In the past few months, there has been increasing dialogue about the techniques some bloggers employ to artificially inflate their social media imprint. Recently, there was a buzz about a number of bloggers who were purportedly purchasing their facebook fans, as evidenced by the large number of followers their pages had from unlikely cities like Ho Chi Minh and Kuala Lumpur. Yesterday, we highlighted StatusPeople, a new web app that fleshes out how many fake twitter followers a person has – with a high number being correlated with purchased followers. I will note that while ShePosts made the decision not to “out” any bloggers with suspicious numbers, our staff did spend a fair amount of time researching both facebook page “popular cities” and twitter “fake followers” of a number of bloggers. We were rather shocked by what we found. It seems a number of bloggers, both big and small, have shelled out some cash to boost their numbers.
But gaming facebook and twitter is not the only tactic being employed. Many are noticing a trend in suspicious comments as well. Recently, I was involved in a sponsored post campaign for a high-profile brand on my personal site. The brand manager was trying to track engagement, and pointed out that my post did not seem to be garnering the same number of comments that other bloggers were getting. She sent me the links to several other bloggers’ posts to illustrate, and as I visited each post, I noted that all of the comments were from other bloggers . . . the same group of 30 or so bloggers, writing effusive comments about the product. If I clicked through and visited the commenting blogger’s site, it was the same story. Sponsored post after sponsored post, with glowing comments from other bloggers. Now, is it possible that coincidentally, the same circle of bloggers just happen to be incredibility enthusiastic about cereal bars, self-tanning lotion, and Wendy’s salad? So enthusiastic that they took time out of their busy schedule to leave a comment on another blog? Perhaps. But more than likely these bloggers are involved in a private facebook group in which they agree to exchange comments on one another’s posts, in an effort to appear like they are getting more engagement. I’ve seen this happening more and more frequently, and as someone who doesn’t do this, it has made me wonder: is this changing what kind of engagement brands should see from sponsored posts? Or worse, is it misleading brands about the response to their product?
Often called “link loves”, many bloggers I know engage in comment swaps to boost their comments. Some bloggers view this behavior as unethical, while others believe it’s a harmless way of showing support to other bloggers. Andrea Updyke of Lil Kid Things doesn’t see the problem with bloggers who support each other through comments:
I love to support my fellow bloggers when they are writing sponsored content. I feel like if you give, you shall receive. But even in this, I want to be genuine. I probably won’t comment on a post about diva cups no matter how much I like you, and I don’t support blind trades and high-fives for big bucks..
Similarly, blogger Roo Ciambriello of Nice Girl Notes views it as friendly support as long as it isn’t a 1:1 required comment swap:
I don’t think it’s much different than a celebrity calling her celebrity friends and saying “HEYY come to the opening of my movie tonight!” Or a group of people going to a concert because they’re friends of people in the opening band. Or me choosing to spend a little extra money at the mom & pop restaurant down the street because I want to support the owners… I don’t think that kind of support is disingenuous. At the same time, I think we shouldn’t write sponsored posts for brands that aren’t a good fit. I try to space out my sponsored posts, write about the brand in my voice, and try to weave it into an interesting post. I get great engagement on those posts (same comments as non-sponsored posts) and I think it’s because I try to stick to that formula… Which should, in theory, eliminate the need to pad the comments section.
Comments aren’t the only way some bloggers mutually promote each other’s sponsored posts. Bloggers also agree to mutually retweet posts or promote each other’s work on facebook. While some may see this as a professional courtesy, it can be frustrating for bloggers who only rely on their blog audience to amplify posts. It could also be potentially deceptive to brand managers who assume that the shares were achieved organically rather than through a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement. However, it would appear that many PR firms are wising up to these practices. Marcy Massura of Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s leading global public relations firms, shares her perspective:
While total numbers of comments, shares and all the other indicators of engagement matter to us, when assessing the success of a past activation or in vetting an influencer for an upcoming brand campaign…we are absolutely wise to the manipulation ‘games’ that are played in the social space. And while it is great to see other influencers supporting each other by commenting on their posts etc. , those comments do little to help broadcast the message of a brand story. Our goal is to achieve authentic expressions from a influencers readership and community- and we are not concerned with a large number of comments alone. And are not concerned at all with comments that say things like ‘good post. visit my site!’ In other words- the old adage ‘quality or quantity’ really applies here. Not all comments are equal. In fact many are useless.
Perhaps even more troubling, rumors have been swirling that certain sites have been paying for comments. While the jury seems to be out on the ethics of bloggers swapping comments on sponsored posts, most bloggers agree that buying comments is a step too far. “Purchasing comments, followers, likes, recommendations on LinkedIn . . . I’m sure there could be some valid business reason for doing this, I suppose, but for me, it takes all the genuine ‘social,’ out of social networking and digital publishing, says blogger Rajean Blomquist. Katja Presnal of Skimbaco Lifestyle worries about how such practices effect blogger credibility:
It is unfortunate to say that the problem with mommy bloggers is mommy bloggers. Our community has worked so hard to establish, and get credibility and yet we often see PR companies and their practices are being mocked for their unprofessional behavior towards parenting bloggers and for their disrespectful PR pitches. Yet day after day we see the unprofessionalism on our side (i.e. purchased comments). The thing about respect and credibility – you have to earn them, and until our community is acting professional as a whole, we can’t blame the PR companies – or our audience – questioning our credibility. Unfortunately people who cheat like this make our entire industry and community look bad. I’m thankful for the new tools developed to keep these in check – and for the people who get to know the bloggers in a deeper level. It is sad to think so many still think real online influence is measured in purely on numbers – especially when those numbers can be rigged.
While buying followers or inflating comments is not illegal, the ethics of such practices are questionable at best. At the end of the day, the goal of such behavior is clearly to mislead others into believing that one’s influence in social media is greater than it really is. My assumption is that most bloggers are inflating comments or social media stats in order to make more money, be it convincing a brand that their twitter following warrants a certain fee for a twitter party, or nabbing a coveted ambassadorship because their sponsored post appear to receive remarkable engagement from readers.
If Target or Best Buy or Chevy paid people to pretend to be authentic fans and write on its Facebook wall, there would be an outcry. Then turn off. As a blogger, your brand should be just as important to ensuring your success as is a multi-national’s. Sponsored posts are valid, because there is disclosure and context, but to ‘pretend’ to LOVE! a brand within the context of leaving a comment that sounds more hollow than a dead tree only leaves your brand tarnished. Your online footprint extends beyond your blog and your authenticity is your currency. Don’t blow it.
Success will come to those who either create quality, original content, or curate it cleverly. Comments are not a metric for determining popularity — they never have been. The giveaway made sure of that.
The 1-9-90 rule has been in play ever since I started in online in 2005 and it is as relevant today as it always has been. Let’s keep it that way and not introduce unrealistic outcomes that don’t add value to brands, bloggers or readers.
1% creates content.
Your value lies in your 90%. Treat it with the respect it deserves and you will be the voice brands turn to when they are done with dodgy. Don’t throw that opportunity away for a few dollars today. You’re better off writing brochure copy.
What do you think about bloggers who inflate their followers or comments? Do you think it’s a harmless practice or a case of poor ethics? Do you think that bloggers who participate in comment exchanges for sponsored material are on par with paid comments, or do you view it differently? Are you concerned that these practices may tarnish the credibility of bloggers as more PR firms catch on?