The Business Case for Buying Facebook Likes

buying facebook likes

There is a particularly funny scene in the Will Ferrell movie Elf when he passes a run-down looking coffee shop that has a sign saying “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.”  With exuberant joy, he bursts into the shop and yells “Congratulations!”

It’s a hilarious moment, but a common example of “social proof” that has been used in the advertising world for decades. When we don’t know the truth, we look for clues from our external environment (like a claim in a storefront window) to help us make decisions.

Social proof is not always true or accurate, it just has to provide an effective impression of authority.

In my book Return On Influence, I point to a famous example of this, actor Robert Young.

marcus welby

Young was an accomplished radio, film, and television actor who represented the iconic All-American father in the 1950s TV series “Father Knows Best.”  In the 1970s he reprised this squeaky-clean in an even more famous character — the gentle, and trusted “Marcus Welby, M.D.”  In fact he became so tied to this character that it was impossible NOT to think of him in this role in any subsequent role or appearance he earned.

Despite his trademark portrayal of these happy, well-adjusted characters, Robert Young’s reality could not have been more different.  He admitted to being a terrible father and husband, and was often described as a bitter man.  He suffered from depression and alcoholism, and spoke openly about a suicide attempt in the early 1990s.

Yet during this same timeframe, Young was among America’s most popular television commercial spokespersons – utterly in contrast to his tormented personal reality.

Brands capitalized on his social proof as a TV doctor and extended all of those powerful positive attributes to their products, even though the man wrapped in the white lab coat was suffering as a human being.

The essence of social proof

In the online world, “social proof” is paramount … and easily achieved because anybody can appear to be pumped-up and important, even when they’re not.

There has never been a time in history where the mantle of authority has been so effortlessly assumed and promoted.  Words like “best-selling,” “award-winning” and “expert” have become meaningless.

And yet in our information-dense world of the Internet, we’re starved for clues to help us determine leadership and authority and we readily turn to “badges of influence” like number of Twitter followers or even a Klout score as convenient indicators of power.

Perhaps the most prestigious symbol of social proof today is the Facebook “Like.”  Among many companies, there is a Facebook arms race in progress as competing brands do anything necessary to gain the upper hand on this important metric. I recently wrote a post describing a company who has an internal marketing metric of “cost per like.” On the surface, this seems ludicrous but it demonstrates how strategically important this symbol has become.

Let’s go shopping for Likes

As you might predict, an underground market has emerged that will happily sell you manufactured Facebook Likes. A search turned up a market price of $199 for 10,000 likes.

A client recently asked me if this was a legitimate way to build their social proof, especially if their competitor is doing it. My instinct said no. As much as I’ve written about the need to be trustworthy and authentic on the social web this tactic seems unethical.

But the more I consider this, the more I wonder if this position is hopelessly naive. Let’s face it, for many brands, social media has become another advertising channel.  Almost every corporate Facebook account I know of is run, at least in part, by an advertising agency.

If we look at Facebook in terms of being just another advertising platform (which it is) then what’s the difference between pumping up your Facebook account with fake Likes and …

  • A Twitter account that is primarily populated by empty accounts and spambots?  (This is the case for almost every person with a massive Twitter following.)
  • A badge on your site claiming your blog is one of the “Top blogs of …” when it was simply a popularity contest that you manipulated by encouraging friends and family to do mass voting?
  • Claiming “four out of five doctors …” when you really have no idea what the study was about or how it is being applied to the advertising claim?
  • Claiming to be an “expert” or “guru” when you’ve never had a paying customer?

I don’t see any outcry against these examples of social proof … in fact chances are good that you may be participating in something like this yourself somewhere on your social profile.  If we are willing to look the other way on these other trumped-up claims, why is there such an emotional backlash when it comes to Facebook?

The business case for buying Likes

While we pontificate about the imperative for “authenticity,” when you get down to it, nobody really cares. Like the case of Robert Young, reality plays no role in manipulating people’s perceptions about authority.

I run my business and my life with integrity. Not only do I avoid anything unethical, I avoid anything that even LOOKS unethical.

But I’m wondering if it is irresponsible and out of step with reality to keep a customer from buying Likes to match a competitor that is already doing it.  If I only built an organic following for this customer, it will put them at a competitive disadvantage … and at the end of the day somebody coming across their page won’t care any way.

There is a practical business case for being a Facebook fake, right?

Illustration based on art from

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  • Mark, it is definitely an interesting thought. If likes are social proof, then this lets you buy a small token, at least, of social proof.

    However, if it doesn’t already, social proof will soon require more than just a number of likes. Here is a quick comparison (I’m not affiliated with either company and don’t know if either one has purchased likes):

    Huffington Post: 780,000 likes, 170,280 people talking about it, or 22%
    Life Technologies: 37,935 likes, 364 talking about it, or 0.96%

    Although 38k likes for a niche company like Life Technologies seems like a solid number, the social proof is pretty thin.

    In addition, businesses that buy likes are expecting more than just proof, they are expecting to buy an audience they can engage over time. Unfortunately, a purchased audience isn’t going to engage the way an organically built one will. Since we are on the topic, an audience built through sweepstakes isn’t going to engage as well either…

    Definitely a thought provoking post, thanks for sharing!

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  • tianakai

    I find it very unethical to purchase Likes. I even find it borderline unethical to keep Spammers on your followers list. The more we support spammers the stronger they may become…take Instagram and Twitter… and of course purchased Likes. They all fall on the same side of the coin and hopefully one day there will be rules and regs that actually do not allow companies to purchase Likes and somehow find a way to minimize the amount of spam we all get. I find it misleading… what if the President personally paid me to vote for him, wouldn’t that be illegal?

  • Is Advertising on Facebook purchasing likes? You drive people back to your page and force them to like the page in return for an incentive!

    The problem with buying fake likes (outside of using Facebook advertising)
    is that over time Facebook will catch this in their ranking algorithms and will penalize you for it. So, for example, you have 50k fans and 40k of them have never interacted on your page anywhere and they are all based in the same country which is not the country you are in. These are going to be identified as fake so your page will be effected by this.

    Of course buying likes through Facebook ads is perfectly acceptable by Facebook!


  • If your reaction to companies buying Facebook Likes is the same as buying Twitter Followers, then I have no comment. Not because I don’t have a comment but if I share one it may come around and bite me. But what’s your take? Is your opinion platform-centric?

