Facebook has been getting a lot of negative press recently, with a BBC report about fake users as well as this viral post from a company claiming that 80% of the ‘likes’ they acquired through advertising were not from real accounts. Should life science companies be concerned about this matter? Our analysis shows that it may be a issue for company pages which have grown quickly through advertising, with as much as 40% of the ‘likes’ being suspected fakes in our estimation. Here we give best practices for avoiding this problem.
Facebook provides a few ‘back door’ ways of analyzing the likes for almost any page, and we should note that we do not know how accurate these numbers are. The purpose of this post is to encourage life science companies to review their own page statistics and advertising methodology.
We started our analysis by looking at the top cities for the life science Facebook pages with the most likes (a full list of the pages can be found in the likes of the Comprendia Facebook page). The ‘Top City’ for most pages can be seen by clicking on the likes link directly below the ‘thumbs up’ image on the page. We cataloged the top cities for life science company pages (see table below) and we became suspicious as a trend emerged: Mexico, Portugal, and Chile all appeared more than once as containing the ‘major city’ for pages. Do these countries harbor life science hubs larger than the ones we are familiar with, or are they simply home to fake users and bots? STEMCELL Technologies and Promega are the only companies which provided what we considered to be a believable ‘Top City.’
|Life Science Company Page||# Likes||Top City||% US Likes|
|Invitrogen||34640||Mexico City, Mexico||6.12%|
|Life Technologies||33740||Lisbon, Portugal||20.33%|
|GIBCO Cell Culture||30901||Lisbon, Portugal||17.86%|
|Cell Imaging||30745||Santiago, Chile||(Not found)|
|Applied Biosystems||22133||Bangkok, Thailand||7.77%|
|Molecular Probes Handbook Club||21141||Mexico City, Mexico||(Not found)|
|Life Tech Immunology||15591||Santiago, Chile||(Not found)|
|Life Tech Flow Cytometry||12206||Mexico City, Mexico||(Not found)|
|STEMCELL Technologies||9307||Los Angeles, CA||(Not found)|
|Everyday Cloning||5081||(Not found)||77.94%|
|Sigma-Aldrich Corporation||3497||Rio de Janeiro, Brazil||42.89%|
|Life Technologies qPCR||3493||(Not found)||8.59%|
|Promega Corporation||991||Madison, WI||36.33%|
Another ‘back door’ to finding page demographics is to use the Facebook advertising application. To get the data, we began to create an advertisement and went to the next step of targeting users for it. At this step we are able to add the major life science Facebook page names as ‘interests’ and limit the audience to countries in question. These criteria tell us how many people in that country have liked that page, thus showing us how many users we would be targeting with our ad, see the image below for more details. We found that for some reason pages with names longer than two words were not amenable to this method.
We discovered that some of the life science pages with the most likes appear to have very distorted demographics, with less than 10% of likes from the US (see Table) and comparable or higher percentages for other, sometimes much smaller, countries. A general rule of thumb for US-based life science companies is that 50% of the business comes from the US, and 50% from the rest of the world. Obviously, since the US is an important market, life science companies should target a much higher percentage of Facebook likes than 10%. It should be noted, however, that the US only represents 20% of Facebook’s user base, and percentages in this range seem reasonable, but not optimal.
Based on these two sets of data, we singled out the Invitrogen Facebook page and looked in detail at the country demographics using the Facebook advertising application as described above. We found that 54% of Invitrogen likes come from India, Mexico, Indonesia, and Portugal, while these countries make up only about 15% of Facebook users. Where does this ‘extra’ percentage of users from these countries come from—misplaced ad targeting or fake users? The fact that the same countries are reproducibly overrepresented in the Facebook likes points to the latter. Based on these numbers, and keeping in mind that we’re making a rough estimation, it is possible that 40% of the Invitrogen likes are from fake users. We welcome other information that could help explain the discrepancies and further analyses of these data. An open discussion regarding how life science companies can better find and engage researchers using Facebook would benefit all involved.
These fake users could be considered a plus, because they are more prone to like posts, making them more visible and encouraging others to like the pages because they appear popular. However, they can add spam comments and skew engagement metrics, and this feedback is one of the biggest benefits of having a Facebook page.
