Lord Sugar and the naked truth about social media

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Alan Sugar may be lording it over The Apprentice Series 13 on BBC1, but he’s wrong to think his Twitter success makes him a major media force.

In a video interview, broken earlier this month by The Drum (see above), he said: “Since I’ve been on Twitter I found out that I’m more powerful than the printed media.”

Up to a point, Lord Sugar. Dominance and prominence on social media don’t come sealed in a vacuum, and while Twitter followers are a powerful asset, we’re not talking computer hardware here.

Social media is a complex world of influencers, interactions and algorithms where the real power rarely lies with one person.

It’s almost impossible to make a big impression on social media without leverage. Strategies like using popular hashtags or riding on the coattails of popular accounts will only get you so far.

In Lord Sugar’s case, his Twitter prominence links directly to his starring role on primetime traditional media, BBC1. To believe otherwise is to step into the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The naked truth is this: it’s the five million people tuning in each week to watch him on the BBC who help power up his Twitter account.

Social media feeds off traditional media a lot. The biggest names on Twitter and Facebook like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have all made an initial connection with their audience elsewhere using traditional media distribution platforms.

Meanwhile, the two worlds are merging. YouTubers who led the democratic revolution from their bedrooms are now going mainstream, expanding their teams to produce the vast amounts of content required to build and maintain their vast volumes of fans.

They're like sharks. If they stop swimming, they die. Content generation is their lifeblood, and now online stars like Zoella and Joe Wicks are straddling both camps with traditionally published books and product lines.

Quite soon both worlds will morph into one with social becoming the interactive component of traditional content, such as films, delivered through digital platforms.

Social media’s big draw is its ability to take you up close and personal to whoever you choose, like an immediate 24/7 fanzine.

People craving intimacy with their icons don’t turn to women’s magazines so much for that latest untouched shot showing a zit or varicose vein. Now they have their favourite star’s private life fed into their smartphone instead.

Facebook’s Top 20 fan page list makes interesting reading. Not surprisingly, Facebook itself takes the prize for first, second and third place. Otherwise, they all reflect their offline fan base.

Cristiano Ronaldo on his own is a nose ahead of his club Real Madrid and way ahead of both Barcelona and Manchester United football clubs, while Barca’s Lionel Messi comes in between the two in tenth place.

The fictional Mr. Bean, a greatly loved character worldwide, is riding high in fourteenth place and Michael Jackson may have passed on but his fan page still rocks at No 17.

Harry Potter only gets a look in on the fan page for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. It comes in at 16, above the brand McDonalds at 19.

Here’s the full list, with numbers of likes, according to Fanpagelist.com.

1. Facebook – 203,794,951

2. Facebook Sales Germany – 203,794,951

3. Facebook for Every Phone – 103,794,951

4. Cristiano Ronaldo – 122,603,037 Fans

5. Real Madrid CF – 105,996,457

6. Shakira – 104,293,059

7. FC Barcelona – 103,600,258

8. Vin Diesel – 101,170,579

9. Eminem – 90,047,057

10. Lionel Messi (Leo Messi) – 89,406,826

11. YouTube – 83,259,643

12. Rhianna – 81,423,039

13. Justin Bieber – 78,705,826

14. Mr Bean TV Show – 75,964,639

15. Will Smith – 75,161,332

16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – 74,701,923

17. Michael Jackson – 74,609,072

18. Taylor Swift – 74,444,611

19. McDonald’s – 74,078,807

20. Manchester United FC – 73,873,376

On Twitter, things are a little different, but still you can see the offline influence. CNN Breaking News is right up there with YouTube and Twitter itself along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kim Kardashian in FriendofFollower.com’s Top 20.

1. Katy Perry – 105,327,361

2. Justin Bieber– 102,378,874

3. Barack Obama – 96,134,657

4. Taylor Swift – 85,593,630

5. Rihanna – 80,628,728

6. Ellen DeGeneres – 74,665,103

7. Lady Gaga – 72,366,055

8. YouTube – 70,182,948

9. Justin Timberlake – 62,611,642

10. Twitter – 62,028,425

11. Cristiano Ronaldo – 61,889,830

12. Kim Kardashian West – 56,327,698

13. Britney Spears – 55,800,189

14. Ariana Grande – 54,223,833

15. Selena Gomez – 53,418,202

16. CNN Breaking News – 53,072,626

17. Demi Lovato – 50,473,177

18. Jimmy Fallon – 49,400,395

19. Shakira – 48,585,770

20. Jennifer Lopez – 43,665,374

YouTube’s big names are all online stars, as you would expect, with 28-year-old Swedish comedian PewDiePie king of the crop with 54.1 million subscribers. Here are the top 20 channels, based on subscriber numbers, according to Business Insider.

