing more than a more sophisticated version of the traditional web-based services to get your website ranking high on Google”. She argues companies using these services are “buying themselves a reputation. It’s very difficult for businesses to build an online reputation. I think it’s a bit of a numbers game,” she says.
Simon Young, director of social media consultancy sy, which consults with businesses on the best ways to grow their audience on social media platforms, says he understands the appeal of buying packages of followers. “It is easy for businesses to go for whatever is easiest to measure.” Young says the best option is to grow follower numbers organically, but says this can take some time.
He believes buying bundles of followers isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. “You might get a spike in growth [of followers] but it doesn’t translate into sales.”
Local experts’ tips for a good social media strategy
1. If you choose to use the services of social media consultants, make sure you read their terms and conditions and understand exactly what your money is being spent on.
2. Think of your social media accounts as a constant “work in progress”. Update them often – but not too often – and actively engage in conversations with your audience.
3. Don’t be just a corporate brand. The most successful examples of local companies using social media are those who make it personal.
4. Don’t make it all about sales.
5. Understand (and accept) that the return on investment is not immediate.