SMM panels, tools for buying fake social media engagement, are on the rise for surprising reasons.
To be clear, the direct economic value of this activity is negligible—since the followers are fake and don’t spend money. It turns out that it’s not brands who are buying these services most, but the freelancers they hire. As marketing work is increasingly outsourced to freelancers through sites like Fiverr and Upwork, these superficial engagement boosts are a scalable way for freelancers to reduce their costs while still hitting the engagement metrics set by their clients.
Today, a freelancer in the business of writing witty tweets and clever Instagram captions in order to attract followers is competing with people who can promise the same number of followers, and get them at a fraction of the cost through SMM panels. When success metrics are chosen poorly, software can undercut services, even though the output is lower-quality behind the curtain. This shows up in adjacent domains: article spinners can undercut copywriters on a price-per-word basis, although the results are poor; “traffic” is available in arbitrary quantities through botnets; positive reviews can also be bought at scale, though they often face removal.
What keeps the market alive is that many users are first-time buyers, who don’t know what result they should be paying for. As local businesses are forced to move online due to Covid-19, more small business owners are paying up for marketing that’s ultimately funneled to SMM panel providers, and getting the result they asked for instead of the result they wanted.