A couple of weeks back, while driving my way back home in the evening, I was waiting for the signal to turn green in the busy Trinity Junction in Bangalore. A couple of pedestrians were waiting for their signal to cross the road too, when a middle-aged guy with a huge bundle of pamphlets walked in to that place. He thrust a pamphlet in everybody’s hand, with no exception. He offered me one, I signaled him a ‘no’ and he went on to insert a pamphlet in my car’s wiper!

I read what it was from my windshield – it was for some computer course with a promise of software jobs as soon as the course was over…that too in leading technology companies in India. The interesting thing to note here is that it was being handed over to people of all ages in that busy junction, regardless of whether it is appropriate for them or not. After this charade was over, the man started running across the junction…when everybody else was patiently and carefully waiting for the signal to cross!

Isn’t it odd that both those acts are also being performed online in India, when it comes to Facebook page management?

In the past 6 months alone, I have come across 7 proposals from oddly named ‘digital agencies’ that have a ‘cost per fan acquired’ commitment. 3 of these are from Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, and 2 each, from Delhi and Mumbai. The ‘cost per fan acquired’ ranges from Rs. 7.50 to Rs. 13. One of the proposals even had a ‘your money back if we do not get the numbers committed’!

I have been asked by some of my clients about our ‘cost of acquisition per fan’. As ridiculous as it may sound, I have always tried to explain the basics patiently – that we do not own or acquire fans in Facebook and that focusing on the bean counter of likes is a completely pointless exercise not worth anybody’s time. But I have also noticed that many of such questions start from the marketing department – we (as in a PR agency dealing with corporate communications department) get to hear stories about how the marketing team is pressurizing the communications team to up the numbers in their Facebook pages, particularly when the communications team has a head-start in social media initiatives within the organizations while the marketing team, with help from ad agencies is still scraping microsites and ‘viral’ videos.

Marketing team’s focus stays on the numbers, as always, and communications guys, in a hurry to prove themselves, opt for one of the proposals mentioned above, because they promise numbers. The plan is usually similar across proposals – they commit to getting X fans within Y days, for Rs. Z.

We have been asked for such proposals too and we have always flatly refused. And, after explaining and educating clients, we have also told them to go ahead try these agencies on their own will and risk – after all, everybody is entitled to make their own mistakes and learn.

The modus operandi of such plans seem similar – they fall within the following 3 methods.

  1. Create a master page for the social media company based on the most popular theme in India – films/TV shows/film or TV personalities and flog that endlessly to get ‘likes’. When that becomes popular, use that as the base media to promote clients of all kinds. So, even if the client is a hotel chain, post information about the hotel chain in what is a film/TV show page and ask people to ‘like’ hotel chain’s page using gifts from the hotel client.
  2. The ‘agency’ hires an army of college kids for one single task – join as many Facebook pages or Groups and even popular communities outside Facebook, and cross-post the client’s Facebook page URL with a 2 line context…all over the place. Any number of ‘likes’ the client page gets is a bonus.
  3. Create fake Facebook profiles using college/school kids and get ‘them’ to like Facebook pages of clients.

Actually, the 2nd method is a legitimate tactic, if we choose the right forum to cross-post, along with an appropriately worded context, but the 1st and 3rd tactics are as bogus and pointless as the traffic signal situation I explained in the beginning of this post.

Imagine – if you equate the online happening with the traffic signal situation, tactic 1 would read like this: The middle-aged guy puts up a small roadside stall with pictures of film personalities to draw people’s attention. When they do walk up to him, he hands over his ‘computer course’ pamphlet to them.

Tactic 3 would be…the middle-aged guy dumping all his pamphlet bundles in a garbage bin and informing his client that all of them have been individually handed over to people!!

This is a menace, for many reasons…the three that come to the top of my mind include,

  1. The focus is on mindless acquisition of ‘likes’, even as content and engagement is being handled at a rudimentary level.
  2. The kind of people ‘gathered’ is mostly utterly pointless and is the wrong target audience.
  3. It spoils client contacts given that it feeds their already ignorant need to add numbers to their efforts…and becomes a completely wrong example to follow.