1. PewDiePie – 54.1 million.

2. Germán Garmendia (HolaSoyGerman) – 31.1 million. Latin America’s biggest YouTube star

3. ElRubiusOMG – 23.5 million. A 27-year-old Spanish YouTuber

4. Smosh – 22.6 million. A comedy duo

5. VanossGaming – 20.2 million. A 24-year-old Canadianspecializing in comedy videos

6. Fernanfloo – 20 million. A YouTuber from El Salvador

7. NigaHiga – 19.3 million. Specializes in comedy videos

8. Yuya – 17.8 million. A 23-year-old Mexican beauty blogger

9. Whinderssonnunes – 17.7 million. A 22-year-old Brazilian

10. Vegetta777 – 17.3 million. A Spanish Youtuber

None of this is possible without a huge, hidden machine behind it.

To many, the social space is a magical garden of delights, a dream that bathes people in popularity. In reality, it’s as much an industrialised manufacturing process as the Hollywood dream machine ever was.

Social media behemoth Oliver Luckett, co-founder of theAudience and former head of innovation for the Disney Corporation, has seen the inner workings at close quarters.

In his book The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Your Life (published by Hackett) he says: “This horizontal, biologically determined communication system offers a completely new way of rapidly unleashing, sharing, and deploying information.

“It is particularly powerful when combined with other decentralizing technologies such as cloud-based data storage, Big Data analysis, cryptography, machine-learning tools, open data protocols and blockchain ledgers, technologies whose interoperable qualities mean they are linked directly into the social media publishing platforms.”

The entire social media space is manipulated, and on a daily basis.

Click farms artificially manipulate the numbers. You can go to fiverr.com or fivesquid.com, pay your £5 to someone in Bangladesh or the Philippines and, in 24 hours, have 50,000 extra ‘followers’.

Sounds great, but the downside to this fakery is that it can mess with your algorithms. There are also tools that can identify what’s real and what’s fake.

Newsweek identified that over half of Donald Trump’s 31 million Twitter followers are fake or bots. A Twitter audit of his handle @realDonaldTrump revealed only 51% are real.

Oliver Luckett identifies two main techniques for real, but still ‘industrialised', social traction. He says brands must “cultivate a very large army of fans, focusing on delivering content that serves their viewers’ emotional needs”.

The first strategy is for brand owners to either hold hands with owners of seemingly independent platforms or establish their own separate Wordpress landing pages for, let’s say, 100 platforms.

Each of these will then link to its own branded social media presence including accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. This way, each of the 100-plus platforms builds its own tribe of seemingly independent followers.

No-one knows the brand at the root of these platforms, but when you pour a piece of content into the system, especially with the appropriate hashtags, you can flood the search results and feeds of multiple accounts with ‘your’ content.

It’s effectively social broadcasting, and once something proves popular, you can pay other platforms to push it out further and reach the people outside your web of immediate social control.

Think of it like a giant pie-making factory, with much of the process automated using computer software programmes.

The second technique is to tap into a ‘hub’ of uber-influencers, all with large fan bases. Luckett says brands with a powerful social media presence “form tight social ties with other strong networkers”. Once you’re in the club, you can launch messages into a gigantic 'independent' network very quickly.

Luckett's theAudience would get products delivered to influencers who would form their own content around them and then post their native content featuring the product on their own social channels.

There are plenty of aggregators online like www.thecirqle.com that bunch influencers together - often in groups of around 10,000 - and make it easy for brands to ‘pay them off’ for ‘sharing the love’ with their audiences.

Volume, mechanisation, spheres of influence – it’s all down to so much more than pure popularity.

Back in 2012, Lord Sugar rightly pointed out that more people followed him than the Times, the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and the Financial Times combined. But the newspapers have bounced back. Today, their combined Twitter following of 15,658,245 dwarfs @Lord_Sugar at 5,415,567.

Lord Sugar should be careful not to fall into the trap of the Emperor’s New Clothes and forget what got them there in the first place.

On social, you’re only as big as the machine, after all.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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Richard J. Hillgrove VI

All by Richard J.