Kevin Lee
Mar 8, 2013

Zombie nation: What's the ROI of social media in China?

Zombies—automated programs that follow and even post responses on social-media sites—may inflate a brand's sense of its success. Kevin Lee, director at Skye Analytics, a division of Skye Media, explains how to spot zombies and avoid their evil ways to build true online engagement.

Zombie nation: What's the ROI of social media in China?

You gained 10,000 new Weibo fans in the past few months, and hundreds of Weibo authors are interacting with your posts. You and your marketing team are ecstatic with the performance of the social-media agency you engaged for your recent campaign. Success! Or is it?

The sales team halts your celebrations when they tell you that your campaign has not brought in any new sales. Wait, what’s gone wrong? Why hasn’t an increase in fan loyalty and interaction led to an increase in sales? Does this mean that social-media marketing is ineffective?

Or perhaps all those new fans that your social media agency ‘guaranteed’ are not real people, but are actually zombies? That would explain why sales figures aren’t improving—after all, zombies can’t purchase products.

A zombie account is a fake, automated account that follows, posts and reposts pre-programmed content. Zombies exist mainly to artificially inflate the popularity of an author. They may simply add themselves to an author’s fanbase, or they may forward and even comment on an author’s posts. The result: more apparent popularity (more fans), and more apparent influence and authority (more forwards and comments).

While it’s common for celebrities and famous individuals to bolster their popularity online through the use of zombies, it’s in the commercial world that zombies really find their home. We analysed the responses to a number of Weibo posts made by international brands, where we discovered that sometimes as many as 99 per cent of the responses to a single post were made by zombies. In other words, a post that appeared to attract a healthy response rate of 100 forwards and comments actually attracted only one genuine response. No wonder sales figures aren’t improving.

How much is that zombie in the window?

Prices really depend on how good a zombie you want. A bargain hunter could potentially pay the equivalent of a Starbucks latte for 10,000 zombie fans, though chances are the zombies will follow you and do nothing else. They’ll also look like zombies, with no profile pictures, no posts, and no fans, which may well increase their likelihood of being fumigated by Sina, resulting in an eroding (zombie) fanbase.

A zombie connoisseur, on the other hand, may end up paying the same amount of money for just a few hundred high-quality zombie fans. These zombies will act and look like real authors to the untrained eye, with photos, ‘personalities’ and a history of posts. Add an extra fee of, say, another coffee, and these zombies will comment on and forward your post(s) a few hundred times. Voila! A semmingly viral Weibo post, courtesy of your unscrupulous agency and their zombie vendor buddies, at the bargain price of a few coffees.

Zombies can talk?

But no, you protest, those responses can’t be made by zombies. These authors mention your brand by name, and their comments look like logical responses to your post. Zombies can’t do that, can they?

To understand how zombie responses look like genuine comments, you’ll have to go backstage. When an agency engages a zombie vendor, they purchase the services of an army of zombies. If they pay extra, they can also provide the vendor with a list of responses to a designated post. The vendor programs his/her zombies to comment on the targeted post using these seeded responses, which, to the rest of the world, look like genuine opinions made by real authors. 

How to spot a zombie

It’s difficult to spot a zombie from just one post, especially high-quality zombies. What you need to do is to review the other posts made by the author, and judge from the nature of the posts whether the author’s a zombie or not.

Factors to consider include:

  • Does anyone interact (comment, or forward with content) on the author’s posts? Zombie authors tend not to attract comments. Occasionally, the odd zombie post will attract one (and only one) comment, but if you read the content of the comment, you’ll find that it has no logical connection with the zombie post.
  • What does the author forward? Zombies tend to forward commercial and popular posts (like “Joke of the Day” etc). They tend to forward posts that hundreds, if not thousands or even 10s of thousands of other authors (likely to also be zombies) forward. Certain zombies may forward randomly, including generic notifications that normal human authors wouldn’t forward.
  • Does the author make numerous posts within a short period of time? Most normal human authors don’t make more than one or two posts a minute.
  • Does the author forward the same post multiple times? Most normal human authors wouldn’t forward the same post more than once.
  • Does the author use generic phrases, such as “Great post” etc? Zombies tend have a limited vocabulary (except when they are seeded with predetermined responses, as mentioned earlier).
  • Does the syntax of the posts make sense? Do you see dashes and underscores in the middle of words?

You might also sense that something is fishy if the vast majority of the responses to your post happen within a short period of time, say, within a few hours. Normal human authors don’t tend to all respond at the same time—their responses tend to be distributed over a longer period of time.

One more thing: Don’t let those shiny “微博达人” red stars fool you. They are no guarantee whatsoever that the author’s real. Qualifying for one of those red stars depends primarily on the author’s level of activity, not the author’s identification. In fact, even the authors with the haloed “V” (for verified) signs may actually be zombies in verified clothing (admittedly, these are very rare, because verified account holders have to submit proper paperwork).

Some zombie activity is inevitable. They will find you even if you’re not looking for them. But if you’re finding that a significant proportion of responses to your posts are written by zombie authors, then something isn’t quite right.

Fake popularity is only skin deep

So what’s wrong with your social-media agency giving you zombie fans and forwards?

On the plus side, your Weibo channels look popular, your posts look hot and your marketing team will exceed any unrealistic quantitative KPI that was ever set.

On the minus side:

  1. Your sales figures won’t be moving north, since zombies don’t tend to buy your products.
  2. It’ll be virtually impossible to conduct any form of communication with genuine fans, because you can’t really determine who is a real fan and who isn’t. As a result, the whole “interact with your customers” aspect of social media becomes moot.
  3. Any market insights that you obtain from your fan base or responses will be misleading. You may discover that 50 per cent of the responses to your campaign come from Anhui Province, but on closer inspection you might realize that all your Anhui fans are zombies. 
  4. You lose the opportunity to expand your brand’s reach. Zombie forwards don’t count because real people don’t listen to what zombies say.
  5. You’ve effectively given your substantial marketing budget to an agency that has spent just a small proportion of it to ‘manufacture’ results for you. You wouldn’t pay genuine prices for fake goods, so why should you do the same with your marketing budget?

Make it real

Word-of-mouth marketing on social-media channels works because consumers believe that other customers’ opinions are unbiased, and hence, trustworthy. Like other types of marketing, there are no shortcuts: You build your brand and loyalty base just like you build a large mosaic, one small step at a time. But by getting to know your customers through sustained engagement over a longer period of time, you will win their trust, and they will repay you by becoming loyal brand advocates.

Done correctly, your social-media agency can help you steer your brand conversation, keep abreast of your fans’ opinions, and connect with your customers. On the other hand, an unscrupulous social-media agency, with its army of zombies, will erode, this valuable trust.

You can keep an eye on how your agency is serving you by checking the profiles of authors who follow your brand and respond to your posts. You pay them good money—make sure your agency gives you an ROI that you deserve.

Skye Media is a social-media agency in Beijing. 

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