The fake Facebook profile menace seems to be a recent entrant in India and it is interesting that fake profiles are being used for very different purposes across India and other western countries.

An October 2009 post on Read Write Web talks about fake Facebook profiles being used to infect visitors’ systems with virus. An older report from October 2008 refers to spammers and malware makers creating Facebook profiles to make people click on malicious site URLs.

In India? Here, fake profiles are being created to satisfy greedy, ignorant client-side marketers who have only one thing in mind when it comes to ROI from Facebook – number of ‘likes’! Don’t believe me? Here are a few samples!

There are common traits among the 6 samples above (click on the thumbnails to see the larger version) – there are many, many more, incidentally!

  1. Most of these fake profiles do not have a display photo.
  2. They have no friends or very limited friends (usually other fake profiles!!)
  3. They have 10+ (some have 50!) page likes
  4. Their walls are completely empty with just a listing of pages they ‘liked’

(Lead on fake profiles and research courtesy…my colleague in Edelman Delhi, Soumya Dev)

I do understand that since I’m not ‘friends’ with these characters I can see only limited information about them on their profile. Even taking that benefit of doubt into consideration, a simple check of the proportion of friends vs. likes would make it clear why these profiles exist!

This is a menace that has to stop since it topples the level playing field that legitimate social media/digital agencies have in India. The irony is that many of the pages they join may already have a legitimate agency working hard to build a worthy community using relevant and interesting content…but, bowing to internal pressure, the client may have contracted a snake-oil agency to bump numbers. Result? The legitimate agency’s effort in community building gets severely impacted by the sudden influx of people with no friends, no profile picture and most importantly, no engagement or intent of purchase.

That is the crux, actually. A Facebook community is something we sell to our clients, after doing thorough homework on the need for one, as a place to gather relevant people online and build on two factors – purchase consideration and purchase intent. The former is done using consistently relevant content and an interesting narrative to communicate the client’s story. The latter is activated using appropriate offers/freebies and sharing exclusive information to make the community feel special. A sudden influx of fake profiles topples all percentages within our legitimate community building efforts and suddenly, our effort seems to be reaching and impacting much lesser fans than what it should be!

I had a brief, late night twitter chat with Dina Mehta on this topic after she tweeted,

@dina: quite shocked to learn of how much “buying” of facebook fans & followers happens. mentioned by @rajivdingra @maheshmurthy & @eviral #ssmum

And when she asked,

@dina: @beastoftraal @twilightfairy @prolificd – and the industry sits and watches quietly?? why aren’t we exposing THIS scam too???

…I really didn’t have much to say! Chances are…as long as there are clients who need ‘numbers’, the snake-oil social media agency committing to getting fans will survive…and thrive. After all, it is just an extension of what happens to political rallies in real life, in India. Crowds are gathered not based on ideologies or party relevance, but on the promise of money and a meal!

For clients, one strong reason to not go for an agency is to see how they respond when you intentionally pose the ‘cost per fan’ question. If they answer in the affirmative, you know what to do. The fact is there are enough good and legitimate agencies to help brands make prudent use of social media tools and the Indian market is big enough for all these players. It is the sneaky, fly-by-night agencies that spoil the game…but anyway, we (and clients) have at least one confirmed way to identify them now…pop them the ‘cost per fan’ question!

‘FAKE’ picture courtesy: Paul G via Flickr.



29 thoughts on “The murky underworld of Facebook page management in India

  1. and I also know agencies which create fake profiles that go ahead and spam everyone to add them as friends (often having some friends in common with you as a result). Then invite the friends to all the 1000 fb pages they are managing. That’s another way of getting “fake” fans for your fb page.

