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July 28, 2008

The Use of Fake Avatars In Social Media

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Creating fake avatars as a way to boost your social media efforts – it’s a topic I’ve tried my best to stay away from tackling. Mostly because I don’t want a riot to break out on the blog. I’d rather those riots take place elsewhere and leave our blog filled with talk of unicorns and puppies and cupcakes. However, it doesn’t look like the debate is dying down.

The topic of fake avatars was one of the most controversial discussed at SMX Advanced’s Give It Up session, it was (arguably) the center of last week’s blogosphere meltdown and now Michael Gray is talking about it again. And what’s our favorite thing to do on a Monday morning? Disagree with Michael! ;)

I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise to anyone that I find the idea of using fake avatars a bad marketing decision. If that makes me a social media goody 2 shoes, then at least I’m in good company.

In his post today, Michael Gray mentioned how Barack Obama doesn’t run his own social media campaign even though he’s nearing 50,000 Twitter followers, 400,000+ MySpace friends, and has more YouTube friends that he probably knows what to do with. He also mentions the famed GoogleGuy account and how it was kept alive by a number of different people. Michael makes the argument if it’s okay for Google and the Democratic Party Presidential Nominee to do it, why not SEOs?

Easy. Because it’s completely different.

I think (or at last I’d hope) that the average person has enough common sense to realize that it’s not Barack sitting at his computer approving your Facebook Friend Request and that GoogleGuy is a Google entity, not a person. They should realize that when a person friends Barack on Twitter and he immediately follows you back, that it was probably a bot doing the work. There’s a certain expectation there that Barack’s profile is being backed by a team of supporters and handlers. No one is pretending that it’s really Barack. That’s the difference.

And remember how people mocked Google for its use of the GoogleGuy account? Is that the reaction you want from your customers?

In my opinion, there’s a huge difference between creating a fake avatar and creating a brand ambassador to empower you on the social networks. I think brand ambassadors provide a lot of value to a social community. They give members someone to interact with, reach out to, and support.

For example, I love Bangerang cupcakes aka cupcakes in a jar. I’ve bought them for myself, for friends and even for people I don’t like because that’s how good they are. If the company were to create a Facebook profile using the name Bangerang Jane, I’d follow them in a second. I’d read through their news feed, check out their photos, listening to what they were saying, etc. I’d interact with this avatar because I know what it is. I know that it’s an ambassador for the brand. It’s transparent and I get it.

But if they were to create a fake avatar using the name Katie Cake and pretend that they’re a real person and had Bangerang cupcakes listed among their favorite things, with photos of them eating Bangerang cupcakes, I’d find that deceitful. That person doesn’t exist. I don’t care how “active” in the community you want to make that account, it’s still not a real person. You can’t have genuine interaction with someone that doesn’t exist.

The difference between a manufactured social media profile and a brand ambassador is the faking. I was at SMX Advanced when one of the panelists talked about creating fake avatars to push your brand. He mentioned using interest category listed on StumbleUpon to make the fake people look real. To find pictures of people on Flickr and use them as the profile picture. To give them fake interests because that helps manipulating people into thinking the avatar is a real person.

The intent there is to deceive. If it was about supporting the community, you could go the way of a brand ambassador. Creating fake people is not genuine, it’s not real, and it gives social media a bad name. I have to ask, why go through all that trouble to create something that’s fake when you can create something that’s real and has a heck of a lot more value? Why pretend to be Katie from Illinois who loves Bangerang Cupcakes and talks about them all day when you can just be Bangerang Katie? If the product is good, your supporters will be there. There’s no need to fake it.

I recently had the chance to interview Kendall Allen from Incognito Digital and I asked her about fake avatars and whether she agreed with that approach. In case you missed the interview, here was Kendall’s response:

Yeah, no. In the purist’s spirit of authenticity and brand – I would not favor this fragile stretch to authority. Authority should be based on real roots, history and establishment of true connections. Anything along the lines suggested creates false path and in effect undermines the “social” in social media. It certainly undermines the community flow – one you want to harness, not dupe.