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  • In Real Life we are discovered! If the online persona does not match the offline one the game is up! For me, there is only one you: it is the same in any situation, be it online or offline. I know this for I have seen, observed and socialized with you. We see so much fake cake, we don’t trust much of anything. As the two old ladies in the Wendy’s Commercial of old said: “Show Me The Beef?” Buying an audience, gets you that and a cup of coffee for what?

  • Great perspective Mark! Sure says a lot about the “business”, doesn’t it? And, this is why the deep social web will always survive. The consumer is actually not fooled by this. They’ll take what’s given but guaranteed, most will dig deeper before spending money. Eric Wittlake provides a perfect example in these comments. Anybody can “buy” likes or quickly create artificial indicators, but beware as the social domain will eventually “rat you out”.

  • It all depends on what your goal is. If you work for a company that is
    comfortable, (and, in fact, prefers) to build their reputation upon a
    house of cards and a pile of smoke, then sure…go for the easy like,
    meet a randomly generated, quantitative goal not directly tied to
    revenue-generation and keep your job. But, if you’re in business like we
    are, where your name and reputation, is your safety net and your foundation, then I’d say,
    not in a million years.

    You’re right. There is a certain amount of gaming the system we all do.
    (I could go through my followers and cull anyone inactive, but that
    reduces the total number, which indeed some people find impressive.) But
    that’s different than knowingly adding fluff for the sake of posturing.

    Ultimately through, it’s about choices. I have the freedom to accept
    that I lose some business from companies who are outwardly put off by
    the size of say my company’s fan page, relative to my competitors. But,
    I’m cool with that, because if that’s all that prospect cares about, then they
    wouldn’t like working with me anyway. Not everyone has that luxury, though.

    I hope you decide to continue fighting the good fight, Mark. It may not always be good for business, but I’ve come to believe that it’s awfully good for the soul. 🙂

  • Let poke holes through your points for the sake of conversation. Some brands are more conversational than others. In Life Technoligies’ niche that level of conversation might be a breathtaking success, so let’s not forget about context.

    Second, I don’t necessarily think all companies should want or pursue “conversation” and engagement just for the sake of engagement. In the entire marketing mix, there has to be a balance. Facebook can be a huge resource suck and if it isn’t leading to something, why would you devote those resources over something more productive? Conversation comes at a cost. Maybe all you want is social proof. I know it sounds weird, but practically speaking, that goal is OK.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment friend!

  • When the rock group KISS started out, they surrounded their stage performance with empty speaker cases so the band appeared to be bigger and more an important than they were really were. They were faking their social proof to gain attention of the marketplace. Is that unethical or smart marketing?

  • Two very keen points Ian! Thanks for adding your wisdom to the discussion.

  • Let’s throw many SEO practices like link-building into the mix too. Many of the marketing “best practices” on the web make me sick. But it does help to talk about it, at least for me. Sometimes I want to shake people and say “think about what you’re doing.”

  • I think in many cases that is true, but I also witness many people who simply don;t think critically and are continually duped by social proof.

  • Rezwan Razani

    Appinions – – has an interesting algorithm to measure influence and weed through the noise for a signal, I can imagine that at some point you could have a little influence icon + meter (like the little twitter icon with the number of tweets next to it) that could be associated with the authors or sites and give an indication of actual influence. And then there is all the behind the scenes influence. All those emails and private phone calls where a lot of the real influencing is taking place.

  • Respectfully, I totally disagree. I think on the web, social proof is more important than what we actually do or what we have accomplished and research supports this. I can point out a dozen bloggers (and so can you!) who are total business failures but whose words seem golden to their legions of followers because they have 100,000 Twitter followers. Why? Because most people tend to follow the herd. Critical thinkers are the social web’s rarest commodity.

  • Thought provoking post Mark (usual) and gives pause to the shift of the “social” channels to monetization. While we hold on to our ethics and debate the purpose and application of the social space, that once was the leveler for the SMB, the one with the most marbles has captured the mound. It is not a cynical statement…”someday coming across their page won’t care anyway,” but sadly true! A reality check of the pulse of the entire community. However, I choose to keep fighting for my ethical values and believe we can effect change, by fighting the good fight.

  • First let me comfort you my friend by assuring you that following my soul is the mode of operation, for better or for worse. : )

    Having said that, let me challenge an assumption. I think there is another consideration here and that is risk versus reward, or cost versus reward.

    I recently wrote how I was going back and forth whether it continues to make sense to spend the effort of sorting through 400 or more new Twitter followers a week. I mean, is that where I should really be spending my resources? But I do follow my soul and continue to do it but I certainly don;t blame the majority of people who don’t. At the same time, those folks are artificially inflating their social proof compared to me and saving money at the same time. Are they “cheating?” Are they faking their social proof and level of authority? Are they getting less engagement per follower? You could reasonably answer yes to all of these questions and still conclude that they are making the smart business decision, right?

  • Oh let’s hope not. : ) Boy would that bring the whole social influence debate to a boil. Thanks very much for your great comment Rezwan.

  • Mark, I can declare a very worthwhile business need for being seen dining at Ruth’s Chris. Being seen eating there on a regular basis would certainly help my reputation, and being seen among the movers and shakers might improve my station. But I don’t recommend using smoke and mirrors to make people think I can afford it.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but I don’t know that your observation about a need for “Social Proof” warrants a conclusion of deception.

    When we launched our Facebook page (with the help of an agency), we did it quietly with an internal campaign. Our page was live for three weeks before we started to acknowledge it externally. We were able to drive more than 1,500 Fans through employee communications, and there was a little viral residual to that.

    The idea is that when the public is invited to come on by, you don’t want them to encounter an empty wall. There’s certainly Social Proof at play, but no need to artificially boost those numbers. (I recommend the same for blogs — start dark and get some momentum before you promote.)

    The fact is that social works when someone works it, organically. (And in just 10 months, we’re now at almost 14,000 Fans.)

  • Please tell me that you are not ready to drink the kool-aid.

  • perilouspauline

    My gut says, no for my business. I sell books, not widgets or cups of coffee. Reading is such a personal experience, I feel my ‘likes’ need to be, as much as possible, people who are engaged in me, readers, other authors. In my Twitter feed, I don’t expect or assume everyone who follows me styles themselves a reader, but I do hope that they might occasionally read. So my feed is pretty diverse. With FB there is the addiional problem of getting people to take the extra step to keep up with you, after they “like.” That would be why I’m trying to build my blog, because that is my place.

