Social Media: Are You in Danger of Being Scalejacked?

Amassing a Massive Audience Is Rarely the Right Strategy

By Published on .

Dave Balter
Dave Balter
In the world of social media, scale is everything. Media darlings Twitter and Facebook boast, what, 30 sextillion members? It's enough to cause marketers to practically foam at the mouth.

But is scale really everything? After all, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Friendster enjoyed unprecedented scale. Now try to find someone who'd so much as admit ever having an account. Some observers predict MySpace may follow, despite attracting a staggering 63 million monthly visitors.

Scale for social media is fundamentally different than scale for traditional media. Social scale and the content it brings are user-generated, which creates a set of hazards that never existed for traditional media -- and we're starting to see signs of turmoil for marketers. Just as brand managers are frantically trying to carve off their slice of Facebook and Twitter's scale, they're stepping onto the landmine that can't be ignored: scalejacking.

Scalejacking is the ability for social media's scale to be hijacked and tapped into by anyone, at any time. In essence, the strength of the social-media channel -- the ability to aggregate consumers instantly and effortlessly -- is about to become its greatest weakness. It takes just seconds to update your status and a single click to become a fan of a brand. Before we watched, listened or read only what was produced for us. Now we create our own audiences, and it's as easy to build one as it is to "jack" its scale.

You can see the faint embers of the problems starting to glow red hot. Many of us have already received of our first social spam and viruses, but those are expected annoyances. The issues we're about to face threaten the momentum of the social-media industry as a whole. The instances this channel, quite simply, being hijacked. Here are a few recent examples:

In the past few weeks, we've seen spate of fake celebrity death notices. Yes, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson have all passed on. No, Britney Spears and Harrison Ford have not. These relatively harmless (to all but Britney and Harrison, that is) hoaxes were propagated by the rapid reproduction of status updates and retweets, with the intent of siphoning traffic to other areas of the internet.

One marketer boasts a Facebook fan-page audience of more than 2.5 million members, yet his brand is still struggling to figure out exactly how to manage that audience within its corporate guidelines. The dilemma presented an opportunity for one plucky consumer, who decided to judo the massive community into a virtual storefront for his available-for-purchase, Dali-influenced surrealist paintings, complete with melty heads and spacey moonscape horizons. One fan page, officially scalejacked.

Twitter's trend list is ripe for scalejacking. Want a shortcut to getting a tweet read by tens of thousands? Watch the daily trending-topics list and append those hashtags to your own tweets. Presto: massive-audience time.

Speaking of Twitter trending, Pete Blackshaw recently highlighted concerns about Twitter Trend-Spiking. Here's how it works: Nefarious bastards create multiple accounts and then generate a concentration of tweets about the same subject, thrusting the message to the top of Twitter trends, thereby creating a false impression of organic buzz.

An advertising-agency CEO once shared this advice with me: "Until you can impact 40 million consumers, the top 40 advertisers won't be interested." The desire for scale at any cost is exactly why social media's massive audiences are so appealing to marketers. But it overlooks social media's fundamental value: The fact that people are exponentially more engaged than they ever were with their TV, radio or newspaper. In other words, it's not about how many people are present, but rather how present the people are.

So what should marketers do? First, they shouldn't spend all of their energy building scale for scale's sake. Creating an 800-pound gorilla of a social-media audience is valuable only if you have a cage to put it in (and can then teach it cool tricks). Rather than try to wrestle their humongous pet to the ground, marketers should direct their energy toward identifying and managing smaller subsets of true advocates. The opportunity in social media is the partnership that can be created between marketers and the consumers who truly care about the brand -- people who will do more than state they're a fan solely to get a coupon or have something relevant to say in a status update. Engaging those who want to be a part of a brand through meaningful one-on-one or small-group interactions may look like an ape of smaller stature, but this is one chimp with superhuman strength.

When Robert Scoble had about 90,000 Twitter followers, he infamously tweeted, "I just looked at my followers numbers and said to myself, 'Where did all these people come from?'" That wonder may just turn to aggravation if someone else jacks that scale for his own agenda.

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Dave Balter is CEO of BzzAgent. He is a co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and author of "Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing" and "The Word of Mouth Manual: Volume II."

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