Likes and Followers...and Bots? Why mere numbers don't tell the whole social media story.

This article originally appeared on NAS Talent Talk.

Regardless of how modern we feel filtering our lives through social media, we remain emotional beings. And because of that, we still measure the success of our social interactions through the prism of popularity.

We’re fascinated with who got the most hits on YouTube. We drool over Justin Bieber’s 26 million “followers” on Twitter or Kim Kardashian’s handbag thumping the competition for “likes” on Facebook. But how should we view numbers when it comes to measuring employment brand success?

Worse, it turns out that you can’t always count on the numbers you chalk up in social media. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney recently saw his Twitter follow-ship jump 116,000 in a single day. While part of the world marveled, the more skeptical of us asked how that could happen.

The answer: A preponderance of those “new” followers were probably fakes created by “bots”—artificially generated accounts.

According to Tim Hwang, a Pacific Social researcher who has been “bot-watching” for quite some time, they’ve always been around in the form of “spam,” but the technology is improving. “The worry with these bots,” says Hwang, “is if they can influence what’s happening on the ground, they can influence public opinion and even our sense of what’s going on in the real world.”

When bots travel en masse, says Technorati reporter Adi Gaskell, it’s called “crowdturfing.” These spammers use automated programs to populate social media profiles in great numbers. What’s been the big fallout of this? Facebook revealed that around five to six percent of its 901 million users—that’s more than 50 million profiles—could be fake accounts set up by bots.

Research by University of Milan communications professor Marco Camisani Calzolari revealed that up to 46 percent of many companies’ Twitter followers were actually either generated by bots or were bots themselves. “The number of followers is no longer a valid indicator of the popularity of a Twitter user, and can no longer be analyzed separately from qualitative information,” says Calzolari.

What’s compounding the problems caused by armies of the automated trying to game the system? Humans are taking the same sleazy action for pay. Although crowdturfing operations can be found everywhere in the world, Facebook cites developing countries as locations where many of these “undesirable accounts” originate. And according to University of California Santa Barbara researchers, who looked at this practice in China, some “shadowy shills” provide fake reviews, Facebook likes or Twitter followers for as little as $0.13 to $0.17 each.

Fast Company reporter Jason Feifer, in search of “bimbots” (anonymous women with pretty profile pictures), crossed paths with Buy Real Marketing. This company will sell you 1,000 bots for $17 or 25,000 for $247. And who’s buying them? Author Adi Gaskell’s research found that around 50% of the followers on the average big brand Twitter account are likely bots.  If you’re still a nonbeliever, go to

So, what does this mean to those of us involved in the world of employment branding, candidate interaction, recruitment and social media? That “chasing the numbers” is a wrong-headed approach to building a relevant social community. Genuine engagement with potential candidates that produces a positive perception of your company as an employer of choice is the only valid measure of success.

When we analyze how well our brands are doing in social media, we need to ask ourselves if we are providing substantive content to our most loyal followers.

Keeping a sharp focus on maintaining the integrity of the conversation will, in the long run, serve as a benchmark for trust and value in the recruitment marketplace.

After all, “likes” come cheap. But, “loves” can last forever.


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