  • tianakai

    That is smart marketing!! Concert goers didn’t pay for them to look larger than life, they just believed it! This reminds me of how Home Depot used to fill their stores with empty boxes to appear to have a limitless supply of everything. And how Miami hotels would hire models to stroll the property in bikinis… it’s all creative marketing. My point is mainly that spammers stink (which is a separate conversation, i know) and that paying for Likes is borderline like being a spammer… fake and bad business.

  • tianakai

    Right on, I agree with this reply. I’ve noticed a few herds turing this way and that way and when I read articles of these ‘chosen bloggers’ I sometimes wonder why they have so many followers or interactions. Those blogs usually receive pointless comments that do not dig deeper into the article, unlike this stream for example. I blog about fun things while living abroad, travel and culture, so I don’t expect mind blowing comments, but when I read tech and business blogs I expect to learn something or to leave wanting to learn more about the topic. thanks!

  • Yes. But many of them are douches, and they have to live with that at the end of the day. They have more money, but less substance — and that’s it. Though, yeah, many would say, “Who cares? They still came out ahead, didn’t they?” And the reality is that they did.

    I’m not saying that my position is the winner in this argument. It’s not (see exhibit A: Jen’s national profile and me not rolling in millions). Just making a case that it should still be on the table.

    I just think there comes a point in every business where you realize that there are shortcuts to getting what you want — things will save you time and money, but maybe make you feel a little icky at the end of the day. And you need to decide whether to take those shortcuts or not. And, I am on the mindset that not swallowing the ick gives you a peace of mind that makes doing what you do more enjoyable and rewarding and helps you sleep easier at night. And that is something no amount of money can buy.

    But, I’m kind of precious that way. 🙂

  • Sad, but true! But the social web evolved from these foundations of people sharing real opinions (without artificial influence). Then the advertisers/promoters got hold of it and are trying to turn it back into the same old, same old………….

  • Why would I buy Likes, when I can create a thematic campaign that appeals to my audience, create content around it, promote the content to my existing audience, support their activity with sponsored stories and thus grow not just audience but also engagement on the page overall for less than the net cost of buying a fan?

    We continue to drive down fan acquisition costs with this strategy. Internally we call it engagement-driven-acquisition. And the long term impact of higher engagement actually means lots more free traffic to our clients’ websites, lower ad costs, growth in eCRM lists and higher participation in promotions.

    Ultimately, we’ve driven our cost per fan below $0.50 on average, and our cost per interaction well below $0.01 which, yes, means an average of 50 interactions per fan per year.

    Engagement is a useless metric, but if you aren’t growing the bell portion of your engagement bell curve, you aren’t driving core business value.

  • Really interesting – but I find myself in the conservative camp.

    I just checked my kloutscore 51 apparently and it seems I have influence in Community Apps and Electiricity (maybe – but as I do not use apps and work B2B so this surprises me). If I were to wear such metrics with pride someday a young boy would point to the emperor and proclaim – “but he’s naked” correctly and he would be right to do so – he would be adding information to the melee.

    Vanity metrics leave you exposed !

    When it comes to Twitter, I have a merry following of a few hundred (and probably follow the same number myself). They are appreciated when they retweet my views and I hope they benefit from my contributions (mainly energy / startup ) related. I retweet what I guess may be of interest, and I trust the natural market for my tweets to evolve gradually when I get it right,

    But the day when our little startup rolls up to a VC and says hey we have an asset BECAUSE we have X followers, would be the day the little boy sees our naked Butt !

    Being clothed in earned reputation (however measurable it is or not) and whoever you are will serve you better when you need to go looking for someone who “likes” you.

    A more interesting question would be What proportion of your chosen “domain of interest” that is active on social networks believes that you are worthy of a like?

    If someone could produce that metric (quality not quantity) it would be interesting at least when trying to discover sources of information. In the social media world doubtless this metric has value (it is tacitly assumed that some of the really numerically big opinion leaders are of some value and the argument has merit – because they compete), but for anyone in a niche or non-social field it is meaningless.

    To compete for “likes” is like a baby crying for its mother that assumes otherwise it is unloved. A tragedy of the commons – fortunately real love is not contingent on having the loudest cry !

    This may be why our page-ranks suck but when we do make friends we tend to keep them !

  • It is unethical. It is unethical to claim you are what you are not. In the good old days it was called lying.
    The bigger picture is that is devalues the truth – and in all information, the truth is the only part that informs.
    I mentioned below that it is a tragedy of the commons – the argument ” they are all investing resources so I have to” holds water for many.
    Fortunately you do not have to play games that show a lack of integrity to win – in fact the opposite is true. It just takes some people a long life of defrauding themselves to discover this.
    Experiment – Go to a pub and buy a round of drinks on the house. Do it every night. You will soon gather a great horde of “friends”.

    You are lucky if you cant count your real friends easily!

  • Buying likes, tweets, etc generally violates the the TOS of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms as does buying Amazon reviews, Foursquare check ins, etc. But, if everyone’s doing it, does that make it okay for you?

    If you decide you’re willing to risk having those likes wiped out by a platform spam adjustment if not also potentially having your account shut down for violating the TOS, the question ultimately then centers around whether or not doing so gets you to your goals. If you buy 10,000 likes for $199, will it generate more than that in sales, awareness, customer loyalty, etc? And, how does it affect your business long term?

    The SEO community has dealt with basically the same thing – buying links – for over a decade. Some SEOs never buys links because that violates most search engine guidelines and can result in a penalty or even exclusion – which would be like having your Facebook page removed from all news feeds, Facebook search, etc. Others say that it’s worth the risk because a lot of people do it and it actually works in most cases. Does that make it right? I don’t know, but there is nothing wrong in my opinion with doing your own cost/benefit analysis.

  • tianakai

    Well stated James! I whole heartedly agree.

  • Gettysburg Gerry

    Well said Sir. ” I don’t know that your observation about a need for “Social Proof” warrants a conclusion of deception.”

  • So being a fake in the real world is smart marketing but being a fake online is unethical?

  • Gettysburg Gerry

    Yeah, what she said…

  • I guess for B2B clients are a good proxy for likes.

    When I see myself on the “loved by” section of (thanks @wmougayar) I know William is getting something from it – but so am I – an endorsement is far more mutual than a like – it says “This makes my life easier”.

