One way to up your like quotient on Facebook – and thereby spread your message further and wider – is by using the platform’s advertising interface to attract new followers.

That’s what a Toronto fashion magazine publisher tried to do a year ago. Fetopolis CEO Raaj Kapur Brar invested heavily in Facebook ads. The likes came pouring in.

In fact, one of his publications boasted 1.6 million supposed fans – more than Elle. The problem? Tons of Brar’s new fans appeared to be bogus.

The start of a beautiful thing?

It all started well enough, a report from Business Insider suggests. Fetopolis budgeted a reported $600,000 on Facebook ads to attract more likes. Eventually, Brar realized that his fan base was being infiltrated by thousands of fake likes – those that have few friends themselves, sport generic profile pictures or are based in developing countries.

According to BI (Facebook reportedly “declined multiple requests for comment” for this particular story) Facebook’s data said that the ads Brar placed on the platform had delivered over 600,000 clicks to his site. Brar’s site, however, counted just 160,000 incoming clicks from Facebook. Brar was spending upwards of $100,000 per day on Facebook ads but quickly determined that the revenue from the campaign wouldn’t cover costs. So, after four days, Brar pulled the plug.

“I’m not going to be ignored…”

But the fake likes kept on coming, revealing a problem with Facebook ads: People with fake profiles can click on the ads and like your page just to make their fake profile look more legitimate. Click farms in developing countries sell unsuspecting marketers lists of fake likes; those farms pay their workers $1 for every thousand likes they create. The result is that pages like Brar’s can became overrun with useless followers – all of which must be removed manually — distorting metrics and rendering the ad process all but pointless.

And Facebook, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t allow third-party audits to see how many clicks are genuine, as other players in the online ad game will.

Lessons learned

BI reviewed emails from Facebook, as well as screengrabs from Brar’s ad campaign dashboard, and wound up characterizing this brouhaha as “a confusing, acrimonious dispute in which both sides believe the other acted badly.” A year after the fact, it appears that Facebook hasn’t pursued further payment for the ads; Brar’s offer to pay upfront for future campaigns has apparently not been accepted. What might have eventually become a win-win has resulted in a stalemate that benefits no one. Including Brar’s fashion publications.

Which leaves the question of how best to maintain a social presence on Facebook, ads or no ads.

Comprendia, a bioscience consulting group that advises drug companies, recently released a set of best practices for avoiding fake users. Here’s some of what they suggest, which of course should be tailored to your specific needs:

  1. 1.

    Slow down

    Test various ads sequentially, carefully measuring responses. Do your new “likers” seem like they would be your customers?

  2. 2.

    Play to a common base

    Target ads to existing Facebook fans in your industry by specifying that condition in the ad dashboard.

  3. 3.

    Travel wisely

    Avoid targeting users in countries where you don’t do business. Comprendia offers a list of “problem” countries.

  4. 4.

    All in the family

    Build a page with real users, then target friends through promotions, unique content and contests.

  5. 5.

    Use better bait

    Consider running a promotion that requires a valid email address from a company within your chosen field and then measure the response.

  6. 6.

    Centralize activities

    Anything far-flung becomes harder to control and mitigate. And, says Comprendia, “Don’t let interns have a significant role in your social media campaigns, the risk is too great.”

In any event, the consultants say, consider putting a halt to all Facebook advertising until the fake liking clears up: “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.”

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