We still believe that life science Facebook pages can benefit from paid or organic advertising, and suggest these best practices to avoid attracting or to eliminate fake users:
- Proceed cautiously, testing different ads sequentially (not at the same time) with small budgets and viewing demographics and a sample of individual profiles carefully. Do these people seem like they would be your customers? As we noted in November 2011, the Applied Biosystems and Invitrogen page likes seemed to grow quickly, and we may now know why, as presumably they put a lot of money into advertising for quick growth. Try targeting users by their field of study and interests and try to find a combination that is least likely to attract bots and fake users.
- Target the users of the ‘good’ life science Facebook pages in your ads. A corollary of this analysis is that we learned more about a feature you can exploit, albeit carefully. You can target ads to existing life science Facebook page fans. Obviously, avoid the pages with low % US likes, and target pages like Promega and Sigma Aldrich (sorry guys, it may appear you’re being penalized for doing a good job–consider changing your Facebook page name to one with 3 words so it can’t be targeted…).
- Remove targeting of the ‘problem’ countries in your ads, instead creating a demographic that more closely matches that of your customers. Here is a list of countries you shouldn’t target with ads:
We know that there is great life science research happening in several of these countries, but currently this is one of the only ways we know to prevent losing advertising dollars on fake users. Note that we’re not suggesting blocking Facebook users in these countries to like pages, we are simply suggesting that you not target them with ads. You can go one step further and target biotech hubs such as Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego. However, even our local biotech group’s page, with mostly regional targeting, has received 11% of its likes from the ‘problem’ countries, and we’ve also seen fake accounts based in San Diego.
- Build a page with ‘real’ users organically, then target friends of these users with ads or stories (another option Facebook gives for advertising). Use promotions, contests, and provide unique and high quality content on your pages to encourage likes without advertising.
- Remove fake users, using this guide as a reference, if you can easily identify them. Unfortunately, however, we’ve found that this takes a lot of time and energy. For example, the guide says most fake users are female, however 74% of Invitrogen’s Indian followers are male according to the advertising interface. The best defense is a good offense, however, the key is to not be in this situation and take efforts to not attract the phony accounts. Also, consider pressuring Facebook to take action on removing the fake users.
- Capture leads from your pages by running promotions or surveys to determine the true percentage of real users. For example, if you put out a promotion to win a free iPad, requiring a valid life science company or institutional email address to enter, what’s the response? Run the same promotion using e-marketing, keeping all of the variables the same (e.g., number of clicks, entry form), and extrapolate the number of real users. For example, if the uptake of your e-marketing campaign for the promotion is 1%, and you have 20 people who respond to the Facebook campaign, with some hand waving you can estimate that you have 2000 real Facebook Likes. Perhaps an iPad may sound too expensive, but how much of your budget and FTEs are being used to keep the page updated? Additionally, capturing the Facebook page leads is obviously a very nice bonus.
- Consider suspending all Facebook page advertising until the company puts a stop to this fraud. Our eyes have been opened in doing this analysis, we are going to proceed much more cautiously with Facebook advertising now. We just implemented what we thought was a ‘safe’ campaign for one of our own pages and found that 4 of the last 5 ‘likes’ were from fake users. How could we tell? Five ‘likes’ on different pages at the same exact time, then five ‘likes’ at another time, etc. Surely Facebook, with its sophisticated demographics, can spot these bots? Many have pointed out that Facebook has little motivation to remove these fake accounts, because they are making money off of the advertising. We estimate that an ‘average’ Facebook like costs about $1 in advertising, and this could mean that life science companies have spent many tens of thousands on acquiring fake users, which is a real shame.
- Centralize social media activities so these trends are spotted quickly. We came to our conclusions only after looking at different pages and our own experience. By centralizing the data, or simply having global social media meetings, these pitfalls can be avoided. As we’ve seen, one misguided Facebook advertising campaign could be all it took to attract these alleged fake users. Experience is also key to finding the problems–we’ll admit we were fooled by fake users until we saw the trends. In short, much experience is needed to effectively manage social media. Once again we will make this plea:
Don’t let interns have a significant role in your social media campaigns, the risk is too great.
We’ll forego linking to the myriad problems social media newbies have caused for companies. We don’t know if the issues described in this post were caused by interns, but it’s a plea we can’t make often enough.
We should close by saying that we don’t mean to ‘pick on’ Life Technologies, it’s just that they’re pushing the social media envelope and with this comes risk. Additionally, we have seen phenomenal engagement on many of their pages, including the ones with purported fake users. Indeed, it is their success with pages such as the Molecular Probes Handbook Club, for which unfortunately we could not find demographics data, which encourages us about the future of Facebook marketing for life science.
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