Are you sure you're liking the right brand?

Stuart Fuller

Social media is a very emotive channel of engagement. In the space of less than a decade, our digital lives have been revolutionized by likes, tweets, shares, pins and chats. With over 1.7 billion users (around 23% of the world’s population) checking their Facebook profile every month, social media is becoming the most important channel to market for ambitious brands trying to reach new audiences.

The benefits are clear to see – in most instances, the use of social media for a brand is completely free and incredibly quick. They can deal with customer service issues in real time, provide updates on events, engage on a one-to-one basis, target specific customer demographics and provide a simple mechanism for enabling e-commerce. With virtually no barriers to entry, it’s no surprise that mobile commerce, a subset of e-commerce, is now the fastest-growing sales channel for many digitally engaged brands.

Seemingly everyone’s a winner: a brand holder can lower its cost of sale by using social media; and consumers can access more up-to-date content using smartphones or tablets through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that are slowly being e-commerce enabled using, for instance, the Buy Now service on Twitter that’s being used by Best Buy and Adidas. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

According to a report issued by cybersecurity consultancy Proofpoint last week, one in five of all social media profiles is not legitimately associated with the brand in question (at best) or fake (at worst). Proofpoint’s report looked at the brand profiles for ten global brands that have a total of 4,840 social media accounts with an average of 33.7 million followers across all channels. The report found 902 (19%) were fake.

Some of those accounts exist as parody or protest accounts, whose sole aim is to embarrass or shame the brand, but many will have been created with the intention of diverting legitimate social media traffic away from the genuine brands for nefarious purposes such as fraud or identity theft. In Proofpoint’s study, 30% of the fake accounts fell into the very concerning second category. Alas, the problem is made worse by the fraudsters also giving their fake social media profiles credibility by buying followers – a practice known as ‘fliking’.

According to a study by eminent social media expert Erik Qualmann, 93% of online shoppers’ choices are influenced by social media, and 90% trust peer recommendations over traditional adverts. We seem to think because a hotel, bar or a restaurant has glowing five-star reviews it’s a world-beater, or if a brand has a Facebook page with thousands of likes then there are no problems. Whilst legitimate brands will use social media or peer review sites such as TripAdvisor, so too do the cyber-criminals. They use exactly the same tactics as genuine brand marketers, building authentic-looking websites, creating a social media presence and trying to divert real traffic to their websites.

The key to the success of their operations is believability. Creating a false online presence that gives the impression of legitimacy has never been easier. A simple search on any search engine throws up plenty of results for websites that can provide Facebook likes, Twitter and Instagram followers, LinkedIn connections and positive TripAdvisor reviews. For less than $100, you can create an impressive social media footprint; one that most consumers would be hard-pressed to see through.

Paying someone to say something that could be untrue can be classed as misleading, false advertising or simply fraudulent. The practice has hit the headlines in recent months, with Amazon taking legal action against over a thousand individuals who had been advertising their services to provide fake five-star reviews on This followed an article in The Sunday Times about how easy it was for them to get a book up to the top of one of Amazon’s best-seller lists through buying fake reviews. TripAdvisor has also attempted to take action against organizations that either created positive reviews for themselves or negative ones for competing businesses.

Although a number of brands are now adopting a specific social media brand-protection strategy, evidence suggests that they could and should be doing more to protect their clients. Proofpoint has tracked around 600 new fraudulent accounts set up per month in its research period across the ten brands it tracked, with phishing scams the biggest growing threat – increasing by around 150% on the same period last year.

Most social media networks use a first-come, first-served rule for the registration of user names, which does lead to some accidental amusement – such as the Twitter handles for John Lewis and David Cameron belonging not to the famous brands but to individuals who have to deal with daily intrusions into their social media life.

So what should a brand holder be doing to protect its reputation, revenues and customers in the social media space? With so many potential channels to monitor, it's important that they develop a clear strategy, and educate their customers around the correct channels to use. Monitoring social media networks to see what other users have set up profiles is relatively simple to do, but then taking action against fake accounts can be a complex minefield to negotiate unless you have the knowledge and experience of working with the likes of Facebook and Twitter’s IP infringement teams. Using a formalized social media brand-protection strategy, such as that offered by NetNames, ensures that a brand holder is doing all it can to combat fake profiles.

According to eMarketer’s study on social media usage, the number of global users will reach 2.5 billion by 2018 – or around a third of the earth’s population today. More than anything, the number of unsuspecting digital natives who have no reference point for spotting these fraudulent social media accounts will continue to drive cyber-criminals to focus on social media as their key fishing (or should that be phishing) spot. That’s why every brand that’s serious about moving into the digital space needs to have a brand-protection strategy that addresses the issues around intellectual property abuse on social media.