EyeforTravel North America 2018

October 2018, Las Vegas

Understand how data, digital and partnerships can make your marketing work again

Expose the fakes, shut down the influence factories

Social media platforms are viewed a valuable marketing tool and reviews are crucial to travel bookings, but the growing numbers of suspicious accounts is cause for concern

Twitter has been pulling tens of millions of suspicious accounts from its platform. Devumi.com, seller of Twitter followers and bots, has just closed and is no longer taking orders. Foreign entrants to China’s travel market are being warned of its notorious ‘water army’ of fake reviewers as they build their social media campaigns.

And only this week, yesterday to be precise, the UK competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), announced that it was launching an investigation “into concerns that social media stars are not properly declaring when they have been paid, or otherwise rewarded, to endorse goods or services”. They may not be ‘fakes’ as such, but some so-called ‘influencers’, including household names, are said to be flouting the rules. The Financial Times leads with the headline on its front page this morning with the headline ‘Celebrities' backdoor endorsements on social media face day of reckoning’.

Even more concerning, perhaps, is the growing amount of ‘fake followers’, a real problem for the travel business, where celebrities and digital influencers play such an important role in marketing in many parts of the world. In China it is particularly acute. But companies are wising up to the problem.

Crowded channels

“Most destinations and tourists attraction sites use the key Chinese channels to market the destinations to the people of China,” comments an EU study, Tourism flows from China to the European Union.

It goes on: “These channels are, however, becoming very crowded, making them less effective as marketing tools. Another problem is the business around so-called ‘water armies’ or ‘zombie followers’ – computer users or real, but uninterested users, signing up to follow an account only to receive benefits – that artificially boost numbers. The phenomenon makes it increasingly difficult to gauge quality and impact, not least on Weibo (one of China’s most popular social media platforms)”.

China’s Jing Daily online newspaper points out that “fake followers are a fundamental part of Chinese social media platforms…” On e-commerce platform Taobao, it adds, “anyone can spend 1 renminbi for 100 fake accounts, just one sign of how endemic bots are on Chinese social media.”

fake followers are a fundamental part of Chinese social media platforms…

Travellers in China, particularly millennials, rely heavily on services such as mobile messaging app WeChat and Weibo to research and book trips—and message friends about their adventures. As a Bloomberg story tells it, the younger generation is constantly seeking “something special, new, something their friends didn’t get, that they can share online.” That sets them apart from previous generations who “dreamed of travelling the world, but it was too difficult.”

Tourist destinations are using those same internet tools to attract Chinese visitors. Edinburgh launched a Mandarin-language social media campaign, with accounts on Weibo and WeChat, hiring a Chinese-speaking coordinator to run them and flying in a half-dozen Chinese bloggers for a Hogmanay celebration, Bloomberg adds. The Scottish capital, as a result, saw visits from China jump more than a third, with a “dramatic shift” to younger, independent travellers rather than busloads of sightseers tagging along behind umbrella-wielding guides.

Earlier this year the New York Times published a story called ‘The Follower Factory’, which showed that influencers and brands are building businesses on the backs of social media bots. It described how these fake followers trick the public, and algorithms that choose which content to display, into believing they’re more popular than they really are. The story caused a scandal in the US, and there were reports that more than a million fake accounts suddenly disappeared.

The New York Times sleuths suggested that around 48 million of Twitter’s active users, or nearly 15%, were fakes, with China’s state press agency, Xinhua, listed among the celebrities, media agencies, and businesses that had bought followings from Devumi. On Weibo, the suggestion was, automated accounts made up as much as 40% of all active users.

According to an interview in Jing Daily with New York based marketing agency NuWa, there is a disconnect when Western brands open Chinese social media accounts. “They may not even be aware of the practice of fake followers, let alone how much of the engagement they seem to be getting is from fake accounts,” said the agency.

Big business

Detecting the fakes is also good business, adds Jing Daily. It tells how New York social media and marketing platform Robin8 is using data and artificial intelligence to identify fake fans, as well as less ostensibly popular but better value Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in the long tail of influencers.

“Based on our analysis, long tails sometimes are a much better alternative because they are more affordable, and they tend to have fewer fake fans and offer higher engagement,” it quotes Robin8 founder Miranda Tan as saying. “Our platform is all about profiling, ranking, and matching.”

For smart, targeted campaigns, however, working with lesser-known KOLs, even if it’s just for a one-off campaign, may well be the best way to go. Jing Daily adds that with 42% of young Chinese now aspiring to be influencers, there are plenty to choose from.

About 40% of all reviews we see are unreliable – Fakespot.com

The problem with fake reviews is global, as some of the thousands travelling to Russia for the World Cup discovered. Writing on tech site Wired, Pavel Tarelkin, general director of digital agency UP Lab, said “there are about five companies in Russia dealing solely with writing fake reviews” and “about a thousand PR agencies, digital and social media marketing agencies provide this service…”

However, a check via Google in Russian showed “dozens of companies offering to write reviews”, says emerging technologies online magazine Wired.

TripAdvisor, like the other major travel companies, has an investigative team to watch out constantly for such cheaters. If it has reservations about a property or a review it will flag this with a red warning.

“About 40% of all reviews we see are unreliable,” claimed Ming Ooi, co-founder of US site Fakespot.com, which assesses sites for phony reviews, speaking to the press. “This is really because the consumer has been trained to use reviews as validation, and won't take action without them now. The problem is that most consumers will now not buy anything that has zero or very few reviews.”

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