The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

Summary: Increasing numbers of studies of social networks point to much smaller numbers of real and active users -- sharply reducing the value of the platforms, and social media marketing.


The numbers of users reported by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other sites, are closely watched. They reveal trends in adoption and they are one of the few public metrics available to analysts trying to assign value to companies preparing an initial public offering.

But how accurate are these numbers?

In some anecdotal cases, the number of users, active and actual, could be as small as one-third. And nearly one-half of user accounts could be fake or contain no user profiles.

No user profiles means very little usable data for marketing or advertising campaigns. This is a huge hole in social media platforms.

It means corporate marketers and advertisers will not be able to reach and engage with the numbers they expect, resulting in increased costs and a discouraging ROI.

If corporations aren't able to use social media to reach large numbers of consumers, the value of platforms such as Facebook will be severely diminished.

How large is this problem of fake and empty user profiles?

Here is an analysis performed by Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Wired magazine and a book author, on 560,000 people that have him in their G+ "circles."

Where did these half million people come from? And who are they?

With the help of my research assistant Camille Cloutier, we randomly sampled my great circle...

Conclusion: 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.

The Technium: The Ciphers of Social Media

He and his assistant discovered that only 30% published anything on G+ and only 6% were "outright spammers." But the largest group he classed as,

Ghosts. 36% had not even filled out a profile.

Mr Kelly pointed to a study by two journalists at Popular Mechanics that only 25% of their Twitter followers were real, and 49% were fake or spam.

And this is a widespread problem:

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claims to have 1.3 million followers. But last August a group at Indiana University did an analysis of some of the 2012 Presidential candidates and found that 76% of Gingrich's 1.3 million Twitter accounts lacked a profile biography.

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

This has given rise to a growing services sector where it's easy to buy "friends" and "followers," by the thousands, and "likes" by the tens of thousands, for a low fee. This can jumpstart a marketing campaign if it makes it onto a top trending list. Buying such services will also help contractors meet performance goals set by clients and trigger payments. It can be a lucrative arbitrage.

The result however, is considerable inflation in the numbers of users of all the major social networks and platforms.

The operators of the networks: Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc, must know who is real and who isn't. They have usage data that shows telltale signs of a fake account. They also know how much information a user has disclosed, and how many user profiles are empty.

What's not known is how they count the many types of users, how rigorous is their analysis? There is no transparency on the single most important pool of information for their commercial customers.

Accurate data on social media users is essential. It's the foundation of all successful social media marketing and advertising campaigns: the precise targeting of related groups of users with their interests.

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.

Clearly, there is a lot more research to be done but equally clear is the fact that you can't trust -- by a truly massive margin -- the numbers for things such as "likes" of a corporate Facebook page; followers of a corporate Twitter account; numbers of views of a "viral" video, etc.

It used to be said that in advertising, 50% of your budget is wasted but you don't know which half.

In social media, 50% of your marketing could be wasted trying to reach fake or empty profile users.

Or to put it another way, your chances of social engagement for your marketing campaign are immediately cut in half, right out of the gate!

With the possibility that nearly 50% of social network users could be fake or empty user accounts -- this is a massive issue for social media marketing.

Social media marketing mavens and gurus will have to reign in their rhetoric and reset expectations for social marketing campaigns. But will they?

Will they write blog posts and tweet about this important issue? Will they be authentic in their communication of these issues, as they so often advise their clients to be?

Or will the social media marketing promoters line up with the platforms and avoid this issue? Both groups share a common interest: selling social media marketing programs.

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • Zuckerberg's Elephant in the room

    We all knew it, when will advertisers understand it?
    • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

      @ben.rattigan I am laughing at the IPO. Its gonna flop just like Linked In will, Groupon will, etc... The second dot com bust is upon us. Call it the social media bust!!!
      • Actually it probably will not first.

        @VoiceOfLogic Mr Zuckerberg and his pals will walk away with billions. the bubble will burst but they will have gotten theirs first.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    I would say that some networks, such as LinkedIn, are a safer bet when it comes to a users profile etc. Regardless, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to networks like Google+, many people created a profile because they were prompted as part of something they use everyday (their e-mail and search engine). It's very clear to me that the numbers G+ are touting, aren't even close to accurate. Marketers need to take note, innovate, and actually engage to find nice segments to target efficiently..
    • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

      @casshallacker You'd be surprised by LinkedIn. I get a lot of folks claiming to be in our company but most are not in the HR database. Fakes are a big social media problem.
  • That's because they are time-suckers

    It all seems fun at first, then the realization that I have better things to do with my time sets in. It used to be called the "MySpace-slide". Now people care so little about social sites they don't even brand the phenomenon.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    Actually Tom this isn't a massive issue for social media marketing, because legitimate consultants and advisors have understood this dynamic for years. Only fools use fan and follower counts as success metrics. As with all marketing, in social marketing the wise measure behavior, not aggregation. Moving the 25% of "real" account to act is the name of the game.
    • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

      @jaybaer you nailed it.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    To Casshallacker's point, I know my 1100 LinkedIn contacts are real because I have met them all. Same with my facebook friends - it's only people I have met. If 1/2 or even 3/4 of my hundreds of Twitter followers are ghosts & spammers, it's still a tool worth using as if I can even passively connect to a few people once in awhile, that's more than I would have gotten without it!
    Patrick Donohue @DealPen
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    I can hire someone in India that will provide me with 5,000 Facebook accounts, and have them ready for me by next week. These accounts could include a profile pic, and bio info. They can be targeted how I like (for example, I could have 5,000 office workers in New York, or 5,000 college students in California). Of course, every one of these accounts would be fake and would used to get "Likes" and game the system. The reality is that there are a lot of people out there that can rapidly deliver large numbers of fake accounts, and there are a lot of people willing to hire people to provide this service.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    Take a look at the "real" names on many of these accounts. How many people do you know who actually have the name "Dart Maul" or "Dart Vader" printed on their birth certificate?

