• Dylan Joubert

We’re Calling Bullsh!t on LinkedIn Engagement

We’re going head-to-head with LinkedIn. It's our belief that engagement is being diluted by bots and spam accounts we didn’t pay for, and we want answers.


Written By Dylan Joubert, Head of Digital Strategy @ ATYPICAL Agency




PART 1.


I liken the following story to the opening scene in the Spielberg classic, Jaws.


It’s an exciting time. Your heart’s racing and you’re being chased by your drunk boyfriend on the beach at dusk, or in our case, your lovable and sober boss, who needs you to get a social ad live for your biggest client.


You’re present and ready to make this thing happen when you hear someone shout, “We’re going swimming!”. It’s a great moment of excitement and possibility.


In the non-Jaws-related world, you’re about to click publish on something that’s taken a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort. You’re about to pay a social network to make sure your product reaches the right audience. An audience they’ve promised you they can reach, just like Chrissy’s boyfriend, promising her a great time on that shimmering beach.


And like young Chrissy, you’re about to enter the big, wide, open expanse of open ocean, fraught with the unknown. You’ve double-checked everything, played by the rules and so you’re confident this is going to be a success.


After all, you designed a great piece of content; the video is slick, the captions on point, and the call-to-action would make Neil Patel drool. You’ve done everything this social network has told you to do in their ‘best-content-practices’ playbook, which you’ve meticulously studied.


And just like Bruce, that shark in Jaws, needs human flesh to survive, this is what social networks need from you. It’s what they need from all of us. They NEED us to create what they want in order to keep people more engaged on their platforms, for as long as possible. Every day. They named it, you did it, and apart from just the ad spend, it cost you a whole bunch of extra time and effort to produce.


You’ve researched all about how this platform is seeing record levels of engagement when ads are created in this way, and target the right people. You’re all in, water up to your neck, excited about people seeing this product you’ve put your heart and soul into.


Doesn’t that moonlight look so inviting twinkling over the ocean?


It’s time. Everything is right. You click publish, and dive in…



… A day goes by and you check your engagement. ‘YES’, you shout over the office din to a few skeptical glances. You’ve got two hundred and fifty engagements in a day. People must be loving your product, the full moon, the video, the design, the warm water, the captions, the CTA, and they must surely be clicking through to your website.



You’re swimming graciously along and social media is awesome.



Unbeknownst to you, a shadow lurks beneath…



🦈*Enter the Jaws theme song*🦈

(seriously though, play it for effect)


The next morning, you turn on your laptop and check your mail. Oh, it’s a late one from your client, probably telling you how much they’re loving the new ad, similar to Chrissy looking back, assuming her inebriated boyfriend is right behind her. Nope.


The email reads:


Hi <insert name of nervous marketing manager>,


I had a look through the audience engaging on our latest ad and none of them have profile pictures or seem very real. Can we discuss this later?


Sent from iPhone.


Your blood starts pumping a little faster and a sheen of sweat appears on your forehead, similar to how Chrissy may have been feeling when she felt that first brush in the dark water.


So you dive down deep. Rifling through your ads manager, you open up engagements on the post and it hits you like a hammer to the back of the head, just like that first bite from the shark. No profile pictures on three-quarters of the likes. You know what it means but you don’t want it to be true, so into each profile you go, feeling your anxiety worsen with each one you visit when finally it takes you under…


None of it’s real. Your ad, which you and your team have put in weekends for, has been the victim of what I’m calling ‘engagement inflation’ (I know it’s not sexy). Cut scene with Chrissy’s body washed up on the shore in the pre-dawn light…


And this is where we leave our Jaws-inspired storyline because Chrissy is gone and you have to tell your client that they’ve just wasted a lot of ad dollars on fake engagement.



PART 2.


This really happened to us


The story above, minus Bruce the man-eating shark, happened to one of our teams and client’s very recently, which is why I feel the need to tell you about it now. Since then I’ve been digging into social platform engagement and how ‘real’ the likes, comments, shares, and views we see on content actually are.