    To test this – ask yourself – how many products have you publicly endorsed (ie taken some time to express what you value in them). Compare this with the count of things you have “liked” and the huge difference is anonymity. I know which I prefer.

    It doesn’t help when you are a startup at product launch like us – but it becomes a great signpost when you start getting traction

  • Gettysburg Gerry

    As Billy says in the end the truth is going to come out. Say you bill yourself as a social media speaker, have mostly fake followers, many of them in fact. You show your book that all of 59 people have bought. You sell yourself as the Social Media Guru, everyone should listen and learn from your wisdom. A company hires you to speak the wisdom of Social Media to their employees. You show up, You speak, You suck. Your outed. Because the smoke and mirrors will eventually be exposed.
    I think some of this comes from the change in business culture, from one of being an ethical company winning the day to one of whatever it takes to look the part.
    Maybe the answer lies in that word that we use so often, balance. I think at some point you cross a line from marketing to fraud. Either way I will be thinking on this more.

  • Mark,

    A good question you ask.

    I have clients that had at one time purchased likes and they are now paying for it in the EdgeRank algorithm as my friend Ian discusses. We now work toward getting past those challenges.

    As for my page – I have purchased no likes, and will not. My engagement usually sits above 10% without advertising, the same with my clients. As I’m sure you know, the average page is at 1-2% engagement.

    Those numbers might suggest that the true goal of social media is achieved without purchasing likes.

    My question for you is:

    I’ve looked for your Facebook page (not profile) to connect, and cannot seem to find it. Share a link?


  • tianakai

    Rockstars looking like Gods is what being a rockstar is all about. Paying for Likes seems to be crossing the line. I’m all about inviting friends and family to Like something, but the second it is paid for it feels too false and as you mentioned before you become a blog that herds readers, but probably wouldn’t last that long… hopefully not.

  • In the company examples you reference, this point is largely moot. Given that more than 70% of all Facebook fans are current or former customers of the companies they support, there is no evidence to support the thesis that existing “like” count increases the chances that another person will like the page.

    You either like and support Twizzlers, or you don’t. The number of people who have clicked the button before you is a non-factor.

    Further, an increasingly large share of Facebook likes are being accumulated from websites, mobile, and via Facebook ads, all of which are locations where the existing like count and social proof is typically hidden.

    Now, in a different context, say consulting or professional services perhaps, I believe a case could be made that social proof of this type has an impact, but I’d argue (without facts, but that never stops me), that the social proof framework is more of a Twitter construct than a Facebook construct.

  • Oooh, talk about opening up a can of worms, here… 😉
    I like your arguments but I would make two comments. First, the title should be revisited as “The rationale for buying Facebook likes”, because I don’t really see how this is a business case that would fly in most corporations. Second, while I agree in theory with you that you can purchase loads of fake likes, the long-term impact will be costly.

    Costly in terms of affecting negatively the engagement level of the FB page: bots and fake accounts don’t ever interact after the “like”, which will make the overall page performance sink. And costly since, because your engagement levels are becoming so low, you will most certainly need to pay for promoted posts in order to reach out to your audience base, which will cost even more since you have more fans. And which will be even less efficient since the fan base couldn’t care less…

    So it’s a catch-22, really. Indeed, buying FB fans can seem a silver bullet in terms of social proof, but it’s a poor tactic to build a live and engaged community over the long term.
    My 0.02


  • Normal people looking like gods is what social media is all about : )

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom James.

  • Great point

  • Having come from several decades in big companies, I can tell you that most companies would run the numbers and go with the most efficient path. And yes, you are precious in MANY ways!

  • If your largest and most important customer says “Yeah I hear you. I appreciate the counsel but we’re going to buy our likes” is that the point you fold up your tent?

  • Great comment Ike! Thanks!

  • Oh hell no.

  • Hey … you came back!! Nice job and thanks for the comment!

  • The answer to your question is simple. You buy likes because it is expedient, cost-effective and levels the playing field of “social proof” immediately. This is a very appealing alternative to a company under the gun. If you are the new kid in the department and the president of your company is screaming at your department for likes, why not give her likes? Give her what she wants and then eventually deliver what she needs?

  • This is philosophically brilliant but let me pose the scenario. Your client just walked out of a board meeting and tells us that key investors are demanding that we must at least equal the competitor’s number of Facebook likes (10,000) by the end of the month as a condition of further investment (that is critical to the company). That may seem irrational, but people are irrational. He is not interested in philosophy. He wants 10,000 likes by the end of the month. What do you do? Go.

  • A practical and rational view Eric. A muddy issue — what constituties buying a like any way? A contest that trade a gift for a like? Where do you draw the line? It’s a war out there.

  • tianakai

    yup. rock on Mark, rock on! 🙂

  • Indeed. Big reason why I no longer work IN corporate America, just with them. 😉

    Thanks for offering some compelling questions to get our collective juices flowing today. Hope all is fabulous with you.

  • This blog post continues to haunt me and is certainly relevant to your point >

  • My perspective differs. For business, the true goal of social media is not engagement. It’s to make money. So we need to consider things in context. For some companies, 10% engagement would be meaningless and a waste of resources. If I had that engagement level, with an expectation of response, it would be a disaster for my small business, for example.

    I would love to have you follow me on Facebook. My social connection buttons are on the right hand side of the blog. Thanks!

  • The scenario of the client I mentioned here is complicated but it is more or less B2B and I can’t go into details of the situation. But I do think in this case the social proof is a legitimate goal and not driven by ego or an ill-conceived plan.

    I’m not sure where the data is coming from that you reference but I do think there is an element of human nature that is susceptible to social proof. It’s like walking into an empty restaurant. Awkward! Do you want to be the third person to push that Like button? : )

    Thanks very much for taking the time to lend your wisdom Jay.

  • Dorien Morin

    I once had a client whose social media I set up and managed. We started off with a great social media plan, monthly goals, four platforms and a small audience. Monthly meetings would be held with a written report and analytics… Impatience (I hope it was impatience) let to Facebook ‘Like’ buying and eventually Twitter ‘follower’ buying by my client without initially notifying me. I was informed later but I kept having ‘surprise’ audiences show up on different platforms. Imagine my analytics…I could not tell what was working, what was not. I had no handle on what to post (engagement stats), what my audience was, or whom I was trying to talk to! I could not run a FB ad successfully because the audience was fake and ‘friends of fans’ was not an option. (the number was too low to run an ad!) Our relationship lasted about 9 months. I would never endorse it or buy likes myself and I will fire the next client if I see if done while I am in charge.

