LinkedIn is the premier social media platform for professionals without equal rival and is unequivocally a critical business tool. However, all that glitters is not gold, and perception does not always match reality.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are notorious for harbouring fake followers and paid engagement to drive sales and influencer marketing. The New York Times report Follower Factory outed the black market practices with alarming grit.
But are individuals and businesses buying fake followers and engagement on LinkedIn?
Yes, they are, and at alarmingly growing levels in Australia and globally.
Buyers broadly fall into two camps: arrogant (complicit and aware) or ignorant (naïve and trusting). The motivation for both is gaining significant ‘perceived’ influence quickly and easily.
Unwitting beliefs that large networks and vanity metrics equate to proof of value and competency are speculative and oxygenate the willingness to mislead. When perception without critical analysis and time barriers coincide, the reality of rhetoric can be disparate.
In this article, I look at why the surge is occurring, how to identify offenders and protection tips for all. There is no need for long ruminations on why these practices are wretched, suffice to say, a lack of integrity is totally unpalatable, destroys trust and is commercially imprudent.
To edge into why social proof and fake influence metrics are sought, here is some insight from global marketing consultant and author of the Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer:
“Whether we are online or offline, we use social proof every day to make low-risk decisions when we don’t have the whole story. Our behaviour is often driven by the assumption that people with lots of followers may possess more knowledge about what is correct, popular, or ideal — a herd mentality.
“People just don’t dig deeper to see if somebody is legitimate or a list of followers is real … so it’s possible to be rewarded for simply faking it. And many do.
“While badges of social proof can be gamed, humanity cannot. Nurturing true authority through authenticity, meaningful content, and an engaged group of followers will lead to a legitimate reputation and business.”
The clamber and competition on LinkedIn for visibility and influence can be unrelenting, confusing and arduous. In its positive form, it drives authentic, strategic and creative ethical activity. In its negative form, it drives ego, hype, quick fixes and unethical activity. Both aim to amplify influence, popularity and social proof with the end goal of growth and sales.
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Wherever there is competition and demand, corruption often sits, irrelevant of industry. And there is plenty of demand for fake and easy solutions. Further, the explosion of click farms is part of a complex and interwoven kaleidoscope of services that brazenly sell paid followers, engagement and social proof.
So who is selling these services? All is revealed with a quick Google search of ‘buying LinkedIn connections’, ‘how to buy LinkedIn likes’, ‘buying LinkedIn followers in Australia’, ‘buying LinkedIn comments’ and ‘paid LinkedIn endorsements’.
There is a sea of choices globally and in Australia. All unashamedly promoting that buying followers is normal, and a quick way to grow your business and profile. Every metric is for sale: likes, followers, comments, endorsements, video views, company page followers, recommendations, shares and connections. And, for example, $199 can buy 5,000 followers or 200 likes or comments within 7 to 14 days. Many claim followers are from ‘real’ profiles and all offer secure payment options and guarantees of satisfaction.
When I undertook email, phone and chat box enquiries, operators of the services communicated: ‘It’s all very safe, it’s not illegal, everyone does it. It’s the best way to build your profile and popularity. No one ever looks at the profiles of who likes and comments and people would be very surprised at how many and who uses the services in Australia and globally. You would not believe who the well-known celebrities, business people and companies are. Profiles are from USA, Middle East, Europ, and Africa. It’s hard to get Australian country profiles.’
There were also paid reward profile network services to earn cash rewards by adding your real followers into and around the paid follower network. Like MLM it can be a red flag to those who have huge networks.
How to detect
This is where you need to have some time and quick analytical smarts. Once you get used to the patterns it doesn’t take much time at all. People may just buy networks (followers and connections) and/or engagement (likes and comments). Engagement is bought only for one campaign at a time. This in part is the attractiveness for many so as to get a real viral push start. You must put the rubber to the road to assess illusions from reality. The algorithms are a never-ending source of change and frustration. The below tips are a good start in detecting red flags. Nothing is certain, but a combination of analysis is helpful as you look at trends over a period of time.
1. Connections and followers
Review the size of the network (which is a combo of both followers and connections) and then look at the engagement metrics of likes and comments on posts, videos and articles.
If there is a network of 15,000 and content has a regular pattern of small to negligible engagement, this is a red flag. Large, aligned and genuine networks will by virtue attract comparative engagement for the most part. Fake followers do not engage, as they just sit idle. Track the trends on articles and posts.
2. Likes and comments
There are two things to analyse, again bearing in mind the size of the network. Content that is inane drivel and fluff with exorbitant engagement can be a red flag. Huge engagement can also be symbolic of simultaneous large engagement pod activity (but not always and it’s not conclusive).
Review the profiles of who likes and comments. There can be a pattern where the vast majority of profiles have dodgy images, paltry comments and are mostly from the USA, Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. Patterns emerge when you look closely. Dig below the first 30 likes or comments. Conversely, there may be excellent content from a member with a low network. Do the same, just review the profiles, there may be some patterns.
This is a huge issue. When you analyse the profiles behind the metrics, red flags are easy to spot. Look for the 99+ metrics on at least five skills where you can spot the exact profile pattern sequences of dodgy international profiles in cluster orders.
Apart from the total disregard of integrity, ethics and risk of reputational damage, there are technical reasons to never go down the paid black hole.
It is in violation of the LinkedIn User Agreement section 8.2 K. You can risk suspension and permanent account deletion.
Purchased networks risk your entire network being compromised. Fake profiles and bots are a never-ending headache for LinkedIn despite sophisticated detection procedures deployed to eradicate bad actors and fake group clusters.
‘LinkedIn jail’ is a real risk as fake profiles don’t engage on content. The quality of your connections is pivotal to the success of content distribution. This is a good general reminder anyhow to not just connect with anyone and accept all invitations.
As these services are dodgy at best, and malicious at worst, you risk being in a global web of click farms and other cyber issues. And one day you could wake up and find that hundreds if not thousands of profiles have disappeared from your network.
- No matter how much you want to look successful and like an influencer, never give in to the temptation to buy followers and engagement.
- Don’t assume metrics are always accurate and truthful. Apply critical thinking, be unbiased and embrace a mindset of open analysis and research.
- A person’s value and competency is not weighted by the size of their network. There are so many other elements to consider. Don’t assume big is always better and genuine. For some, a huge network is appropriate and organic, others not so.
- When engaging external social media service providers (especially ‘done for you’ LinkedIn options) be vigilant. Ask for confirmation in writing that they do not utilise paid network services or outsource to a third party. Taking full access to over your profile can be a red flag. This is where the ignorant get hoodwinked unwittingly. They just want results and don’t want to spend the time personally.
- LinkedIn is an incredible platform which does, and will, continue to deliver fantastic results and strong professional networks.
- We all are in this together. Organic influence, growth, integrity and critical thinking benefits everyone on the platform.