It used to be that customers trusted social media marketing accounts and readily engaged.
But now, because of the preponderance of businesses buying fake followers and engagement known as bots, people aren't so ready to believe.
"Bots have become widely prevalent. They're the pesky insects of the social media world," says Jay York, senior digital marketing strategist at the public relations firm News and Experts. "Everyone knows they exist, but does their best to ignore them."
The bot problem has been well-documented for years, adds Ryan Miller, CEO and founder of Etna Interactive, a web marketing agency catering to medical professionals in elective health care.
"Rather than taking an influencer's number of followers at face value," he says, "we often instinctively know the total comes with an asterisk."
Social Media Marketing: A Relatively New Phenomenon
Historically, local businesses got their message out through the phone book industry, which did background checks prior to printing a business's information, according to Jason Morgan, president of iLocal. (His company builds websites and handles online marketing for businesses in the greater Seattle region.)
"You couldn't fake your way into the phone book," says Morgan. "The industry had a strongly vetted system with sales reps on the streets, seeing businesses and meeting with owners.
—Kyle Klement, chief marketing officer, Vet Marketing Firm
"Credit and background checks were required to get a phone line and an eventual listing," he continues. "There was nothing fake about the phone book. It was the most trusted consumer archive around."
Then came social media marketing.
"Grassroots internet marketing and social media distributors took the larger phone book model and formed thousands upon thousands of independent messengers online," says Morgan. "Completely unregulated social media can do and say just about anything. The new age of online marketing is the Wild West, and it's long been a 'buyer, beware' marketplace."
How Fake Followers Harm Business
"Fake social media accounts hurt businesses, individual user experience and ultimately will create an atmosphere where people distrust information they're consuming online even more than they already do," says Rodgers.
Unfortunately, the doubt fake followers cast on social media marketing and accounts hurts lesser-known companies more than industry giants, believes York.
"If you're a little-known business with 50,000 followers," he says, "people might be more likely to assume you have fake followers than a well-known brand."
Social Media Marketing Best Practices
So what's a business to do about the lack of customer trust when it comes to social media marketing? These seven tips can help instill faith in your clients when they log on to your social media accounts.
1. Refrain from purchasing followers.
"Bots are a shortcut that does more harm than good," says Kyle Klement, chief marketing officer for the Vet Marketing Firm, which provides marketing for veterinarians.
"Fake followers are designed to trick your audience into thinking that your business is more reputable than it actually is," he says. "If your Instagram account has 50,000 followers, yet has trouble breaking 100 likes, your audience will catch on."
2. Focus on social media engagement.
"The interaction you receive on your posts is much more vital to the success of your page than the number of followers you have," says Klement. "An engaged audience is going to be more genuine than a purchased audience. The only way to continually engage your audience is to provide frequent and noteworthy content."
3. Check for bots on your social media sites.
"If a brand is experiencing issues associated with fake accounts, I recommend tackling the problem head on," says York. "Do a funny post or public service announcement calling out fake accounts. Be clear that you don't condone them. If possible, monitor for bots and report them."
4. Show that you care in your social media marketing.
"Consumers find it refreshing and it builds trust when they connect with a real person who genuinely cares about the needs of the person on the other end of the computer," says Klement. "Business owners can do this by being proactive and listening to the audience. If there's a common theme of questions customers are asking, go the extra mile to get that information into their hands."
5. Be real.
"We always tell our elective health care clients that the best thing you can do on social media is to simply answer the question, 'What's it really like at the practice?'" says Miller. "Our clients post Snapchat videos in treatment rooms and show real results from patient transformations on Facebook. Increasingly, visitors also want to see why you do what you do."
6. Be worthy.
"Remember that by following you, your audience has given you permission to market to them," says Miller. "Post exclusive specials and news from the practice blended with information that educate followers.
"Take the focus away from your business and put it squarely on your audience," he continues. "Ask yourself if they'll get something out of what you posted—even if it's a chuckle. If not, don't post it."
7. Be generous.
"We've found that one of the best ways to build a following for our clients is to run giveaways," says Miller. "The best giveaways do three things. They build interest in your products or services, drive home a theme at the core of your brand and entice people to learn more about you."
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