The Power of Licensing #1: The Bot Rot

This is my first post on BeanTalk, under the heading “The Power of Licensing.” I’ll write about things happening in the licensing industry, the marketing/communications industry, business in general, and our culture that are or will have an impact on licensing.  My intention is to regularly offer my thoughts, comments, kudos or criticisms about what I observe.  I hope that, over time, many readers will find me here and be interested in what I have to say, become followers, and, perhaps I will even influence their approaches to business or decision making.  However, one thing that I will not be doing is purchasing followers. And that gets me to my first topic.

Although, apparently, going on for years, there is a robust industry selling fake followers, or “bots”, on social media platforms.  Some of these fake followers are based on the personal profiles of real users, with slight modifications, and some are just pure fakes.  The modified profile of one real user can be used to create multiple new followers (sometimes hundreds).  But they are not actual followers and deception, indeed fraud, is what this is all about.  The New York Times published a front-page, lead article on January 28, 2018, exposing the industry and some of its major players.  This is not, unfortunately, new news.  Social media platforms, people, companiesand brands, relying on making connections with consumers, fans or any type of audience through social media are already trying to take corrective actions, some to a greater extent than others.

I suppose it is not surprising that a shady industry like this would arise.  We live in a world where many personalities and businesses rely on the number of followers, shares, friends, retweets that they can boast.  The higher the number, the more popular or important we assume the person or company to be.  Often the purchasers of bots are selling their own products or services, or seeking to promote or endorse products for a fee.  Frequently, careers depend upon these follower numbers.  The company cited in The New York Times article, Devumi, has over 200,000 customers purchasing fake followers.  Customers are those who benefit from the popularity associated with large followings, such as reality television stars, professional athletes, traditional celebrities, chefs, public relations agencies and marketing agencies (to prove their own importance or the importance of their clients), among many others.  And, of course, we now know that governments can use bots to sway public opinion.  Often, the customers are unaware that they are purchasing totally fake profiles, but not always.  For so many, the pressure to have large followings is simply too great to avoid buying followers, either for themselves or on behalf of a company or a client.  But whether the purchaser knows that they are buying bots or not, they do know that they are not buying genuine followers.  They are simply buying numbers.

Naturally, follower numbers are extremely important to influencers.  “Influencer” is a relatively new term and is basically a re-branding of what we used to call bloggers or vloggers or You Tubers (and sometimes still do).  An influencer can be someone who has built their fame from the internet up, a digital celebrity.  Or they can be people like traditional celebrities who built their fame in some other medium (such as motion pictures or television) and who then turn to social media to build a digital following.  They rely on social media platforms, they produce original content and, importantly, they influence their large and dedicated followings.  Some curate product and give advice, some sell product.  Some have real power with their audience and influence purchasing decisions, behavior or even cultural trends.  Some just opine about things that they observe in the world, often out-of-the-box observations to draw more attention to themselves and their postings.  Digital celebrities in particular are unscripted and unfiltered.  They are authentic and relatable.  And they are trusted by the younger generations, more so than traditional celebrities.  As a result, brands engage with influencers to promote their products and reach their fan base (their followers).  Often, they become so popular that they are able to license their own names for a line of products.  Their importance and popularity is largely supported by the number of followers that they have. 

Certainly, the fame of many influencers is genuine.  They and their content simply become popular and they draw an increasing number of fans and followers over a period of time.  But there can also be a darker side; some who use purchased followers to push their popularity along.  As social media platforms become more serious about ferreting out bots, as local authorities begin pursuing the companies that sell them (New York State announced the opening of an investigation into Devumi for illegal impersonation and deception) and as customers become more aware of the issues, this will, hopefully, be a practice that disappears.  In the meantime, those businesses (including licensors, licensees and retailers) that are relying on follower data should be forewarned about this practice.  Influencers will remain popular and they will continue to represent a strong and real path to engage with consumers (particularly younger consumers).  And those whose followers are built from the ground up, the honest way, will be the survivors and have staying power.  Those are the influencers to which brands, retailers and the licensing community should turn to for partnerships. 

Regrettably, in the current environment, we can’t just simply accept follower numbers at face value.  More verification is necessary for brands, retailers, licensors or licensees seeking to use the powerful tool that influencers represent.  There is no easy way to determine if any of an influencer’s followers are bots.  But there are some things that you can look for or do that may make you smarter about follower numbers that are being provided, or at least sound some warning bells.  Look at recent history for substantial spikes in follower numbers, increases that occur over a very short period of time.  Spot check as many followers as you can, randomly.  And, of course, you can simply ask the question and judge the response.  In my opinion, brands engaging with influencers should also seek representations in a contract that followers don’t and will not include bots (although still hard to prove).  In any event, do what you can to conduct the proper due diligence and request the proper assurances to verify that the numbers are genuine before proceeding.  This area of marketing is a work in progress that is moving fast.  I’m sure that there will be much more to come.  So, stay tuned.