Fake Followers: The Social Media Brick Wall Effect vs. The Herd Effect

By Dr. Todd Bacile | August 16, 2013

The Brick Wall EffectBuying Twitter followers, Facebook Likes, and other artificial means to create a facade of a large brand audience happens every day in our electronic marketing environment. While I don’t condone this type of activity, it is a natural extension for marketing managers who are trying to support the popularity of their social media presence. However, firms need to be careful because creating artificial engagement often leads nowhere in the long run. Or does it?

The Social Media Brick Wall Effect

The social media brick wall effect is a label I use to describe the outcome of buying artificial engagement. The going rate to buy 1,000 Twitter followers starts at $5. With a few dollars a person or brand can build thousands of connections to their brand in less than a day. But, if a company purchases these followers what comes afterward?

The answer: nothing. No engagement. No retweets. No organic consumer discussions or recommendations. It is as if a brand has run into a dead-end brick wall without any two-way communication.

What are you really buying when you purchase followers or likes in bulk? A lot of these social media accounts are empty shells. The person – or computer algorithm – that created each fake account does not actively manage it or produce meaningful content. This means there is never any engagement or discussion about the brand. This is the antithesis of social media: the brick wall effect is non-social with zero engagement.

Status People Faker Scores

Some people may argue, ‘But, if I buy a few followers nobody will ever know. Then I can build with real followers.‘ Maybe so, maybe not! Services such as Status People’s Faker Scores can inspect any Twitter account to generate an estimate of how many followers are fake (i.e. bought).

Faker ScoresRun your own Twitter handle through Faker Scores. What percentage of your following is fake?

And when people or brands are outed regarding a fraudulent social media following it can make the headlines! Brands or people in the spotlight have been accused or busted for buying a large following, which then often creates defensive, negative PR surrounding the person or organization. Instead of engaging with other people to create meaningful relationships, energy is spent defending a silly ploy.

The Value of Fake Followers

A recent publication in the research journal Science empirically showed how a news story that planted an initial, single “like” (in the form of an up-vote) versus zero likes on a news aggregation site significantly increased engagement by others. The reason was posited to be a herd effect: people will like or follow something that other people already like. This research did not examine fake likes or followers; however, the results suggest that planting some fake likes may cause other people to engage. If someone liked it, then it might be worthwhile.

The reason fake engagement may produce some value is due to the nature of vanity metrics. Vanity metrics are measures such as the number of downloads, page views, or “Likes”. Vanity metrics are easy to manipulate and do not always correlate to measures that have business value, such as sales and profits. The measures may produce some useful information, but more often than not are superficial in nature.

The following quote sums up the limitations of a vanity metric:

A useful metric is both accurate (in that it measures what it says it measures) and aligned with your goals. Making your numbers go up (any numbers–your bmi, your blood sugar, your customer service ratings) is pointless if the numbers aren’t related to why you went to work this morning.” – Seth Godin

Whether the brick wall effect or the herd effect trumps one or the other remains to be seen. Social media research will most likely delve deeper into these effects.

Todd Bacile (@toddbacile) is a Marketing Professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Social Media Marketing Magazine ranks him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. All questions or comments are welcome and will be responded to!


3 thoughts on “Fake Followers: The Social Media Brick Wall Effect vs. The Herd Effect

  1. Great article lot of insight. My issue with fake followers is that these same accounts can follow anyone, specially those not on “private.” Because of the exposure fake accounts can receive from large brands, these large brands are more vulnerable. It is bothersome for those brands/accnts not wanting fake followers. Their real vs fake percentage can be skewed. A simple tool twitter can use is simply erase inactive accounts.


    • You bring up a great point, Jonathan. Some fake accounts run off an automated algorithm to target social media accounts that use certain keywords in status updates or profiles. In these cases, a person or brand who is targeted by fake follows or likes is not seeking to purchase artificial engagement. A simple Google query on ‘remove fake followers’ will produce numerous easy-to-use tools to find and remove most fake or inactive followers.


  2. Pingback: Todd Bacile's Marketing Blog | Facebook and Business Ethics: Five Questions to Ponder

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