Channel 4 last night aired its eagerly anticipated – if you weren't featured that is – episode on the scamming that goes on within social media marketing, highlighting how brands can unnaturally grow their online engagement figures and the practices that rogue agencies and celebrities undertake to promote products, despite the regulations now in place. The Drum highlights some reaction following the show across the agency sector.
What Dispatches shows is that the days of rogue 'social media gurus' employing unscrupulous tactics to play the numbers game for their clients is hopefully coming to a very welcome end.
It frustrates me to think that there are still brand side marketers who wouldn't question a sudden rise in fans/followers on their social media estate and who seemingly don't value the real compelling reason for social media communications in building brand loyalty, genuine engagement and advocacy.
The real message from the show tonight is that the consumer is waking up to this fakery. Personally I think this is a good thing - social media is not an essential channel for every brand. If your message or ads are crap, fake or disingenuous they are just as likely to be ignored by the consumer in the social space as they are on any other channel.
To be honest I thought it was a pretty droll affair. 'Companies buy fans' is nothing new and not very interesting. 'Celebs tweeting for free stuff', ditto. Just because they add a #ad hashtag makes it all alright?
What next? Brands exposed for asking agencies to game Google to appear higher in search rankings?
Apparently, Dispatches is Channel 4's "award-winning investigative current affairs programme". I don't think last night'soffering will be troubling the BAFTA judges this year.
We were approached earlier this year by an FMCG brand who wanted to buy Facebook and Twitter fans. It's crazy that senior directors of such a company would put that in a brief just to reach a 'number'. And that was their only rationale, reaching x level of 'fans'.
We put forward our argument of why this was a bad idea and what they should do instead. We didn't win the brief but we did the right thing.
Last night's programme definitely started a wider conversation about the lack of transparency our industry sometimes experiences. If you looked at the conversation on Twitter last night, about half the people were saying "So what?" while the other half were legitimately mad about what they had just been exposed to. For most of us that have been working in social for some time, sadly, it's not new news. Paid social is an incredibly-important part of today's marketing mix, but false likes and clicks only hurt the industry and brands connected to them in the end.
The big message that I hope brands took from this is they need to not only trust their agencies to deliver results, but must also trust them for being ambassadors for their brand. At the end if the day, it's the brand that is held responsible - shouldn't they want to have transparency about practices and ethics all the way? Ask questions - the hard ones - and work with partners who really get your business, brand, and goals.
Despite its tabloid approach, last night’s Dispatches exposed some important truths our industry needs to urgently deal with.
It’s clear that agencies that don’t really get social media are taking illegal shortcuts to achieve KPIs, either by buying fake fans or through non-disclosed paid-for celebrity endorsement, without their clients’ knowledge.
I urge the Advertising Standards Authority and the Office of Fair Trading to crackdown on the offenders, and for the relevant trade bodies – the ISBA, IPA & IAB, to take firm action to ensure that clients are aware of the legal risks these unscrupulous agencies are exposing them to.
This issue risks unfairly bringing the whole industry into disrepute, despite the top tier of specialist agencies leading the way through a pioneering and ethical approach to social media marketing.
Brands encouraging influential people to use their products is nothing new and the rules in the Twitter era are just the same as they always were: if the pairing of brand and influential person is well thought-out and credible, everyone wins; if it's not, it can come across as opportunistic and crass.
This isn't helpful to the world of Social, which still has significant challenges in proving it's worth, and frankly increases the imperative for agencies and brands to develop methodologies to correlate real brand value with social media based engagement.
Statistics have also been showing that Facebook's core younger profile audience is becoming less engaged, instead moving towards more private, discrete platforms. News like this will confirm their feelings and increase their cynicism.
Let's make no bones about it, buying likes/followers on any network for any reason is dishonest, unprofessional and lazy. It's fraud. You're cheating your clients or stakeholders and you're cheating your public because you are fooling people into thinking you are more popular than you are.
It's also incredibly lazy comms work because digital engagement – like any meaningful relationship – is built up over time and with honesty in mind. I don't want a relationship with anyone who lies and cheats to get my attention. Earn it the proper way – by respecting me as a customer.
It would help of course if the PR and digital engagement industries could agree on proper metrics and measurement for the digital sector and move far beyond Likes/Pins/Followers – all of which are little more than new fangled ways of having AVEs. This is something for the CIPR and PRCA to look into.
There's an element of education here as well though because if a client/stakeholder gives the digital communication team the right levels of access they can go and calculate proper measurements like ROI and make every piece of social media and digital engagement is aligned to profitable business goals. It's not rocket science unless you're doing the social media for NASA.
What the industry needs to be careful of is not being overly dismissive of what was said in case it becomes one of those stereotypical myths around the PR industry – of which there are far too many negative ones already.