    Apart from the number of fans, some agencies go way out to get number of views on videos etc.. and BTW even the views are on sale on the net πŸ™‚

    1. I had accepted friend reqs from two such fake profiles… typically they had more than 6000 friends each and what tipped me off was that they would keep sending me fan pages to like.. not once… but over and over again until I removed them from friends once and for all.

  2. Very informative post. I run a software company and I have been regularly asked by Clients wishing to have a ‘Popular’ Facebook page with at least 1000 followers. I compare this scam to be on par with ‘getting your site in top-10 of google’ scam and ‘google adwords’ scam. Kindly write about that as well if you can.
    Can I link this article from my blog?

  3. I’m glad you’ve taken this up! I’ve been trying to fight this out myself and have lost several clients so far πŸ™‚ There’s much more to it. Like @Twitlightfairy spoke about fake profiles, there’re fake profiles of brands which use the system this way –

    I own page A and post through profile x. The profile x is obv created to manage page A and add friends by the agency. Soon, the profile x starts sending request of another brand B which clearly shows the details of the agency and a new client acquisition πŸ™‚

    I’m also certain that 5 out of top 10 pages in India are filled with fake profiles/likes/comments πŸ™‚

  4. Very well written, Karthik! But I wonder if the practice is unique to India or can be decimated – for, when it comes to any tool that can be used, there is always a case that it will equally be abused. We should just accept it as one of the dark realities of social media marketing, besides keeping our distance from it

  5. Brilliant post Karthik. very informative. But does it always end in the target figures? The number of fans and likes? What if the client plans to initiate a fan engagement program from their amounting fan base? πŸ™‚

  6. The truth is, the market brings out whatever is demanded. And as long as there are organizations leaping onto the social media bandwagon is a desperate bid to stay relevant in a rat race they don’t fully understand, there will always be snake-oil salesmen preying off their fears and insecurities. When the clients reach a maturity level of asking for the right deliverables, the agencies will die out. Which means the change has to happen from the inside out, from within the marketing, CS, and PR departments, with training, hiring the right people, and understanding the opportunity rather than throwing money blindly at it. There’s a lot more people out there with the right ideas than we think; we need to start getting them in, where they can use those ideas. That’s going to be far better for the organization than literally throwing money into the Rs-10-per-fan hole in the ground. All you get there is an even bigger army of agencies, frantically digging to make the hole bigger and scarier.

  7. I feel facebook should have an option, where you could disable the count of fans + likes. This has turned out to be as much as a nuisance as Hot/Sexy/Cool + Profile Visitors was to orkut.

  8. Great post – very informative. The trend will rebound eventually. Whe companies realise that have thousands of useless Likes doesn’t get them anything, they will start to focus on quality instead.

  9. no need to make a bigg hulla bulla about this…

    fake profiles; its always been happening since day one of social networks.

    There still ain’t a Huge list of these fake profiles running around facebook..
    Engaging users with activities on fanpages is what is the current way forward to get fans by also offering them goodies in return, and being an alternate online customer service window. and offcourse, loads more too..

    dont scare the brands out there, who are naive to the medium πŸ™‚
    social media, suddenly in the last 8odd months is the brand need & buzz of the hour, lets not pull out all the cons only.. and rather try working on how we can make it pro better for our indian consumers & brands πŸ™‚


  10. Have written about this on my blog quite a number of times…
    And have voiced similar things.

    But that was the initial frustration…soon one gets to work with it. Oh btw…one can run their own FB Ad campaign and get a far better deal than quoted by these snake-oil agencies.
    Once you bring creativity and engagement to the table and also offer FB Advertising options – so that you can handle fan acquisition yourself and legally…and you also have a team to execute apps…you don’t really have to worry about anything.

    Working on 4 very attractive FMCG brands currently including AXE…which has given the entire team here an enormous amount of learnings. Sitting and writing blog posts and complaining about the scenario won’t really help.

