It’s not about the numbers. It just isn’t.

Beware smooth-talking ‘social media consultants’ who promise online fame and glory by pointing to tens of thousands of people following them on Twitter, or hundreds and hundreds of ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages. For, to mangle the old proverb involving ‘glisters’ and ‘gold’, all those Tweeters might be sold.

My mate Bill Rundle has already blogged expertly on the alarmingly easy process of ‘buying’ a Twitter following.  And the Beeb recently ran an exposé on how simple it was to generate many hundreds of Facebook ‘likes’ for a non-existent company.

This is interesting, too. Particularly the mention of the Status People website that promises to help you find out “how many fake followers you and your friends have”. Bill says that after he wrote his initial blog people kept tweeting at him to ask if there were any such services available.

But what I really wanted to get off my chest was that this all underscores the omnipresent issue around ‘output’ and ‘outcome’ that continues to dog the public relations profession right around the world.

That thorny old question of why it’s not okay to measure success by the size and weight of the press clippings file.

Why on earth would you think simply having someone follow you is of any value?

Just as business managers, executives and investors the world over have been misled into believing that the volume of press clippings relates in some way to the effectiveness of their public relations programmes, so many of these same people now seem to believe that the success of their online activities can be measured by ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and similar.

I know, right? Weird.  But they do.

 This follow-up by the Beeb’s Rory Cellan-Jones to his original ‘fake customers’ story is quite telling. BMW? Mini?

Do they measure the quality of their engagement with their followers, some of whom may in fact be real people?

Do they insist on establishing some form of dialogue with their legions of ‘likers’?

Do they listen and respond to criticism and queries originating from the blogosphere?

Some – in fact, an increasing number – do. I have already written about the superb work done across social media by Auckland Council, for example. And I’m sure you’ll be able to point to many other heroes of the hour.

But many don’t. And of those I think it’s worth asking the question – what the heck are you doing? Why the heck are you doing it? And why on earth would you think simply having someone follow you is of any value? I follow dozens of people or organisations I am either ambivalent about or actually dislike, simply because I want to keep tabs on the buggers. And I’m not alone.

People who understand the role that social media can play in an organisation’s public relations know that it’s better to have a healthy, constructive online dialogue or relationship with several hundred followers, than to simply collect trophy numbers reaching into the hundreds of thousands.

As one of this country’s bona fide, real marketing and social media heroes (IMHO), Courtney Lambert, says:

[UPDATE: July 31 – The NBR carried this today, about the Twitter account of Facebook Australia-New Zealand’s Adnan Kahn.]

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