    Until Facebook and other social networking sites require a full background check on each and every person who signs up or they require you to pay money and sign up with a credit card in your own name, my own personal experience is that probably north of 90% of the accounts are fake.

    AOL understood this phenomenon and allowed you to have multiple screen names under the same master account -- those might represent real people, or they might represent difference facets that a single person might want to present to a different community.

    And even if social networking sites did require full background checks, or required you to pay real money for your account with a credit card in your own name, there would still be a lot of fraud going on, it just wouldn't be orders of magnitude worse than existing levels of fraud in credit card transactions.

    They tell you they want you to sign up with only your real name, but then they turn a blind eye to virtually all the abuse they know is going on, because that pumps their numbers up. You are helping them game the system of who has the most subscribers, and therefore they are willing to let you continue to game whatever systems they might have. They'll occasionally make examples of someone, but they won't touch the worst offenders because those are actually their best customers.
  • Do not forget international users

    And then you forget the international users. <br>Most of the world do not have credit cards. And international users have very strange names. <br>I, for one, having been born in Russia, and having lived in US for 20 years, have at least two legit names - one in my native Russian Cyrillic, and another one in English. And in English, I have my maden name, and my married name. So which one am I supposed to use? How will my old Russian school mates be able to find me if I post under my 'real' married name spelled in English? <br>What is the purpose of the social media if people can not find each other?<br>As for the advertisers, I guess they just need to do their homework better. They need to ask not only for 'total' users, but also for the 'tires' of users - how many use this network once a week, how many post at least once a week and so on.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    Rest assured that the folks at Facebook are not only aware of this issue, they are probably responsible for a good bit of it. More "users" = more $$, so they have absolutely no interest in curbing fake accounts. Every account, fake or not, is just more cash in their pockets
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    One "fake" account type not covered in the story are the "gamer" accounts set up by real people that do not want to pollute their real account with gamer friends and game related posts. Some "real" people have 4+ gamer accounts with lots of "friends", a profile of sorts and activity making there detection as ghosts unlikely. I think the real account number is 1/3 or less of the total.
  • STOP IT!!!

    As long as advertizers are busy spamming social networks the rest of us get off easy. :-)
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    Finally, someone dares to admit the truth. Anyone who is running some type of online registration system knows, most users will submit garbage just to see how far they will go or get what they want, and then never come back. Easily 9 out of 10. Of the 10% who do come back, 1 out of 10 may become a regular user, the rest are causal users trying to promote themselves, take a peak or loosely keep in touch. That leaves us with maybe 1/100 of hardcore users, possibly less. These numbers are no different than traditional marketing numbers where roughly only 0.1% to 1% of exposure potentially lead to some form of action, not the 10% or more some overly optimistic campaigns would expect. So, out of say 1 billion registrations, you probably can expect between 10 and 100 millions that are as active as can be or daily users. For 1 million registrations, that leaves you with numbers in the range of 10 to 100 thousands truly active users if that. We have seen bloated numbers repeatedly in the past in various industries, why should it be any different now? The rush to get investors turnover quickly leads to unsustainable "growth" that is more akin to ponzi schemes waiting for the next round if you ask me. To try selling that to intelligent advertisers you are going to need proof. And when you don't, the bubble burst and a bunch of people go home with their bank account full of other people's money. We've seen it many times but we never learn, it seems there is always someone to foot the bill. The downside is that the practice not only gives a bad name to others who had to fight over capitalized competition, they also inherit the bad publicity. Don???t get me wrong, social networks are wonderful ideas, it is the way business is sometimes being conducted that I???m not so sure about. IMHO
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    A lot of companies are simply interested in raw numbers rather than getting quality results, and this is why there are so many services listed at that promote Facebook pages. Many of these services are well known for inflating page numbers by providing fake fans or bots to pages. The best precaution you can take to make sure that your personal data doesn't get leaked out through these services is to make sure you're not friending random people on Facebook that you don't know in real life. That would cut down on the vast majority of privacy issues, if people followed common sense advice like using privacy settings and thinking with your head about who you're friending and what apps you're installing.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    This is spot on. We've been telling clients for years that chasing the top line numbers is a fool's errand. All that matters for us and our brands is that we can reach the people who love us, and give them more reasons to love us. We track a number of engagement metrics to give us a relative sense of how we're doing, but treating Social Media like Paid Media is a huge mistake.
  • Great article

    Thanks for writing and sharing.

    As a social media strategist I advise clients to de-emphasize the number of followers but instead look at the quality of the people following them and the quality of the conversations they are having. Real people will respond to discussions, and that is where the value is. Indeed that's why I don't call it "social media marketing" at all, but rather a conversation.

    If you are not engaging people actively, and proactively, in conversations you are just yelling into the wind.
  • RE: The hollow emptiness in social media numbers - most accounts are fake or empty

    Inflated user numbers are undoubtedly a reality, but the only real victims of the deceit are the investors in those companies that do the inflating. We've known for some time that likes, follows and so on are lousy peformance indicators in a social strategy. A strategy that starts with social listening, and that drives active engagement with prospects via social channels, is going to have its own performance metrics that have nothing to do with the claimed number of overall users for a particular site or channel.<br><br>That said, it's always a good idea to hose down some of the hysteria that surrounds social media - which sometimes looks alarmingly like the hysteria that surrounded virtual worlds just a couple of years ago. Who's allocating spend to 2nd Life these days...?
    Simon Wellings