Hear that? You need true connections that don’t undermine the community. At the end of the day, people don’t like to be deceived. And when you create a fake person with fake interests and fake pictures, it is FAKE. That goes against everything social media is supposed to be about.

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27 responses to “The Use of Fake Avatars In Social Media”

  1. graywolf writes:

    You may be willing to allow our politicians to operate under a different set of rules, saying it’s ok for them to operate profiles they aren’t involved with while we don’t have that priviledge.

    I’m not willing to concede they they operate under a different set of rules than we do. There’s no set of privileged rules for higher class of citizens.

  2. Hawaii SEO writes:

    Okay… We get it… Not a good idea to use fake avatars to promote a legitimate brand. But what about using fake avatars to help shill your MFA or thin affiliate website? It takes "Making Friends" to a whole new level. ;^) Seriously… Who does that sort of thing hurt if it’s not even a “Real” brand?

  3. Feydakin writes:

    Just trying to wrap my head around all the drama..

    It’s ok to create and manage an account for a real person (Obama) but it’s not ok to create a fake person for a corporate spokesperson?? (Geico Lizard, Mrs. Buttersworth, GoogleGuy etc)..

    Or am I missing the point??

  4. Lisa writes:

    It’s not a difference of class, it’s a difference of function. When you’re dealing with an avatar of an individual (Joe Bob from Boonsville, Middle America), that’s an person to person relationship. When you’re dealing with an avatar of a figure (Barack Obama), you’re dealing with an idea or institution. Being friends with Obama is about aligning yourself with his ideals, his campaign. It’s about showing support for what he represents. Being friends with Joe Bob is about connecting with Joe Bob. And no one is pretending that Obama really wants to be your friend. But Joe Bob who is really Sam Spam, he’s lying to you. That runs counter to the entire point of social media.

  5. graywolf writes:

    the interwebs are beacon of truth … wow I must have missed the memo :-)

    So why would assume my or any social media profile is real? You know what happens when you assume …

  6. g1smd writes:

    In the UK and much of the EU, creating fake profiles, and then reviewing products and services on a website could now very well be breaking the law, resulting in fines and jail time for offenders. These laws are to protect consumers from such abuse by marketers, and come at just the right time I think.

  7. Chris Miller writes:

    Figured out a short(ish) way to comment :) At SantaBot.com, some kids think they’re really talking to the really real Santa. Those of us a little older know that he couldn’t possibly have that many chat windows open at once, and realize some of his elves are probably helping; but I think most people are ok with that. Ultimately, they’re just there for the presents, and want to make sure someone in the North Pole hears their request – nobody ever really cared about Santa, the elves, or anyone at the North Pole Inc.

    To Michael: I never believed for a second you were really a gray wolf. A timber, maybe.

  8. Doug Heil writes:

    What’s amazing to me Lisa is the fact you felt the need to try your best in sorting out something that seems, erm, hmm, …. almost like common sense.
    It’s also amazing the industry even has to have this debate at all. Of course; it does go along with everything else dealing with this silly industry.
    Anyone who does not see the difference in an entity such as Obama, and “average joe” marketer… well, I can’t help you… and won’t try either.

  9. Doug Heil writes:

    Also and BTW: this is why many of us a few years stated the social media stuff is only short term. Google will put a sock in it real soon as more SEO types exploit things using bots and fake stuff. I stated a long time ago that “voting” up stuff just because you can hire a bunch of monkeys to run around for you is not a long term solution for any search engine that wants actual quality in their serps. How long do I think this social stuff will get “any” type of boost in a search engine? I’ll give it until June of 2009. You won’t see marketers trying to game the system after that date as it won’t be cost effective whatsoever.

    Just like everything in our short history… link exchange pages… FFA links pages… classified ad pages…most directories, etc, etc, etc. The list is long of SEOs doing their best to exploit and game the system, and the se’s putting a sock in it to make things irrelevant and useless.