    1. Ekalavya: We do offer legitimate ways to gain ‘likes’ – like Facebook advertising and many clients have found immense value in it, but even there, we do not commit to specific number of increase in ‘likes’ and go by what Facebook guidelines tell us as indicative numbers. What we are up against, at least with gullible clients, is proposals that promise specific numbers – you pay Rs. X and get Y fans in Z days. So, creativity and advertising proposals are all fine…we just let clients take a call after explaining all the things involved – in our legitimate proposal and in the snake-oil proposal. After all, it is the client’s money and we can only inform them – not order them, right?

      1. I still don’t get it. Legitimate ways of getting fans for a page via Social Ads are NEVER more expensive than Rs 7 – Rs 13. So a question of a brand manager going to a ‘Snake Oil Agency’ doesn’t really arise…unless you are charging more than INR 13/fan. In that event…the brand manager is thoroughly justified to switch to an agency which gives him a better ROI.

        If a brand manager is paying you Rs 1.5L/month to maintain his fan page strategy, content etc… He is justified in wanting an X amount of fans at the end of the month. It should be an agency’s job to put a certain amount of the monthly retainer into social ads and deliver numbers…because organically you won’t be able to get more than 10-20% monthly growth.

        And if a brand has a proper social media strategy, where a Facebook page plays a centric role…i don’t know why the brand manager shouldn’t be obsessed about numbers. A smart brand manager will know his MAU’s from the fan base…the daily feedback rate…the organic and paid growth.

        You can’t demand more than Rs 15 per fan and then wish that other agencies didn’t offer them at INR 7-13. There is absolutely no need to go spamming on other fan pages…an in depth knowledge of running Facebook Ads is more than enough.

        1. Ekalavya: It is not about the cost at all. It is about giving assured commitments of X fans. However confident you are about your creativity and content skills, I’d be wary of giving specific numbers – we do give broad guidelines in terms of percentage increase.

          The issue is with certain clients giving importance to specific numbers over guideline percentages, since their marketing team has taught them that they always get specific numbers in terms of reach, in case of advertising.

          1. Why can’t you give assured commitments?
            If you have Rs 1 Lakh to spend on Social Ads…and you see that on average a fan is costing you Rs 7…You can confidently assure 12,500 fans…keeping a decent buffer in case there is a spike in acquisition rates.

            As a brand manager I want to know where my brand will stand at the end of the month…Cos’ there will be certain engagement activities planned only when I reach a particular number of people in my community. Also as a brand manager…I want to know from my agency where I will stand at the end of the month, at the end of the quarter etc.

          2. An average is still an average. Fan increase cannot be committed like saying, ‘We spend Rs. X and we get Y million eyeballs on TV…”…households with TV or number of people who have subscribed a particular channel is not the same as the number of people the ad is exposed to, on Facebook. Plus, assuring fan numbers inherently means you are pandering to marketing numbers and not as much on engagement, at least in my personal opinion. That’s why you still see brands publicize through mainstream media milestone numbers of fan count – it is a pointless chest thumping not worth anybody’s time or effort, again, in my opinion.

  11. The Social media campaigns ought to be managed by insiders and not agencies. Former needs to think long term and not look for spikes in between. The sooner “clients” realise this, the better.
    A case in example is Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk campaign/contests running currently. The contests forces people to like their page in order to vote for the contestants. These likes are of no use to the brand but for the agency to show the effectiveness of the campaign, hell yeah!
    @Ekalavya – Yes, indepth knowledge of running facebook ads promising soft porn is quite good enough πŸ™‚ Keeps the cost of acquisition low.

    1. One, check their past work and seek references from their current clients as well. Two, go online and see what the work if yourself – it is easy to assess too. Three, note what and how they are committing to specifics – there are things that are well within the control of an agency – content creation, active and relevant engagement, creative ideas for marketing and response time to online crisis management etc. It’s about how well an agency has done these in the past or at least how convincing they sound while committing to these.

      Then there are the intangibles – page views, fan count etc. They can only be predicted using past experiences, which if explained within the context of relevant experiences, could be taken as reasonably believable estimates. Random promises of such numbers is what one should be wary of.

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