We live in an unparalleled age of social contact, where connections have become capital in their own right, and to build a brand–either personal or otherwise–requires the cultivation of those connections.
At the outset, this may not seem a terribly new insight. After all, brand building and business building have long relied on social relationships, though those were once built in coffee shops or on golf courses. And the element of change most strongly driving the commodification of contact? Social media.
An article published in The New York Times over the weekend reported on “social media’s black market,” which relies on a longstanding principle called ‘social capital.’
The social sciences have a rich history of tracking the concept of social capital–the idea that individuals embedded in social networks are in fact unique resources, which can be used to a variety of ends. The concept was first applied to media studies in the 1940’s, and the scientists who began referring to social relationships as ‘resources’ would be shocked to see how much more right they have become.
In the modern age, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a more apt descriptor of social media than “individuals embedded in social networks,” which sort of means that spending time posting fire selfies to Instagram may just be a method of building social capital, where we put our best photos in the bank and pray those accrue interest in the form of other people’s approval.
The Times’ report highlighted a deeply important, and deeply troubling, aspect of our reliance on the modern social network in Digital PR: It’s not as real as it seems. Some of us now at 4media understood that years ago.
The report investigated a company called Devumi, which has collected millions of dollars in a global marketplace for social media fraud, something the paper called a “legally gray area.” But what should be more troubling to the Digital PR professional than the average person is the regularity with which some social influencers may be “faking it.”
Put plainly, Devumi sells followers to people that are essentially carbon copies of real accounts. To continue my bank metaphor, these accounts are the counterfeit currency of the social web–they spend just like real money, until you hold them to the light. And at that point, it may be too late.
The trouble for our business is the speed and value with which the model for influencer marketing has emerged. How can a company be certain of how much it ought pay an influencer, when that influencer has, in fact, paid for influence that they don’t really have?
The Times reported that as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users could be bots designed to simulate real people. And it’s not just Twitter that’s facing the issue. Mashable reported last year that Facebook has as many as 270 million fraudulent or duplicate accounts.
Some influencers exposed in the report had purchased between hundreds of followers, and hundreds of thousands of followers, and it seemed no sector was immune. Business, government, film and television, adult entertainment, athletes, marketing executives and even members of the media have all purchased fake followers through Devumi.
Multiple studies have reported that local broadcast news is the most trusted source, beating out local newspapers by a slim margin. And do you know what’s great about local television, even beyond people’s willingness to trust it? Influencers are presented for real, and in the flesh. In other words, it’s much harder to fake.
Getting an influencer in front of a wide television audience has a great number of benefits that we can’t necessarily associate with social. It bears repeating, people genuinely trust their local newscast, and by extension they tend to trust the people who appear on it. And a well-presented piece of earned media coverage, appearing on a local station trusted by the public, can seem just as genuine as a recommendation from a friend online.
I’m not advocating for the abandonment of the current model, but I am suggesting there are alternative routes that modern marketers and PR professionals may not be giving the credence they deserve. At 4media, we specialize in earning unique local and national placements for in-the-flesh influencers, who can drive your brand into trusted media spaces and in front of millions.
This isn’t the end of social, but we’re nearing the medium’s first wreckoning, and astute digital PR professionals need to pay attention to the associations their clients are making now, before it becomes even more difficult.