Another Chinese Counterfeit Product: Social-Media Followers

China's 'Zombie Fans' Haunt Brands -- With Agencies' Help

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Chen Kun, a Chinese actor and singer with 72.5 million followers listed on Weibo
Chen Kun, a Chinese actor and singer with 72.5 million followers listed on Weibo

Chen Kun is a Chinese actor, singer and heartthrob who has touted products from Johnnie Walker whisky to KFC chicken. He's also a social media master: On Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, he's listed as having 72.5 million followers. Yes, 72.5 million.

Let's pause to ponder that number: That's nearly 12% of China's Internet users. It's more than the population of France. By comparison, Justin Bieber has a mere 50.8 million Twitter fans around the world.

Clearly Mr. Chen, 38, has a huge fan base, but is the 72.5 million number the real deal?

Surely not, say Chinese social-media experts, who treat such numbers with skepticism, partly because China's Weibo population is swollen with fake followers. They're referred to as "zombie fans," and they haunt brands as well as celebs.

What the zombies are up to
So why would anyone buy zombies to unleash on Weibo, which China's Sina Corp. is preparing to spinoff in an initial public offering on the Nasdaq?

Because size matters, obviously.

One Asian ad exec who asked not to be named described buying fake fans to give an ego jolt to a new venture in China. The rate, he said, was about 5 U.S. cents for a zombie that's just a name, and 16 cents for higher-quality fakes with some content on their profiles. In addition to zombie fans, there's a market for faux re-tweets and comments, too.

It's hard to get a clear picture on the exact size of the problem, or how Weibo's fakes compare to those on Twitter. (Twitter said in its initial public offering filing in October that it believed less than 5% of monthly active user accounts were false, though some observers say the figure is higher.)

Weibo, which says it has 129.1 million monthly active users and that it is committed to fighting faux accounts, hasn't given an estimate of how many there are.

New questions are being raised about how many Weibo accounts are real and truly active, and about how the platform should define active use. A professor at the University of Hong Kong recently found that 10.4 million Weibo users were responsible for around 94% of all messages, while other users just re-shared those messages or never posted anything, according to an article in the South China Morning Post this week.

Beyond fake fans, Weibo has another problem: China's government has cracked down on influential, free-speaking microbloggers, scaring some users away from the platform and onto WeChat, a mobile app that gives a sense of greater privacy.

Stopping the zombie attacks
Rand Han, founder of Shanghai-based social media agency Resonance China, said fake fans may have PR and vanity appeal, but they have a negative impact on community managers and content.

"Generally you'll see accounts that inflate [numbers] also have very poor, irrelevant content, mostly because the mechanism that tells you how good your content is -- new followers, real engagement -- has been broken," Mr. Han said.

Still, agencies can feel pressured to buy them. It's a cycle that Mr. Han describes like this: "A brand wants 1 million followers but also doesn't have the budget, or resources, or any significant assets to achieve this number [organically], and is also tied down by global guidelines," he said. "Then three agencies pitch and the only way they can win is to promise said numbers. One promises, and due to the lack of support, chooses to fake. When the next agency comes in, they have to keep pace with the previous agency. The only way to do this is to also fake."

How do you fix the problem? Through "education, or introducing new metrics, like active and verified rates, to temper expectations," Mr. Han said.

Now entering a new phase
Sam Flemming, founder and CEO of China-based social business intelligence firm CIC, says more brands are "trying to weed out zombie fans or stop the practices leading to zombie fans."

That said, some brands and managers still chase big numbers. And there's also a mystery component to some zombies -- sometimes they just appear, even if brands, agencies or celebs don't want them around.

Sina's Weibo isn't yet 5 years old, and Mr. Flemming said it's following a natural progression. "Phase One is looking at social media as a media, saying, 'Bigger numbers are better,'" said Mr. Flemming, whose company helps brands vet the quality of followers. "Phase Two is looking at social media and recognizing it's also an opportunity for engagement. And if you're going to engage you'd rather be doing it with real people as opposed to zombies."