Are you for real? The truth about engagement

Image: courtesy of Ad Week

Image: courtesy of Ad Week

With social media tools promising insights on a plate and being packaged under shiny exteriors, it is easy to believe that a social media campaign has driven engagement by just looking at the numbers.

It is also quite easy to believe that a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ of your latest campaign video is a sign that you have acquired a fan and a person has actually engaged with your content.

I’m not saying that it’s not the case. People often read and engage with brand content on social media. What I’m saying is that sometimes looking beyond the numbers paints a different picture.

Since starting this blog, we have been advocating the use of human analysis to get behind social media buzz and we feel this is ever more important when trying to understand the success of a campaign.

Social Media Bots

You will have no doubt heard of bots, programs or algorithms that post automatically on social media but to the outside world look like a real user.

There are also the ‘human’ bots or people who are paid to post on social media sites. Mostly recruited in developing economies, these users are on pay-per-post schemes, which most of the time they have to pay to sign up to (!). They are encouraged to use tools that post automatically to maximise their income from these schemes.

To the untrained observer, these users and their posts look genuine, with a scary statistic recently published in Forbes Magazine that 30% of users can be deceived by a bot.

Image: courtesy of Forbes Magazine

Image: courtesy of Forbes Magazine

So with machines pretending to be real people, and real people acting like machines, it is difficult to know whether any organic engagement is happening.

Engaged or not engaged, that is the question?

We were recently puzzled during a project when we uncovered social media users who made us wonder whether we were facing machines, humans acting as machines or organic engagement.


Image: courtesy of

We were working on analysing the effectiveness of a social media campaign. We noticed that some Twitter users in South East Asia were sharing a video posted to YouTube by a well-known brand as part of their campaign. These users looked ‘real’ in that they had an online presence beyond Twitter; no traceable presence outside of Twitter is often a telltale sign that you might be dealing with a bot. They also had a reasonable number of followers and their followers also looked genuine. So, on the face of it, we thought these could be actual users engaging with the Brand’s content, but could not be sure without looking deeper.

We then looked at their Twitter activity and noticed that most of their posts were sharing other well-known brand campaigns, with no product category preference, i.e. they were posting about mouthwash one day and motor oil the next. Bizarrely, their followers and those they were following had similar Twitter bahaviours.

However, the activity was sporadic enough not to point to a paid scheme.

Why would you ask? Well, on average they posted one or two tweets a day, and more importantly tended to post about each campaign once only. Again, repeated posts about individual campaigns would be another sign of paid activity or the use of bots.

The truth is that whilst we believe these users to be real people, we were unable to decipher their motivations for posting. One theory we developed was that these users were looking to build their follower numbers, perhaps to boost their egos, and thought that posting about well-known brands might achieve that.

The truth behind the numbers

We may never know whether our theory turns out to be true. What matters here is that it is clear that these users did not engage with the campaign content and do not seem to have a particular interest in the brand running the campaign.

Without delving into the data and researching their profile, we would not have been able to come to that conclusion. This has clear implications for how successful the campaign really was, when topline numbers were suggesting otherwise.

As we have advocated many times, with social media, the devil is in the detail.