By - CTL
February 7, 2018

By Dorothy Thompson & Mark Ritson.

Love him, hate him; but do not dismiss his views. Ritson is blunt, some might say rude, crude and maybe not the sort of chap you take home to meet mum. But CTL challenges all digital content marketers to be courageous enough to read this piece.

Mark Ritson is Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School and a Visiting Professor at Singapore Management University. He has a PhD in Marketing from Lancaster University and has been a faculty member at some of the world’s leading business schools teaching the marketing core and brand management on the MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, and the University of Minnesota. He is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best marketing instructors and has been the recipient of the teaching prize at LBS (2002), MIT (2009) SMU (2015) and MBS (2008, 2009, 2010, 2013 & 2014).

Mark has worked globally on projects ranging from brand strategy, market research, segmentation, CRM and brand extension. His clients have included Baxter, Loewe, McKinsey, PepsiCo, Subaru, Eli Lilly, Donna Karan, Johnson & Johnson, De Beers, Sephora, Benefit, Amgen, Ericsson, Jurlique, Cloudy Bay and WD40. For thirteen years – from 2002 to 2015 – he served as in-house professor for LVMH – the world’s largest luxury group – working with senior executives from brands like Louis Vuitton, Dom Perignon, Fendi, Tag Heuer, Dior and Hennessy.

An avid writer on branding, Mark has written a weekly column on the topic in the UK for Marketing Week for over a decade. On 3 occasions he has been judged the Business Columnist of the Year at the PPA Press Awards, the highest award for magazine journalism in the UK, in 2010, 2013 and 2015. He is also a columnist for The Australian newspaper.

His more scholarly publications include articles published in Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, the Journal of Advertising, and the Journal of Consumer Research. He was the recipient of the Ferber Award in 2000, one of the most prestigious prizes in Marketing, for his doctoral thesis, in 2001. His co-authored research on pricing was cited by George Akerlof during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

He has without doubt some very strong views and is what could only be said somewhat outspoken on the fallacy of digital marketing and the foolishness of marketers that blindly throw marketing budgets at digital, without evaluating or interrogating the numbers. He sees digital and social media in particular as unproven and misrepresented channels.

As such, his recent article is without doubt compelling reading.


By Mark Ritson

In 1993, back in the early days of the World Wide Web, The New Yorker’s brilliant cartoonist Peter Steiner produced an iconic cartoon. A single image shows a dog sitting in front of a computer and turning to a smaller dog to say: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

It was a brilliant and prescient way to capture the quarter century of social media that awaited us. Because, despite the excitement and advances of the digital age, a dark shadow of fraud continues to bedevil the experience.

We worry about “fake news” because no one is exactly sure what the real news might be. We talk about “viewability” because no one is quite certain how many people actually saw our digital ads. We talk about “non-human traffic” because a significant proportion of the audience we are reaching does not actually exist. We separate out “micro-influencers” from word of mouth because the former is a paid endorsement while the latter is genuinely free, but both appear to be the same.

We concern ourselves with “ad fraud” because there are many companies out there selling ads that don’t exist and we worry about “domain spoofing” because the titles they are selling them on are not real either.

Peter Steiner was right all those years ago. On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog or a person or a journalist or a publisher or anything. It’s a digital hall of mirrors and the question is not is there fakery out there — but rather is it too much fakery. Long ago we rejected the old-fashioned binary standard of true or false when it comes to social media. In the digital age we regard authenticity as a question of acceptable proportion.

Take the number of fake followers on Twitter. If you have an account on Twitter the chances are that about 15 per cent of the people who follow you are not real. That’s the standard estimate from academic studies and a new investigation by the New York Times.

Who are these fakes? Initially they look just like you or me. Many have a profile picture and interests and they tweet and retweet like the rest of us. But the photo is not theirs, it is of some other, unwitting Twitter user whose profile has been stolen and reused to create a fake identity.

Not only are you possibly being followed by fake humans, you might also have a digital doppelganger out there in social media land doing its own, non-human stuff.

Of course, these fake followers are not evenly distributed. One of the main thrusts of the New York Times’s investigation is that there is a very successful shadow industry of companies that create and then sell these followers by the bucketload to brands and people who want to bolster their following on social media. The newspaper lists tech billionaire Michael Dell, Great British Bake-Off judge Paul Hollywood and singer Clay Aiken on a long list of famous people who have amassed thousands of fake followers.

They can add my name to that list too. I have a huge number of fake followers. A current scan of my 60,000 followers estimates at least 25,000 of them are fake. There is a simple explanation for that.

I bought them. Five years ago I was writing an article on the topic of fake followers to highlight how brands and celebrities were all in on the game. One night, just before going to bed, I took a long sad look at my puny 4000 followers and bought 50,000 bright shiny fake ones from a company in Europe. The whole process took about 10 seconds and cost $750. In my defence, it was not some nefarious attempt to bolster my credentials. I wrote a column that was subsequently read by more than 200,000 people about my fake followers and the process of buying them.

What I was unprepared for was the subsequent boost that my new 50,000 fake friends would give me. I suddenly started getting much more coverage in the media. One profile, ignoring my PhD and University of Melbourne position, cited my Twitter following as proof of my status. And the ultimate irony — with all these fake followers, I started to pick up far more real ones as a result. Visitors to my profile saw my big following, assumed I must be worthy of their time and joined up. The line between real and fake is not just difficult to discern on Twitter, the fake line feeds into the real one.

There are far more negative implications, however, that make the growing scandal of fake followers on Twitter a much serious issue.

For starters, the growing industry of “micro-influencers” who offer their services to post positive reviews and messages are usually paid on the number of followers they have. Brands and celebrities typically spent about $200 per tweet from a micro-influencer in 2017. But that fee increases significantly as the influencer in question claims more followers. Analytics firm Captiv8 estimates that an influencer with one million followers can charge upwards of $10,000 per tweet. Clearly, there is an issue if some, perhaps most, of those followers are fake. A harmless ego boast has suddenly become a fraudulent trade.

But the biggest shadow, as usual these days, is Russia-shaped. The ability to create multiple, apparently American and British identities and then tweet political messages millions of times over has proved an invaluable tool for Russian operatives attempting to influence Western populations. Pushed by congress, Twitter notified 1.4 million of its American user base last week that they had been directly interacting with Twitter accounts operated by Russian operatives.

Even that huge number is merely the tip of the iceberg. For every interaction on Twitter, there are tens of millions more who read, but did not interact with, this new form of propaganda, unaware its origin was the Kremlin, not Kentucky. These days it’s not unusual to see a Twitter feed where, somewhere in the interactions, a user suggests everyone ignore the comments from one particular account because “you are talking to a Russian”.

Twenty-five years ago dogs faking it as humans on the internet appeared to be the height of ridiculousness. These days it would barely rarely raise an eyebrow.

Originally published in the Australian Newspaper


  1. Great piece

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