crushing

By , {grow} Community Member

Social networks go to great lengths to keep people from gaming their systems. Well, all but one that is.

What would you think about a platform that rewards its members for gaming their blogs, Facebook pages, Yelp reviews, customer sites, and Twitter accounts? That’s what’s happening right now on Empire Avenue, and if you love social media, it’s absolutely soul crushing.

If you’re unfamiliar with Empire Avenue, it’s something of a social media stock exchange. You buy shares in people and they buy shares in you. Your worth is determined by your activity on the site and your frequent use of the social networks you connect to your profile. You earn ‘eaves’ (the fake currency on the site, which can also be purchased in bulk using real currency) which accumulate via different actions you take and then can be reinvested into your portfolio.

An economy of bribery

To those who love buying stocks or dabbling in social media, this sounds interesting, right? Sure! But it’s what else you can do with your eaves that is pretty sickening.

Users can create “missions” using their eaves. In these missions, you can engage in an economy of bribery to create fake social signals: 1,500 eaves to RT a tweet, 10,000 eaves to share a post on Google+, 25,000 eaves to ‘Like bomb’ a client Facebook page, etc. This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. The reason it crushed my soul is that much of the social media engagement drummed up by some very influential content marketers is a flat out lie. They’re not necessarily earning all those Likes and tweets because they have a raving fan base, or because their content really hits home as useful and helpful (though it may very well be). They’re getting it because they’re bribing other people to do so. They’re fakes. And that really hurts to realize that.
  2. Google HAS to be taking note of this, right? It’s as outright gaming of the system as you can get. Doesn’t this pyramid-scheme house of cards have to be doomed to collapse? It’s nearly equal to buying ‘Likes’ and followers, which so many people will adamantly advise you to steer clear from doing. This is worse, however, because it’s providing completely manufactured social signals to others, not to mention Google.

In their latest announcement, Empire Avenue claims that a stockpile of eaves will even get you “access to people.” Doesn’t that just creep you out a little?

Now, look. I know that we all want and need to build up those social signals, especially now that Facebook has admitted to dwindling visibility for page posts and Google+ is giving indications that social signals affect SEO.

The advocate view

Empire Avenue advocates say that it’s simply amping up the broadcast of the message, and there’s no harm in that — much like promoting a post or buying an ad. It must be awfully tempting to beef up your social media numbers without any real effort … but it seems to me completely insincere.

I asked people on Cinch (A new question and answer app introduced by Klout) if they really felt they were getting value out of Empire Avenue, and the answers landed in two camps. Some had obviously drank the Kool-Aid and swore by it. Others noted the great increase in social signals and visibility, but stated the quality and lack of qualified leads coming from it made it less a marketing tool and more of a reach tool. On a recent Facebook post initiated by Pam Moore, Attorney Glen Gilmore summed up the concerns of the second camp better than I can articulate:

“I joined Empire Avenue when it first launched and every member was given some virtual currency to “invest” in others. I invested wisely and others invested in me and my “stock,” over the time, rose to where I was a “multi-millionaire” – who could send an army of members to “like,” “retweet,” etc.”

“Yet, I have never sent anyone on a “mission.” Just this week, someone contacted me to “accept the mission” of tweeting about an environmental product for no other reason than to earn some sizable virtual cash. I declined. I then looked at the array of assignments posted on the site. It is a digital mercenary’s smorgasbord.

“Curious, I G+’d a cool picture of a castle and tweeted a helpful list of analytic tools. Neither action inspired any social interaction within the platform. Though EA has in its community guidelines a link to Advertising and Endorsement Guidelines, when you click the link, it gives an “Error” message. That point is rather telling. Empire Avenue seems to me to be a platform that not only fosters a lack of transparency and authenticity, but, violates both the spirit and letter of the FTC Advertising and Endorsement Guides.”

“Taking a fresh look at the platform has inspired me to throw away my millions in stockpiled virtual cash. I have deleted my Empire Avenue account and my millions in unspent virtual credits.”

More legal troubles

Empire Avenue features marketing at its worst — approaches that sound straight from the spam folder on your blog. “Hello. How are you. I invested in you. CLICK HERE TO FOLLOW ME ON X, ‘LIKE’ MY PAGES, CHECK OUT MY MISSIONS. DO ALL THESE THINGS FOR ME. ME. ME.”

Even if you are new on the site, you get bombarded with this stuff right from the onset, which almost made me leave Empire Avenue before digging in a bit more. I also had to advise someone of the dangers of offering 50,000 eaves to anybody who would write a 5-star review on his client’s Yelp page. (see image below). This is such a bad idea for so many reasons that I’m thankful he took my advice to remove the mission. His client could have paid dearly for it. Not only is this in direct violation of Yelp’s review guidelines, but it could have seriously damaged the client both financially and reputation-wise!

ea graphic yelp

Empire Avenue advertises itself as a platform that is rewarding people for what they’re already doing. That’s not quite true. People aren’t normally sharing some random person’s marketing messages, one who he or she has no personal connection with, just to earn points. People don’t already share things that don’t interest them. That’s not ethical marketing. That’s Black Hat Social Media.

Empire Avenue is powered by fakes, spammers, and desperate “gurus” I used to admire until I saw their true colors show on this platform. Here I am, thinking I’ve been failing at blogging because I’m not getting tons of engagement, when it turns out I’m apparently just not bribing people.

If you’re using EA, what is your experience? Is there any long-term value or problem I have overlooked? Please chime in on the comment section below.

rob zaleskiRob Zaleski is a Content Marketing Manager for a startup in Austin, TX. He also blogs independently at Robzie Social.

Illustration courtesy Inhabitat Art Studio

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