Pssst, wanna know a secret?
“Black hat” techniques for using social media are thriving, much to the chagrin of many social media purists.
It was inevitable for this to happen. For years, the concept of black hat has been tied to the SEO trade.
Those who profess to practice SEO honorably decry these practices and deny that they use them. Yet plenty of upstanding SEOs get smoked by others who don’t agree to play by the unwritten “rules.”
That said, black hat SEOs run a huge risk of having any positive results wiped out overnight for themselves or their clients. We’ve all seen this happen plenty of times, such as the infamous JC Penny’s debacle a few years ago that got them delisted for awhile by Google.
What Exactly is Black Hat Social Media?
I define black hat social media as any techniques that are essentially designed to game the system.
This typically means going against the terms of service or accepted “best practices” of a network. With Facebook for example, running contests directly on your page, without using an app, is against their terms of service. (You do know this—right? wink-wink)
Yet every day, hundreds, probably thousands of Pages do this, unwittingly or not.
Personally, I know a lot of Page admins who do it, knowing full well the potential consequences are having their Page taken down. Surprisingly, I’ve never actually heard of that happening though.
Black hat practices can also incorporate automation, taking the person out of the seemingly essential equation of personal, one-to-one (or one-to-many) communications that one expects with true social media. Like automated DMs for new followers on Twitter.
Why Black Hat Is Part of Social Media Now
It’s easy to speculate why black hat is seemingly never going away in social media.
- Companies are demanding results, which unfortunately means “get us more fans and followers” as quick as possible
- Meanwhile, social media practitioners—those responsible for running programs on behalf of their employer or clients—face the reality that there are only so many hours in the day, and doing everything purely, manually and organically doesn’t always work out so well
- We see people (aka, social media gurus) like Guy Kawasaki laughing in the face of the “rules” of social media and thriving (all Twitter link spam, no conversation)
It’s the same overarching problem public companies in particular face, in demanding short-term profits vs. what’s in the best interest of the company and its customers long term.
Examples of Black Hat Social Media
It’s tough sometimes to draw the line between what is black hat per se vs. just plain bad practices that are not generally recommended for true social engagement (such as spamming links on Twitter all day, see above).
Here are just a few growing techniques I’ve seen that are black hat or darn close to it:
1. Buying fans on Facebook, Twitter and other networks.
Surely this is verboten, right?
Yeah, well try telling that to some C-level executive who keeps seeing your Facebook page sit at less than 200 fans and wondering what the heck is going on. In frustration, you spend $5 on a crowd sourcing site, and suddenly you have 5,000 fan—and the boss is giddy. That’s a common reaction. Never mind that these are likely all bogus fans who won’t engage or convert into paying customers.
Here’s a sad yet true fact: There’s something inherently important about fan counts, and it’s human nature when you’re checking out a company on Facebook or Twitter to instantly judge them based on the metric of followers. Sure it’s dumb, but it’s hard-wired into each of us.
We’ve actually had prospects look at our agency’s Facebook Page and say, well how can you be all that great at social if you only have a couple hundred fans yourselves? Never mind that we got all those the hard way, and they actually care about and support us. So would it help us to inflate the fan count artificially? Maybe. But we’re resisted doing that.
2. Setting up a personal profile for a company on Facebook instead of a Page
On the Marketing Squad podcast, we recently discussed a strange trend of companies abandoning their official Facebook Page and instead creating a bogus “personal” profile for their company.
Several entities we spoke with admitted to getting much better engagement going the “personal” route, and doing it knowing full well it wasn’t supposed to be allowed.
Yet when they were out trying to sell advertising packages, they were told, “Your Page doesn’t have as many fans as X does, so you must not be that popular.” Again, it comes back to the perception of the numbers game. More fans meant dollars in their pockets.
3. Targeting fans of your competitors with ads
Whether this is black hat or not, many are basically feeding off all the “hard work” someone else did to get a bunch of fans by targeting ads at them.
4. Automated following and replies
It’s very easy these days to use services like Twitterfeed, If This Then That (IFTTT) or Tweet Adder to automatically target and follow people, thank people for following or send out messages based on keyword alerts, geography and other means.
Where do you stand?
Is black hat social here to stay? Is it getting results (shhh, don’t tell anyone), or will it backfire on those who do it?
Let us know in the comments.