You can’t buy popularity – even on social networks

As a child you probably heard your teacher or mother tell you: “You can’t buy real friends.”

Well the same is true in the world of social media marketing, according to several online marketing experts.

Sometime last year, Brisbane, Australia-based Web company uSocial began a widely controversial service of offering to provide businesses with Facebook fans and Twitter followers. The deal was $177.30 could buy you 1,000 brand new Facebook friends or Twitter followers.  Accumulating online friends and followers is a slow process for many start-up companies leveraging social media to improve awareness about their products or services, and this could be an enticing offer.

uSocial also a Front Page service which guarantees to get your Web content on the front pages of social bookmarking sites. Many online businesses rely on positive “votes” they get from social bookmarking site visitors to generate traffic to their site. Since it typically takes hundreds votes to land the coveted front pages of social bookmarking sites as Digg, Yahoo!, StumbleUpon and Buzz typically you can see how many businesses might view this offer as a “bargain”.

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Leon Hill, the 23-year-old creator of uSocial claims he figured out a way to boost the amount of votes a Webpage could receive by as much 1,000 within 24 hours. This means “a Website would sometimes be placed in front of millions of online Web-surfers’ eyes in a day or less,” he said in a press release.

Why should you buy “friends”?

“Every Facebook fan or friend you have is generally worth $1 to you per month, which is a figure anyone using this site correctly can back up. This means that even on a purchase of a 1,000 friend pack, you will not only return your investment in the first month, but earn more than five times what you’ve invested. Try and tell us that’s not a great investment,” according to uSocial.

However, social media experts tell ITBusiness.ca that “buying friends” might not be a wise investment after all.

Social Media’s dark side

“This sort of business represents the dark side of social media,” says Michelle Corsano, referring to the practice of buying and selling online followers and friends.

The president of Burst Technology Marketing, a Toronto-based business-to-business online marketing firm believes organizations offering such services are shortchanging their business clients and companies buying online friends are doing their customers a disservice.

Corsano raised the point that fan purchasers can never be sure that the followers or fans you bought are genuine entities that will interact with your community or purchase your product. “What’s more, if you place these followers on your site, you’re lying to other followers who flock to you based on the belief that other people find your site worthwhile to follow,” she said.

“This is something I would not condone and I would advise others to stay away from it,” Corsano said.

The growing popularity of social networking has placed tremendous pressure on companies and marketers to find ways spotlight their brand in these channels, according to Sionne Roberts, marketing strategist and general manager for the Visability division of IT World Canada.

“We’re seeing many organizations ready to try almost anything in order to gain a following or fan base on sites like Facebook or Twitter,” he said.

But the social media space is still evolving and not a few of the techniques involve trial and error, he noted.

Roberts cautions businesses to study their options thoroughly before diving into a campaign to boost followers. “For one thing, you need to be sure that the process you are using is not deemed inappropriate by the social site. If site administrators think you are gaming the system, they can easily shut you out.”

Buyer beware

uSocial actually received a cease and desist order from Facebook in November 2009.

Facebook claimed the marketing firm “violates its rights by sending spam, using web tools to harvest pages, getting login names and by accessing accounts that did not belong to the marketing firm.”

Facebook hasn’t clarified what arrangements were made with uSocial, but a statement released by the social networking site said: “We’ll continue to protect our users and the integrity of our site by enforcing our policies. We’re pleased that uSocial has agreed to comply.”

Meanwhile, uSocial’s Website continues to offer Faceboo, Twitter, and YouTube marketing services among other things. Earlier this week, the company also began sending out broadcast emails selling a series of marketing e-classes titled Magnetic Publicity.

Recently, there have been a number of complaints on the Internet about uSocial.

A co-founder of a Toronto-based work-from-home site Whydowork.com wrote: “…with all my experience reading about various money making scams, I have let my better judgement escape me as I fell victim to uSocial.net.”

The founder said he ordered 1,000 Facebook fans in January, but two weeks later was told by the uSocial that orders were backlogged and that he had to wait for another two weeks. Two weeks later, he said he received an email blast from the company informing customers that uSocial was discounting the price of Facebook fans.

“Obviously this was a huge red flag to see a service discounted that actually had a backlog that could not be fulfilled,” he said. After complaining again, uSocial told him it would take another week for his order to be processed.

“So another week later and here we are, uSocial has stopped replying to my posts and doesn’t appear to have any intention of refunding my money or filling my order,” the uSocial customer wrote on his blog post.

ITBusiness.ca contacted uSocial for an interview but has not received any response.

Complaints of a similar tone have also surfaced involving another company called Viralee. The company is also social media fan-acquisition outfit based in Australia.

Los Angeles, Calif-based marketer and photographer Ori Bengal said he tried out the service and paid Viralee $99 for 1,000 Facebook fans, but never received delivery.

Thankfully, Bengal got his money back from PayPal but he also received threats of legal action from Viralee.

Dominic Holland, Viralee founder, describes how his site works in this interview.

Asked how he acquires the fans he sells, Holland said in the interview:  “There are now a few services like Viralee on the Internet, I can only speak for my company when I say that we do not use fake accounts, lure people into clicking on links or becoming a fan of something that was not what they expected or any other less than scrupulous methods.  Rather, we use online and offline marketing methods to promote a page.  Hence it is the consumer’s choice when presented with the page as to whether or not they become a fan.  It is for this reason that exact timeframes for each campaign are not given as it is not a precise science.”

Top 4 reasons why you shouldn’t buy online friends

So why should you stay away from buying online friends?

From marketing expert Willis Wee and co-founder of Singapore-based social media marketing firm Penn Olson here are four reasons:

1. It’s quantity for quality’s sake

There’s no point, Wee said, is having 10,000 fans when only a small percentage of them are interacting with your brand. “The very basis of social media marketing is to encourage fans who want to be part of your brand,” he said. “Are you speaking to people who are sincerely interested and receptive to your product?”

2. Watch out for negative reaction

Imagine what your real fans would say if they found out you paid to get your other followers?

3. Your company will appear desperate

What would your reaction be, Wee asked, if you noticed that a small business that hasn’t been engaging in much marketing suddenly had 10,000 fans?

4. Will your bought fans stay?

Fan acquisition sites might guarantee you a certain quota within a given period, but do they also guarantee that how long those followers with stay with your site.

In other words your purchased fans might fleetingly appear on your site but there’s no guarantee they’ll be your BFF (best friends forever).

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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