The shallow trench that I’ve dug so far shows that a lot of it isn’t as real as we’d like to believe. Apart from what we’ve been seeing on Instagram Reels, with posts having more ‘likes’ than ‘views’, a recent post for one of our clients, which we boosted on LinkedIn for engagement, showed thirty odd ‘likes’. However, at least twenty of these ‘likes’ were from ‘people’ with no profile pictures, names without caps, no activity, no following, no experiences, and using job titles such as ‘drunk’.



Duh, It’s Bots (or click-farms)


Now you’re probably thinking, dude, have you never heard of fake engagement? And of course, I have, I had to run an influencer division so fake engagement and I became mortal enemies for some time. But this is different and arguably far more concerning. We see influencers and brands that have bought engagement for whatever reason happening all the time right? Right. No problem (well of course it is a problem but we’ve become so numb to it, just like society slowly becoming numb to anything that’s horrendous so long as it’s shoved into your feed forty-eight times a day).


The problem with this situation is that those bot or spam accounts (I’m gonna call them SPOTS) that engaged with my client’s post were not bought. Think about that for a second. There was no money exchange for engagement from the client or from us, to any third-party click-farm (click this if you aren’t sure what a click-farm is).


So why would these SPOTS engage on the post? There is ZERO reason for a SPOT to engage on a post if no one has paid it to do so (unless SPOTS now have so much AI tech in them that they’re genuinely just engaging on content for fun – but that’s hopefully not the case because then Skynet and we’re all doomed).


But hold on a second…


We actually did pay for it. WE PAID LINKEDIN FOR THAT ENGAGEMENT. That engagement WAS paid for. But it was paid to the network itself, not some dodgy third-party fake follower platform. It was paid to LinkedIn, and it’s my belief that they have provided that fake engagement.



They’re not even hiding it well (or just don’t care)


I’ve been racking my brain over why these ‘user accounts’ would engage with this, and if it’s not due to the fun-loving AI SPOTS, then the only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that LinkedIn made, or bought, these SPOTS to engage with ads.


Enter the Engagement Inflation (still working on a better name – sorry) Theory.


I believe the platforms, all of them, are deliberately pumping up engagement to appear profitable to shareholders and investors. And they’re barely even trying to conceal it.


They know that most people won’t go into every profile that engages on their ad, so it’s a fairly safe way for them to report that they’re producing stellar engagement on their platforms. Oh, and when people (like me) do challenge them on it, they pay us off in fifty-dollar increments as you can see below, hoping we’ll be happy and just keep our mouths shut.



But why would they do this?


It’s simple really.


MONEY.


And being able to report company growth each quarter to their investors.


This is the way the social ad platform world works (very basically):


If overall engagement on their platform goes down over one quarter, and the social network has to report a loss in user engagement for even just that one quarter, it creates a ripple effect.


From the thousands of massive brands and corporations that are spending billions on advertising to millions of small business owners doing just a few hundred dollars each week; they’ll potentially start thinking twice about advertising with a social network if they see poor engagement metrics. If they report a second-quarter loss, even more emphasis on moving. A third-quarter loss and that snowball is starting to look like the makings of a Netflix documentary.


Their ‘money’ is going to potentially start looking elsewhere and at other platforms (I’m being slightly dramatic here but probably not that far off).


If that happens, things start to get about as bad as Walter White at the end of Season Four. In the world of digital advertising, which is a SIX HUNDRED BILLION dollar a year industry, fraught with the most intense competition, layered corporate agreements, government deals, agency partnerships, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a huge amount of arrogance… that report of loss in engagement can’t be allowed to happen.


If it does, investors and shareholders get nervous. And what do investors and shareholders do when they get nervous? They sell. Walter White for everyone.



