Mark Ritson: Pay up and embrace Twitter’s fake followers

Review the millions of people on Twitter and it’s apparent that there are about five distinct types of user.

First the ‘personal amateurs’ who have about 30 followers and tweet six times a day about their babies, Labradors and the price of biscuits.

Up one notch from them are the ‘little executives’ who are following way more people than the 300 followers or less that they garner themselves. These are the people who claim “all of these views are my own” but rarely actually have any of interest to speak of.

One step up are the ‘mildly influentials’ who have a decent following of up to 5,000 people and who use Twitter as an overt and explicit way to promote their viewpoint and usually their latest book/seminar/column.

And then there are the ‘big hitters’. With only ‘super celebrities’ like Lady Gaga above them, these are the people with more than 5,000 followers and who bestride the social media space like giants. Unlike super celebrities, Twitter made the big hitter famous and their tweets get bounced around the universe for days, often the subject of rabid discussion.

Here’s my problem. For the past three years I have been a solid mildly influential. I have bounced along with about 3,000 followers and a relatively decent response rate to my tweets. That’s all well and good but I really aspire to bigger and better things.

When I bump into someone who I’ve never heard of with three or four times more followers than me I think, “This cannot be right”. It bothers me for hours. And yet whatever I do, I can’t seem to move the needle any higher. I tweet in the morning. I tweet in the evening. I re-tweet. I single tweet. I reply-tweet. I suck up to big hitters and hope for scraps from their Twitter table. I even followed Peter Andre for goodness sake. Nothing worked.

A few weeks ago, however, I glimpsed salvation. A little online ad promised to help realise my Twitter dreams. For £400 the company could deliver 50,000 followers instantaneously. Imagine it, an overnight delivery of an army of fans.

I thought long and hard about the ethical issues – for the whole two minutes that it took to find my credit card – and then paid my money and waited. I went to bed that night unsure if I had been scammed because my Twitter profile remained annoyingly lodged on 3,321 followers.

But next morning…Christmas came! I awoke and reached for my iPhone and there they were: 51,000 followers. Overnight I had become important. “I am a big hitter!” I exclaimed, flinching only momentarily as my apparently still sleeping wife punched me in the balls from the other side of the bed. Clearly she was unaware of my new status. Later, when she awoke, I would inform her.

I am not alone in my pursuit of fake followers. A recent report by two Italian security researchers, Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, suggested that politicians like Newt Gingrich and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister have already succumbed to the temptation. More interestingly, the research also suggests that brands like Mercedes and Pepsi also have.

Mercedes added 28,283 followers one day in October 2012. That’s a jump of more than 20,000% from the brand’s average daily follower gain. Pepsi added 71,686 Twitter followers in a single day in November 2011 – an injection of followers that was just enough to overtake Coca-Cola’s Twitter audience.

There are many reasons why brands would want to acquire large volumes of followers on Twitter. It feeds the corporate ego and restores the disparity between your brand and better performing competitors. More insidiously, it may help to justify your large investment in Twitter when other measures of return on investment elude you. Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group and a big hitter like me with 5,600 followers (real in her case), points to the corporate pressure to justify investment in social media. “Many brands struggle to measure the top line value of social media,” she says, “so there is a thirst to show momentum in different ways, one of which is to show that the brand has a bigger audience today than it did yesterday.”

More traditional media like TV and print could learn a lot from this. Why worry about the declining circulation of news media for example? Just invent some phony readers and the crisis will be averted.

Oh, my apologies, news media has already done that with readership versus circulation figures. Perhaps Twitter’s fake followers are not such a new trend after all.