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.