Rest assured that there aren’t too many Facebook employees that “Like” VirtualBagel.
That’s because VirtualBagel was a fake profile that the BBC set-up as a part of a scathing expose on the value of Facebook advertising. What they found was pretty extraordinary – a portion of “Likes” obtained through the Facebook ad product were evidently fake. There were a disproportionate number of fans from Egypt and the Phillipines, a disproportionate number of underage fans, and many accounts “Liked” over 3000 brands.
What provoked the BBC’s investigation was the experience of a “social media marketing consultant” whose client refused to pay the bill for the Facebook ads because they were so ineffective. (there’s probably a lesson about both consultants and receivables in that) When Facebook was presented with the information and asked for a refund, they responded that the advertising wasn’t targeted enough and that Facebook hadn’t seen fake accounts as problematic. The targeting issue may be a fair point for a company to dispute to their “social media consultant” – I’d be a little miffed, too if it turned out that my British product was being advertised throughout the world without regards to who was targeted. (I guess I’d also be upset that I had to withhold payment to take a deeper look at the audience he was building for my brand). But in regards to the fake accounts, would a reasonable person have filtered 13-17 year olds and users in Egypt and the Philippines because of the higher likelihood that they would reach fake fans? Absolutely not.
Facebook may be more complicit in this than they reveal. The 13-17 year-olds, the accounts from Egypt and the Philippines, and the accounts with 3000+ fans are all very blatant signals of fake accounts. If you were planning to deceive someone, you would probably make it less obvious – so the greater question isn’t about the outlying accounts but how many of the regular accounts were also fake? Facebook probably understands that this is a huge problem, but for litigious reasons there’s no conceivable way that they’ll admit it. The closest that they’ll come is to admit that 5-6 percent of their accounts are fake or duplicate, and then dismiss that those tens of millions of accounts have any influence in the network.
For brands, this information underpins the need to use metrics measuring tangible actions, especially when using Facebook advertising. Clearly the number of “Likes” isn’t very informing, and the same is true for Twitter as well as the social network du jour on any given jour. The sale of Digg yesterday for a paltry $500K substantiates how cleverly people can game these networks, and how important it is for brands to take responsibility to look beyond the artifice and understand whether these tools are effective or not.
The other option would be find a social media consultant willing to give you net 90 terms on your Facebook ads. If your ads aren’t effective maybe they can go to the BBC and figure out what’s really going on.