  • 1) Many large corps and large global ad agencies are buying fake likes. It pumps up the numbers for their clients. Few look past the basic numbers. It’s fraud, but it works: the bigger it appears, the more people will join.

    2) Want to see if an account has fake numbers? Use . Enter a Twitter account and it’ll tell you how many fake accounts it has. Anything more than 5% is suspicious.

    3) Much of the fraud is likely coming from the social startups themselves. If they show 100 million users have signed up, they get millions in VC investments and billions in valuation. That’s a very strong incentive to fake the numbers. 20% of Pinterest accounts are fake. I suspect the same numbers for FB, Twitter, Yelp, Zynga, and so on.

  • perilouspauline

    Thanks! Enjoyed the blog post. 🙂

  • Straight up buying likes is plain wrong. Just as buying Twitter followers is.

    The number of likes doesn’t equate to success anyhow. I recall a post by Shel Holtz that pointed out that Pepsi had much better engagement on Facebook than did Coke despite having significantly fewer likes–but those they did had more interaction with the page.

    I disagree with one or more comments that equate using Facebook ads to buying likes. Nothing could be further from the truth. I see Facebook ads as playing a critical role in introducing a page to a targeted audience. You still need to do the hard work to make the page engaging. If not, people introduced to the page may not “like” it or even if they do, they won’t see any of the pages posts–so what’s the point of having them click like. But if you are regularly posting content your FB community finds valuable and interesting, one of the best ways to use FB ads is to attract new people to join the community.

  • Thanks Mark! I definitely agree with you on the context. Ultimately what I’m wondering is: will people look beyond likes to other metrics as social proof?

    I do not doubt that, as soon as individuals look at other metrics (a klout-esque score in the category, a PTAT%, etc) marketers will find ways to purchase engagement, shares, and other actions to change perception.

    Today we are, as a whole, skeptical of marketing claims and sales pitches. Someday we will be skeptical of easily manipulated social proof too, no?

  • You’re assuming the company wants engagement. Not all companies have that desire or expectation. In the pharma industry for example, the more engagement, the more cost of monitoring for FDA issues and risks. But they may still want a Facebook page that at least has the appearance of popularity. A nuanced point but an important one.

  • Great perspective! Thanks for the real world story Dorien!

  • The problem is it doesn’t actually add value. EdgeRank will rapidly push your content out of the view of those people within months. So you’ve bought fans, have zero visibility for your content, so aren’t getting results. Which means the only real value you have is a high fan count, but you can’t drive any sales or conversions or activity based on that.

    Is that really what we believe social has come to? If so, I’m no longer in social media. Just call me an old school marketer: if I’m not driving results, I’m not interested.

  • I’m not sure if you’ve been following the beverage industry, but Coke is kicking Pepsi’s butt. So, based on a metric of financial success, i might say that less engagement and more social proof (likes) is a better strategy. Of course we can’t make that leap but my point is, it is dangerous to use “engagement” as a metric of success in a business environment. You can talk yourself broke.

  • See you at Social Slam!

  • Thanks for your comments today!

  • Boy i hope so Eric!

  • Let me put this in a different perspective, since we built ROI modeling on this internally specifically for our clients.

    We could go out and spend $1000 for roughly 10,000 “engaged” fans. The DAU was 0.1% on these, so only 100 people were taking actions per day, pre-algo change in September. Now the MAU is just 500 after the algo, precisely because the change was designed to highlight contnet people care about (rich get richer, poor get poorer). Great content truly does get better results now.

    For the same $1000, and for roughly 10 hours spent, I could do a SnapApp campaign, promote my content to my existing and friend of fan network and turn on sponsored stories so that any time one of my fans liked/commented/shared, all of their friends would see it. Suddenly I go from 500 people per day seeing my content, and 15 acting on it, to 25,000 seeing it, and 500 acting on it.

    In the first scenario, I would drive less than 100 clicks to my website, maybe 10 newsletter signups, and no real measurable impact on my business. And every month, I’d have 5-10% of these purchased users leave, while driving up my negative feedback rate so that I lose EdgeRank visibility amongst my “actual” fans. If we put a VPF on these fans of $0.10, value per click of $1 (SEM cost) and value per subscriber of $10 on email, we only end up driving $2200 in value over the course of 6 months.

    In the second scenario, I would drive 2000 clicks, 3000+ newsletter subscribers and my engagement rate would stay high, meaning that more and more people over time would organically see my content. In fact, realistically, I could expect my page to grow by 10%+ on a monthly basis.

    Using the same value calculations above, I’d thus be driving more than $30K in value. For basically the same investment (slightly more in time). On an ROI basis, my return is 10,000% higher by actually finding, acquiring, engaging and building fans based on high quality content they give a damn about than purchasing a list.

    Nevermind that in a year, those 10,000 fans will have grown to more than 25,000 and whenever I want them to do something, thousands of them will. My “social proof” will be that I have a social impact.

    Keep in mind that the science behind this is exactly how we repeatedly grow client pages from zero fans to hundreds of thousands, while maintaining high engagement, traffic, eCRM signups, and tracking in store purchases.

    Social proof? My social proof is that 250MM people interact with our clients’ content every month, for the same amount as competitors spend to interact with 1MM.

    Value matters in business.

  • tianakai

    thanks for the interaction! these things are worth the talk.

  • Ultimately I am here for the client, I do have to make a living. After strong discussion and debate it is up to the client, so short answer not folding! As long as clear expectations are set on both sides. Personally, our brand remains as you do with yours, purged and valid to the best of our ability

  • It appears our perspectives do indeed seem to differ, Mark. I’m sorry you feel that 10% engagement rate would be wasteful and meaningless…

    Before Facebook changed their algorithm, my engagement rates hovered consistently over 25% and higher with no advertising. But that was before. This is now.

    Considering things in context, the know/like/trust factor can be developed and nurtured on social media through engagement and relationships. This leads to people evangelizing your brand, and to spreading your message. That, in turn, leads to others entering your sales funnel and eventual sales that equate to dollars. Rinse and repeat.