  10. Michael D writes:

    Glad to see you came back to this topic. I didn’t have a word for “brand ambassador” and I like how you differentiated the two.

  11. AmyLynn writes:

    I agree with Lisa. It is deceitful, and if you are going to spend that much time investing in a fake avatar why not spend it with authentic efforts? I think that if you have REAL people who love you so much and have their own photos showing off your product, that means a lot more than something fake. Its similar to a company making & editing its own Wiki page. It just doesn’t sit right in the mind of the consumer.

  12. Bob Weber writes:

    Just to play devil’s advocate here, what’s the difference between this and a television advertisement where an actor plays a character that likes to eat Life cereal? That person isn’t ‘real’ either.

    What about product placement? Would Jack Bauer really use that type of cell phone? How about celebrity endorsements? Do we think Tom Brady really wears that watch? Do the guys doing Campbell’s soup commercials really come running when their mom puts a steaming bowl of soup on the table?

    Like it or not, advertising has always had a large amount of deception on one level or another. I don’t disagree that this is a little sketchy, but I don’t think it’s any worse than many other things that are common practice.

    On side note – $6 for a cupcake in a jar? Those must be good.

  13. Lisa writes:

    Okay, but TV ads and product placements couldn’t be more different than interacting on a social network. It almost worries me that you’ve aligned the two in your head. :)

    Ads are ads. People know that Jack Bauer doesn’t exist and doesn’t use that cellphone. It’s not real. It’s television. Just like people realize that Barack Obama isn’t manning his own social media profiles.

    That’s completely different from creating an account on a social media network and pretending to be a real person who just so happens to use the same cell phone as Jack Bauer or who is a huge Obama supporter.

    As Doug notes above, I’m having a problem explaining something that, to me, is pretty much common sense. I wish I had a $6 cupcake to eat instead.

  14. Bloggeries writes:

    Don’t I feel stupid; I’ve been telling all my friends that I”m actually friends with Barack. :(

  15. Doug Heil writes:

    lol bloggeries; now that was funny.

  16. graywolf writes:

    I think the problem is you believe social networks are “real” and should somehow remain advertising free.
    Call me old and jaded but I don’t have any illusion that’s true or is in any way sustainable. I think companies/brands are now embracing them because it’s a way to reach the advertising averse tivo generation. It’s not about connecting it’s just a more subtle form of marketing and advertising.

  17. Carolyn Shelby writes:

    I’m glad you made the distinction between “brand amabassador/entity representation” and “fake person”.

    Businesses are quasi-people in the eyes of the law and the IRS… they pay taxes, they incur liability for problems, they can enter into contracts and own property — they even have credit scores and credit cards. (They can’t vote or get married, but I guess not all people can vote or get married either so that kind of makes them completely real people? — I digress, sorry)

    Anyway, I don’t see the ethical conflict with creating a role-account for a business. I do think it’s ethically suspect to create a fake-o person and pretend that you’re NOT representing the business and you’re just a fan.

    What’s the difference? Option A is clear that he/she/it is a representative of the business, Option B is a LIE.

    So the argument here isn’t about fake-accounts, because I think most would agree that it’s permissible for a business to have a representative account that speaks on its behalf online and in social media, right?

    The real debate here is: is it okay to lie about your purposes? Is it okay to pretend you’re not shilling for the company and being compensated for doing so *when you are*.

    And when you break it down to that…is there really a debate?

    Marketers try to build relationships with consumers, and how can you sustain a quality relationship built on a lie?

