PARIS - If you go by its website, Mars Kebab is the only fast-food restaurant in Paris that delivers sandwiches to the planet Mars.
In the real world, Mars Kebab doesn't exist, but that doesn't keep it from having an excellent reputation on the web. Its promotional video has been viewed 105,000 times on YouTube, and it has more than 46,000 followers on Twitter. Only its Facebook page does not have many fans yet, only 578. But its "community manager" plans to attract 20,000 before long. Already, if you look up "Mars Kebab" on Google, you get thousands of results. The brand is mentioned everywhere, even in restaurant guides.
Mars Kebab is a real-life experiment by Parisian public relations agency Heaven, who wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to cheat and create an e-reputation out of the blue.
To uncover the deception, all you have to do is look at the profile of Mars Kebab's Twitter followers. Linda, for example, is a beautiful blond with an amusing profile written in English. In October 2011 she published 14 gibberish messages in a row, and since then, not one tweet. She follows 1470 accounts, mainly big consumer brands and marketing agencies from all over the world. But she has only 49 followers. One of them, Khleo Hampton, has a profile identical to hers, including dates and number of tweets. Linda and Khleo are fakes, counterfeit profiles created en masse by computers, sometimes with the help of attack software to get around security measures.
Likewise, on YouTube, all of Mars Kebab's 105,000 views happened within the space of 48 hours, and then ceased all together. The "viewers" were computers programmed to log on every eight seconds.
This kind of service, the sale of fake profiles, is found all over the Internet. There are dozens of specialized companies, and their clients include major consumer brands.
“Inactive” and “active” followers
For its demonstration, Mars Kebab used Buy Real Marketing (BRM), which is based in the Philippines with Canadian owners. For YouTube, its price is 15 dollars for 5000 views, with a delivery guarantee of less than three days. Mars Kebab bought itself 100,000 occasional viewers, plus 10,000 permanent subscribers-- serious admirers, who have a higher market value. On Twitter, BRM sells a batch of 1,000 subscribers for 17 dollars. Mars Kebab ordered 25,000 of them and got almost twice as many. The bots must love it.
BRM uses instant messaging to communicate with its customers, and they talk to "Judy," who seems to be a human being. Judy insists shamelessly that all the Twitter followers her company sells are "real people," but she distinguishes between two categories. “Inactive” followers, like Linda, are very cheap, but not particularly credible. Judy also offers “active” followers, who are more expensive and reserved for faithful clients. To get them, customers must enter a password. The bot can then automatically deliver 2000 authentic subscribers, the maximum Twitter allows. All of them have been pre-selected according to an analysis of their profiles, their preferences and their friends.
Some are chosen because they voluntarily take part in marketing campaigns in their topics of interest, such as sports, fashion, food, or cars. Others tend to follow back those who follow them, out of politeness. This can go on ad infinitum. The long-term goal is to attract "spontaneous" followers, a bit naive, who believe that a Twitter account with a large number of followers must be interesting. Then, the most obvious fake profiles can be discreetly eliminated.
To increase its sales force, BRM invites its European customers to become a business partner. If they buy large numbers of fakes, they benefit from preferential pricing and will be able to sell the fakes for a profit in their own local market. Other companies are set up directly in Europe. Boostic, based in Florida, has a sales site and a hotline in French. For an additional fee, it even offers French-speaking followers.
For Facebook the procedure is similar, but this time Mars Kebab was unlucky. It ordered 20,000 fans on Socialkik, a low-cost provider of indeterminate nationality, hosted in the U.S. It was a bad choice. After cashing the check, Socialkik informed its clients that the order would be filled in ten months. An eternity online. It seems there are fake sellers, as well as fake fans. However, instantaneous delivery is not always advisable. Some sellers offer to spread out delivery of followers over time, to give the illusion of a naturally growing fan base.
“Viral” is a myth
The problem has become so widespread that specialized bloggers have even published comparative tests of fake-profile vendors. Others sell a kind of antidote. For a monthly fee of 30 euros, English start-up Status People performs a periodic analysis of its clients' Twitter accounts, showing the results, in percentages, of fakes, inactives, and actives. Reading the website attentively, you realize that StatusPeople also offers to analyze accounts without their owners' knowing-- competitors, partners….
In Paris, as everywhere else, community managers know about this. Nobody admits doing it, but in private, everyone recognizes that some of their colleagues have been tempted, all along the line: advertising, design and media agencies, public relations companies, even the advertisers. The strategy is very tempting; because of course a company that spends money for a Facebook presence has a tendency to consider the number of its fans as a simple indicator of its excellence and competitive position.
The typical buyer of fake fans is an overworked project manager who cannot achieve some arbitrarily set goal, or a creative whose video has been less viral than forecast (i.e. those who see it do not spontaneously recommend it to their friends).
While condemning these practices, professionals are a bit ambivalent about fakes. Arthur Kannas, the brilliant inventor of Mars Kebab and director of the Heaven agency, says that "purely viral" is a myth. "Advertisers naively believe that if they publish amusing or interesting content on an advertising page, visitors will flock to it as if by magic. That isn't true. To make people come, first you have to prime the pump artificially, one way or another. "
A common technique on Facebook, considered legitimate, is for an advertiser to buy publicity space on the pages of a group of pre-selected users, to urge them to come visit the advertiser's page. Thanks to these walled-off ads, Facebook is also selling fan profiles, although with more uncertain results.
Others hope the problem will disappear on its own, as the mentality of advertisers is beginning to change. Stéphanie Valibouse, community manager at the Marcel Worldwide agency, says that in the trimestral evaluation reports of its performance, the absolute number of its Facebook fans is no longer the sole criterion. "My bosses calculate the 'commitment rate,' in other words fans' level of participation in discussions and loyalty programs. There is also a viral rate. When fans come to say something on our page, their friends see that and can decide to come too. But if a page has too many fake profiles, which are passive by definition, those rates will be low."
Likewise, Bastien Chanot, digital project manager for the Fred & Farid agency, believes that fakes are just teething problems in the great adventure of brand advertising on social networks, which has a bright future. "The market is still very immature, but in three to five years, company directors will have a better understanding of image building, and they will be looking for quality." He also points out that everyone is affected, willy-nilly. "In an article on its website, Le Monde congratulated itself that it had reached a million Twitter followers, but it also announced that 47 % of them might be fakes, without explaining how that happened." He also noted that fakes could damage the social networks themselves. "If everyone realizes that Facebook and Twitter are full of fakes, their credibility and profits will suffer. They will have to take measures to keep fakes down to an acceptable level." In August, Facebook announced that it had identified 83 million pages as "dubious." However, on the whole, social networks are like their users. They publish their raw numbers as if they were declarations of victory.
In the meantime, we are seeing an extension of the fakes market in all directions. BRM, Boostic and the others have begun to sell fan profiles on a whole new series of networks, such as, for example, artistic video site Vimeo, sharing sites Instagram and Pinterest, or electro music site SoundCloud, used by many unknown musicians. Having gone after celebrities and top brands, they are now aiming at the general public.