    Remember, Facebook penalizes lack of activity through their EdgeRank algorithm. Where an international corporation bought likes and saw no results from their Facebook Page, I more than doubled and tripled the activity on their page by working on fan engagement. They now have a sales funnel related with their Facebook presence.

    When we’re discussing social media, the number of people talking about a brand most certainly matters. Would you rather 10 people talk about a brand, or 1000? That’s all engagement rate. In fact, I just received an email from a company telling me their tool increased Facebook likes and engagement rates — Where the two were tied together. They should be.

    I’ve been able to achieve brand awareness and sales for myself with my methods, and my business continues to grow. It doesn’t get you to remember me from BlogWorld NYC, but that isn’t necessarily part of my business plan.

    Should you indeed be able to teach me something, might I respectfully ask: What is your engagement rate? Your number of likes?

    More questions:

    * What are the Facebook engagement rates of the companies you typically work with?

    * Their average number of likes…? Were these purchased?

    * Are your clients achieving the sales numbers they desire?

    * Have you asked other social media leaders the same questions? What do they say?

    Following is more a Twitter term…less personal.

    My policy for Facebook is not to follow people. There, I’m more apt to befriend and build relationships. Break some digital bread, so to speak. Thanks!

  • Having spent 15 + years in traditional advertising, the industry always fought the perception that we were fooling consumers into buying something that they did not need. What I like about Social Media is transparency. Real conversation with real people. The power of the INDIVIDUAL consumer outweighed the mass perception. I hope that doesn’t change.

    When we reduce ourselves to buying likes and fans, we fall back into the comfortable role of fooling people. Real relationships are not built on fooling people, whether they are a consumer, patient, brand advocate or a target customer. I consider each “like” or implied endorsement I give as a consumer because as a marketer I value the the voice of the individual.

  • Thanks, Mark. I agree. That’s one reason that some people complain about contests on Facebook. Facebook’s promotion guidelines are pretty straightforward, but you have to seek them out. It’s not like you’re forced to agree to them every time you run a giveaway – which would give you the opportunity to review them easily.

  • kadeeirene

    I’m glad you wrote this and showed that even someone like you struggles with this, not only internally but from your clients as well. I hate the fact that you can buy numbers and pump up your follower count with spam in order to get a number that makes your client “happier” because to me, that’s not marketing. However, I do understand the value in social proof.

    However, I do feel like if you start with buying 10,000 likes you will forever be chasing likes. It’s quick and it’s easy to show growth. Bigger means better. But what happens after you get those likes? Your numbers fall into the red in Edgerank the week later and that becomes all you’re measured on. If you can get a client to trust you and give you enough time to actual show VALUE through engagement with your posts and products and get customer feedback on your business, then you’ve done your job as a social marketer.

    I honestly think that we, as an industry, are not doing our job by ONLY chasing numbers. We’re doing our job when we can show the true value of what social media can do for business and translate that value to our client’s in a way they understand and appreciate. Numbers may be the status quo now but I think those brands will fall behind quickly.

  • Since the fb change to ‘fan pages’, only around 20% of those fake fans will see those posts anyway. Unless you advertise. If you ‘buy’ likes you’ll probably end up advertising to them too. Does not make much sense. Why have the page at all?

    It probably makes more sense to spend the money to advertise on fb and target users who will ‘like’ the page for the content. If you have your customer personas defined and have a FB content strategy that has been targeting those personas, then your targeted ads will draw the correct audience, who will engage at one point or other. At the least they will stick around for a while.

    p.s: this is what I do for my clients who have had similar issues about lack of ‘likes’ and want to spend $ to increase their following count.

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  • Surely “364 talking about it” is all that matters Eric?
    Maybe even those 364 were purchased via a promoted post?
    Presumably everyone who measures these things as social proof will eventually get more savvy and simple Likes will count for nothing

  • Yes, that is the point I fold up my tent. My integrity comes before money. I could not in good conscience work with a company that shirked hard work, connection and building actual and real relationships for the easy “buy” now, worry about it later, approach.

  • Very well said, Jennifer Kane. While rolling in millions would certainly be nice, it doesn’t trump the icky factor if I chose to just flop down on the floor and let anyone run rampant over my integrity.

  • I never said engagement is meaningless. I said that for a business, engagement must tie back to creating shareholder value in the context of the business strategy.

    Let me give you a micro-example of what i mean. The engagement on the blog is very high today. As a small business owner, if I had this level of engagement every day, i would not have time to work on the consulting activities and teaching that feed my family.

    If I really wanted to, I could certainly achieve this level of engagement all the time but it would be foolhardy for me to do so. I need to strike the proper balance of commercial activities across my customer base that will optimize the business results.

    So in this small example, I’m illustrating that engagement is not the goal, although it might be part of the marketing mix. Simply driving up engagement to 25% or 50% or 100% is not a strategy if it does not drive measurable business results.

    The questions you’re asking me are irrelevant without context of the type of company and strategy. An engagement level which would be terrible for Disney might be thrilling for a small company selling ball bearings in a B2B environment because it is not a very conversational brand. There are no absolutes in this business.

    I would rather have an engagement rate of 5% than 25% if it made me more money. Wouldn’t you? : )

  • Mallie you would walk away from your largest client who is simply wanting you to provide a perception even after sharing with them what the value that you perceive that “bought” likes are worth? Do you feel this this would have a reflection on your own SM engagement?

  • I agree that social media has that potential but do you really see human conversations taking place for major brands? I can;t name too many. It’s all being outsourced to ad agencies. We’re back to where we started but I would love to be proved wrong. Small companies yes. A very few brands yes. Some customer service examples, yes. But generally, companies I see just want to hand it off to an ad agency.

    Please shoot me down with some big brand examples other than the same 4-5 companies used in every social media book (Zappos, Whole Foods, Comcast, etc). Thanks very much David. I do agree with you but am not sure the rest of the market is following this line of thinking.

  • A superb comment. Nothing to add. Well done!

  • Really great argument Jacob. So glad to see you back in the comment section!

  • The thing that is really bugging me about a lot of these comments is that the “return” you are expressing is in “engagement.” That is not a business objective. I would not invest in a company who is driving engagement without tying it to some business objective.

    Basically what you’re getting back to is how efficiently you can drive “likes” and engagement and I appreciate the thoughtful and scientific approach you are taking on that, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have customers handing you money, your business will evaporate.

    One of the stellar social media examples is Dell. They are so far ahead in their social media competencies that they are beginning to offer this as a consulting service to other companies. Yet, the company is struggling financially and its stock is at a five-year low.