SPOTS for the win


So then, using a few SPOTS to boost engagement levels on everyone’s content doesn’t seem that big of a price to pay in the greater scheme of things, and means that the dreaded ripple effect doesn’t happen.


The social networks keep making money and everyone is happy. Well except for you and me of course, and everyone that gives them money to promote their businesses to the right people, which they’ve promised they can do. But that’s not important, what’s important is that they show growth.



Enter stage left: 🍏


Now think of that whole situation and the potential shitstorm it could create. THEN, throw in the advertising world’s biggest spanner since Kendall Jenner and her Pepsi ad:


👉Apple


And their iPhone-privacy-update-bomb-drop that now asks all iPhone users if they want to let apps track them for advertising. Uh, no thanks.


To Zuckerberg, Gates and co. it must have been similar to how the engineering team of the Titanic felt when she hit that iceberg. It meant that there would be a huge decrease in advertising spend across all platforms and apps because companies and brands couldn’t target the people they used to, and we know we can’t have that, because ripple effect.


But, all of the networks were okay to report that drop in advertising revenue because everyone would have to report it (around $315 billion in market value from Meta Platforms, Snap Inc, Twitter, and Pinterest).



“It’s okay, just say we have record levels of engagement”


So, again, how do you show shareholders, investors, and the public that everything is fine and that people still love your platform? Keep bumping up those numbers with SPOTS. It’s also interesting that we’ve seen this happen so blatantly AFTER the Apple update, my theory is that they now have to push it even harder than they probably were before the update.


Anyway, I kept digging and came upon this article by Andrew Hutchinson of Social Media Today, which shows LinkedIn reporting record levels of engagement in every quarter for the last four years.


Record levels. EVERY quarter. For four years. That’s wild! On top of that, they don’t actually provide any figures to quantify the stats, and there’s no data to show if more people are commenting, liking, reacting, or sharing.


Just ‘record levels’.



As Andrew Hutchinson (one of the pre-eminent journalists of digital marketing in the world) says in the article;


“But it doesn’t seem possible that LinkedIn is breaking its own engagement record every single quarter, right? Like, if there were x million comments, x million reactions/likes, and x million shares in Q1, it couldn’t have bested those exact marks again every time. Right?”


Well, Andrew, I believe they have broken all of those engagement records every quarter, and they’ll continue doing so using their nifty little SPOT program. A simple, cost-effective, and brilliantly devious way of making sure their shareholders and investors don’t dump stock.



So, what can be done?


Sweet. F*%k. All.


Why?


Because we need them😞


We do need them, but here’s the silver lining in all of this because I'm not sadistic:


It’s not all doom and gloom. To give you some sense of ease and lessen the huge pit of despair currently sitting in your stomach; this isn’t happening on every campaign and it’s not happening on every boosted post; so the advertising still works.


I believe it’s happening when spend is small, like under five hundred dollars (I don’t have enough data to back this up yet), which means those boosted posts or ads reach fewer people, especially if you’re targeting a very niche industry like we are (commercial real estate in the US), which means that fewer people are likely to engage, which means the networks feel like they need to bump up those numbers so people are happy.


In fact, we still see really good results from our social media efforts, including LinkedIn, and it works very effectively, particularly from a lead generation point of view. Basically, I can’t pinpoint everywhere this is happening but we’re still seeing good leads come from the platforms.


Breathing a bit easier? Good.



It’s just a theory


Anyway, this is a theory, and one I’m hoping someone debunks in the comments section so I can sleep a little better at night, however, to me it feels right. I don’t have any proof, and probably never will as it’s so easily deniable, but there it is anyway.


I’ll leave you (finally) with this:


If you run an ad for engagement on a social network, pop in after a few days and have a look at the audience that engages with it and let me know if it’s happening to you (seriously, DM me or comment on this blog). Maybe it isn’t happening everywhere and is just happening in our niche of commercial real estate, but somehow I don’t think so.


Until next week,


Stay ATYPICAL 😉