  18. Halfdeck writes:

    Graywolf’s post boils down to “everyone is jumping off a bridge so I guess I will too.” For a guy who says arguing ethics is pointless, its interesting that his whole post is about ethics, not ROI. Come to think of it, most of his posts are about ethics: “Google is not the government”, “Google is hypocritical”…yeah how much more hypocritical can you get when almost every post you publish is holier-than-thou why-does-google-do-evil-selling-pr8-links why-treat-big-dogs-and-puppies-differently crap and at the same time claim “Debating ethics with anyone on the internet is as close to pointless as you can get” as a way to obfuscate an issue? When it comes to Google, Graywolf seems to care a whole lot about right and wrong, but when it comes to things in his own back yard, ethics are a non-issue; everything goes. There’s a difference between standing up for SEOs, fighting the “tyranny” of Google, and justfying every dirty tactic in the book to the point where we all look like spam-happy scumbags.
    But I guess all that doesn’t matter as long as readers get riled up enough to respond.

  19. Maurice writes:

    Err guys using a dummy ID has been common for a long time companies quite use this so that when sending a letter its singed by a dummy id.

    it is done so that you don’t get nutters/people in need of medical help turning up outside the office or real peoples homes with petrol bombs.

    I worked for BT and one of the senior PR guys told me a great story about this guy who used to write to the Boss of BT (the GPO at the time) he was convinced that the BBC was an evil organisation bent on destroying civilization as we know it an the GPO where one of the good guys.

  20. Leo writes:

    Good article and dicussion.

  21. Al writes:

    I agree with graywolf’s position – if its okay for politicians to do it then … I feel that they shouldn’t be doing it either! They are just manpulating the system for their gain and are abusing it. Do u really believe Obama or McCain are socially actively on the Web – their social sites shoudl be dismantled. Do it yourself or get off!

  22. Kat writes:

    I find it a best practice not to underestimate people’s ability to discern the difference between fact and fiction. We know there’s a person behind the Kool-Aid Man costume but we accept him and hold the willing suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment. We also accept that Bill Cosby likes Jello pudding pops but there’s more to the man than his preference in dessert. We are multi-faceted in “real life” and I think the same extends to the webosphere.

  23. Doug Heil writes:

    That’s great then Al. Do it yourself. A business should not be hiring a SMO then, right? Coming from your stance; unless that biz “does it themselves”, they should not be on the social sites. I agree.

    Matter fact; leave the darn sites alone and just allow the teenagers to do what they do. After all; that’s why myspace was created anyway. The first social sites were only created for hmm, “social”. Only when the marketers got their grubby hands on things did they start pooping up the web.

  24. Jill writes:

    Agree with everything Lisa said in this one. Can’t even imagine how people could see it any differently.

  25. Internet Marketing Joy writes:

    In all online communities..trust is very important..that’s why it is important to use your own profile and avatar…that way people will feel at ease with you.

  26. paisley writes:

    If we transfer the logic you use on your argument concerning Obama’s multiple profiles to reach different location specififc voters.
    (DISCLAIMER: yes.. i do)
    A company should only have one email address,
    there is no need for suzy in accounting, (Barack’s Texas profile), or hank in HR, (Barack’s Florida profile), or jim in PR, (Barack’s michigan profile) … do i need to go on, each profile serves a different segement, like each email address serves each person.
    now.. in your example of katie cake (a made up person) endorsing the cakes.. that’s fakeness, her real name could be Rae Hoffman, etc..
    these two things are apples and oranges..
    add the third thing.. “bots” – automated computer script running profiles… then you have spam.
    the first one is good marketing and PR
    the second one is advertising.. as in.. we can wrap our head around “katie Cake” not the person who controls her… it’s a symbol just like “Betty Croker” or Aunt Jemima
    the third one.. is just plain spam..

  27. Lebo writes:

    Sorry to bump an old discussion, but i feel strongly on this topic and it’s need to be revisited. I’m just an average joe(imagine that, these days) but, I am struck by the level of propaganda levied against the average “net user” on forums and message boards. The huddled masses are none the wiser when poster “A” is just a cheerleader for poster “B” and his products…Not even mentioning their all actually the same person whom started the message board. The ‘net’ has become a parody of it’s former self; a free exchange of information amongst individual users.



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