    Apple Computer has no engagement on the social web and is the most valuable company in history.

    Engagement, yes. But only in the context of business results!

  • Yes! Your right, people ar duped a lot! But at some point doesn’t it get like T.V. during the commercials we go and do something else? thanks Billy

  • I agree with your perspective Randy. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him tweet. If I quit every time a client didn’t follow my advice I wouldn’t be much of a consultant. Lose the battle, but keep on fighting the war : )

  • Really great points Andreas. Thanks for sharing today.

  • Purchasing likes / followers have been an age-long strategy in digital marketing, similar to how retailers used to pay for a crowd around their stores or magicians setting up a volunteer in the audience. It works, yes, but I really wonder who are they really making a fool out of. The consumer? Or is it just themselves?
    Staying away is probably the best thing to do 🙂

  • I am going to send this post to my Farmer’s insurance agent who recently started asking me, every week or so it seems for LIKES. I am going to suggest to him he spend the $199 for 10,000 instead of asking me.

    I would much rather have customer service than to be asked for LIkes, and that’s what I told him the first time, but he didn’t get it!

    When I hear a business has bought likes or followers, it totally devalues any social proof and credibility for me the customer.

  • I think businesses first have to ask themselves the question; why do we need social media? What are we going to using for? Majority of the brands using social say they use it for branding purposes and others are there because their competitors are, and they don’t want to be left behind. I feel the need to run behind numbers such as likes is due to lack of direction and basic understanding of social media. The people who are using social media effectively are the ones who have incorporated it as a part of their culture, they don’t even look at social as a strategy – it is a part of everything they do. I think that is the kind of approach we should be moving towards and not petty numbers.

  • Mark – We are truly philosophical only when we mentally arm ourselves to make right decisions. So I hope my answer would be a gentle “refusal”. (and possibly a real threat to go BIG and explain why)

    Why? – Certainly if I whore my word publicly , It carries far less weight the next time (it was ever so), And when you do the right thing your word soon becomes a force that people will “put store in”. But these are side effects. The real reason is because to knowingly do what is right (despite tactical losses) is its own reward.

    It’s a question of battles and wars – It may be harder to win in the short term, but guarding your reputation is a winning strategy – that starts in not misleading yourself.

    Who feels most self-worth ? – the athlete who trains hard or the one who uses performance enhancing chemicals. And which do you respect most?

    Sometimes its that obvious.

    PS – I trust that the challenge was rhetorical “devils advocacy” – I would not waste my time reading your blog – if I felt you did not value the words you wrote.

  • There is a really good point in this video

    that the big social networks are becoming nothing more than social notification services rather than real social experiences.

    And I wonder if we are going to see more and more smaller social network claiming to be “real” pop-up as users lose trust in the big networks because of dark-hat marketing ploys like buying likes.

    Just look at the whole Instagram T&C mes yesterday. While Instagram may actually have the best intentions and just got it wrong doesn’t matter. They are seen as part of Facebook and as such we all expect the worst straight away.

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  • Yes, it was devils advocacy, so thanks for playing along. It sounds like rather than answer the question above you would step away from the client and lose the business?

    There is another way to look at this however. One of my friends told me once that she first gives a client what they want and then works over time to give them what they need. Sometimes what they want is a little crazy … but that’s an opportunity too.

    I tend to form friendships with my customers. They don;t always do what I want but I don;t give up on them either. They may go a direction different than what I would prefer but if I walk away I would not be there to keep fighting the good fight.

    I have only been in two situations in my life where I was expected to do something illegal or unethical and I walked away both times. However I am also willing to work through mistakes or a learning curve with a customer, which is different than a customer being evil.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

  • Agree Jan. I would not advocate this as a strategy but recognize the business pressures that keep this an option, unfortunately.

  • Excellent discussion happening here, Mark. Thank you. I’ll echo what many have stated far better than I – buying likes is borderline unethical, it doesn’t support engagement, and it’s a short cut to social proof. Having said that, there are, however, companies that have been and are supporting this model in their marketing and advertising strategies. So, business case, yes. The right case? Probably not. But, it’s our job to question and inform the clients and organization for/with whom we work.

    Many thanks for the insights, as always.

  • This made me laugh out loud : )

    The problem is, 95% of the companies out there are like your insurance agent (seriously!) and that is what is keeping the black market going and creating these bizarre competitive scenarios. Thanks for the great comment Caroline!

  • Amen. Agree completely. Thanks for taking the time to comment today.

  • Kind of a rambling video … I’m not sure creating your own network is the answer but I understand the point. I think the closest thing to “community” being inserted into social might be Path right now but I don’t use it that much. Have you tried it?

  • Thanks Kary! I agree.

  • lol, it IS a bit all over the place, but I think one of my takeaway is that smaller social networks might be a) more relevant b) more trustworthy.

    I installed Path, i like the UX of Path… I don’t use it because of the same problem I have with Google+ and with migrating from Instagram: People I connect with aren’t there :/

  • I count 5 metrics above that aren’t engagement. Also, we’re leading the research in north america on how to track conversions from digital to purchase. Anyone who promotes likes and engagement as a metric gets kicked out of our office.

  • Nevermind, I give up. If you feel having 10,000 useless fans adds value to your life and business, I’ll never convince you otherwise. It’s about as useful as a million person eCRM list that never opens your email. Sure, you can claim you are great at eCRM cause you have a million person list, but the proof is in the proof: revenue, BIT scores, traction, offline integration, online integration, ecosystem growth, etc.

    Of course, if your sole goal is to get new business from SMEs by claiming to be an expert and your “social proof” is how many fans you have, that’s totally cool. I don’t get it, but I’m not judging.

    I just question how much value someone can drive for clients (value as defined above) when they can’t do it for themselves.

    Fundamentally, yeah, engagement is just one metric. As it should be. Just like bounce rates are one metric. Open rates are one metric. Response rates are one metric. GRPs are a metric.

    Everything is just a metric til it has context applied against activities within an overall strategic framework which is evaluated against objectives.

    We have one client, just one, who puts engagement on his KPIs. But that’s because he is waging a Tier 1 war with another global brand for brand trust scores, so sentiment IS his defining metric from the global group.

