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Beware of fake 'likes,' and other false social signals

As social networks continue to grow, businesses are scrambling to grab customer attention and convert it to dollars. Some companies, however, aren't afraid to turn towards sleazier methods to amplify brand awareness. Gartner Research predicted today that 10 to 15 percent of all social media reviews by the end of 2014 will be fake critiques paid for by unscrupulous advertisers.

Gartner suggests that most of the paid-for reviews won't include disclosure about the reviewer's relationship with the reviewee, which could land both parties in legal hot water. In fact, the firm expects at least two Fortune 500 companies to come under fire by the FTC for attempting to game the social system over the next two years.

"Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews with cash, coupons and promotions including additional hits on YouTube videos in order to pique site visitors' interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy," said Gartner analyst Jenny Sussin, in a press release.

Why fake it?

Companies are determined to generate positive buzz online, even if it means facing the FTC's wrath. Social network users develop significantly more trust in a brand when they see numerous "likes" or favorable reviews from friends, according to About.com's Trust Factor report (PDF). That trust can translate into dollars.

Social networks are experimenting with new ways to monetize--and some of these methods are more beneficial to brands that have already enticed a large number of people to interact with the brand. For example, Facebook advertisers can buy ads that promote the company to the friends of users who have "liked" the brand, amplifying their potential reach.

Companies such as Ad.ly and PaidPerTweet already pay social influencers with large bases of followers to tweet about promotional products--often without disclosing the sponsorship. Facebook recently began cracking down on fraudulent "likes" after one company complained that 80 percent of the "likes" it received in an ad campaign there came from bots. Shortly thereafter, Facebook admitted that over 80 million of its accounts are bogus.

Black hat social media: worth the risk?

If you engage in shady social marketing practices, you're not only risking FTC fines, but consumer backlash as well. Remember the brouhaha around the legions of fake Twitter followers for presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich?

The About.com Trust Factor report claims that a company's transparency--clear motives and obviously labeled promotional posts--go a long way toward trust that users place in a business. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said they needed to trust a company before interacting with it.

The takeaway? Think long and hard before engaging in black hat "like-farming" social media campaigns, and carefully vet any outside social agencies you might hire to ensure they won't engage in shady practices in your name. Your bank account and your reputation both depend on it.

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