  • Hey Mark this is a great post. Chobani had become the biggest yogurt brand with no advertising or social media. I asked them why the investment in facebook. Meaning they were spending 100k’s in Facebook Ads to garner likes. The response was it helps the ‘Search’ listing when people type in Yogurt. I said but you are number one without this just finding this bizarre. But I am sure they were feeling pressure from Danon and Yoplait who have more likes…for whatever reason.

    So going to your post. Isn’t buying Facebook ads the same? And aren’t a ton of big brands doing this? When I see a Brand with a ton of Likes do I scroll through the fans to see how many are legit? No. No one does.

    I have a guest post waiting to come live on Waxing Unlyrical about my efforts to grow a facebook community for a client. New business. No name recognize aside from the two partners in their industry. In 4 months 24 Likes. Sent out invites to several hundred people on an email list. How do you get Likes? Buy em. Or they need to ask people directly via advertising, in person etc. To me all of these efforts cost money. Why is one different than the other?

  • Here is where I will say all brands technically fail on facebook which is fine. Huffinton Post has 40+ million unique visitors a month. and the 170k talking about is over 7 days. So 24,000 a day. or 0.06% of their monthly readers taking an action on that page per day. In fact the average Facebook Brand page Fan only takes an action (Like, Comment, Share) only 1x every 260 days. Not very engaging if you ask me. In fact biggest failure in history for engagement.

    So why invest in the page at all aside from a place for customer service?

    That said if every reader commented on Facebook each day they would need maybe 100.000 employees to respond to them all. I bet Huff Post has 1000% more comments per day on their sight than they have engagement on facebook.

  • Mark…..Excellent article.. What I am finding are more and more PR & marketing companies and peeps getting into social media, and they use these social media platforms to advertise more than to engage properly or answer consumers with problems or questions.. Very sad… but about buying Likes… I know it boosts numbers and that’s what clients want.. but… when I explain to them in detail why it’s bad or not good, then they want to do it organically. The problem is.. many social media peeps aren’t educating these clients properly. Sad.. Yes, numbers look great, but if they don’t do much outside of that, then be on the other side and explain this properly. Sure, you won’t win over everyone, but those that you do, will normally be your better client.. and hopefully for life..

  • Maybe I missed it in the comments below Mark, but there is a hidden trap that can backfire when you purchase likes on Facebook.

    Can we all agree that most purchased likes come from another country, outside of the U.S. and that they typically speak another language?

    When you attempt to advertise to your fans or friends of fans via Facebook after purchasing likes, the results are pretty bad. You’ll find more click-thru’s but they won’t matter because someone in India has no intention of stopping by your little corner pizza store. You’ll get more comments, but you won’t be able to read the language they’re in AND they freak out your loyal fan base (preventing additional comments). You’ll receive more “likes” on the page, but from the friends of your purchased likes – perpetuating the problem.

    Some tips for those thinking of purchasing social proof:
    – Purchase likes in small increments like 25-50 at a time (you won’t find this kind of option available, most come in large quantities).
    – Observe the behavior of the profiles interactions on your page(s).
    – As you gain likes from customers/genuine company fans, remove the fake likes.
    – When advertising, do not advertise to friends of fans.

  • I find it somewhat interesting. A little more intimate. I’ll probably use it more in 2013.

  • My comment was about the comment stream in general. I was kind of thinking aloud, not necessarily meant at you.

    I do know the value of engagement but think it is overblown as an objective many times. There is a tremendous cost associated with maintaining an active dialogue (witness the comment section on this post!!)

    Thanks very much for the clarification and the very thought-provoking comments. It sounds like you’re doing fantastic work and I’d love to hear more about your strides in measurement. Feel free to drop me a line and thanks for the great discussion Jeremy!

  • Looking forward to that post!

  • Agree Jeff. Still, even with an explanation, the practical short-term risk versus gain can still be appealing to jump-start the effort.

  • An interesting perspective Charity because it sounds as though you’re the first person in the comment section who has actually bought likes as far as I can tell. I haven’t done it myself. So thanks for adding your very valuable perspective.

  • A client bought likes before hiring me. I had to clean up the mess and figure out why all of his ads were being “liked” and commented on by people who would NEVER frequent his local business. It took a while but I found that if I deleted the paid likes the ad results and the Facebook metrics were better. I’m trying to take a non-judgemental stance, because I understand WHY they felt the need to buy likes and that the likes were much cheaper initially than advertising. In the long run though, they cost more.

  • Well done.

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  • Wow! 20% of Pinterest accounts are fake? I would have thought it’d lower since they had the invite-only membership.

  • The startup itself can create fake accounts in order to inflate user adoption rates, growth, etc., in order to impress investors. They get millions of dollars and billions in valuation. There’s apparently no legal penalty for this, but plenty of incentive. Look into the history of how Zynga got started.

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  • Charles-Henri Leporc

    I was about to comment the same. very good point. Advertising on Facebook is a PPC. It means that user click to visit the page and then have to click a second time to Like the page. The user is never forced to like and can always dislike the page when over time, user does not find content pertinent or interesting to him.
    The ability to target Facebook user is also a way for marketer to choose people that are most likely to be interested by its content.
    In this sense, buying like (PPC) is fine

  • Dear Mark, thank you for your post! I agree that we should avoid anything that feels & looks unethical. Otherwise, how will we make this world a better place? I strongly believe that building a real relationship and being committed to your mission is worth more than “empty” marketing, in a long run, at least. At the end of the day it is about how many people you help, how you help them to be better and to live better, it is not about numbers or likes. Me too, I get a lot of emails on how I can get 10.000 followers or likes. And it does not fit with my vision. I believe in building a real business with real customers and really making a difference. And I think that there are a lot of people like this around us, and thanks to them things are done, ideas become reality, people’s lives improve. Thank you for writing your blog and for talking about these issues. I really appreciate your candor 🙂

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  • Dewol

    I purchased 20,000 likes from a believable web from there i received all real likes on right time or cheaper cost. I very like this service. I agree with this.

  • I suppose that’s one way to look at it. In the long run it might just be simple math. If your gig is honestly and transparency, obviously this isn’t the way to show that. But if you’re just a mass market commodity it hardly matters.

  • Andreas, good info; I just checked my twitter account and it’s 2%.

    Are you suggesting that Zynga managed to get VC funding on the back of fake twiter and facebook followers.

    If you have any links to info I’d be interested to read.

  • Like restaurants sitting patrons in the front window… accepted, rewarded, but ethical?

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