There are services out there who will sell you YouTube 'views', 'likes' and 'subscribes', Vimeo plays, Tumblr likes, Facebook follows and 'likes', Twitter followers, Instagram followers, even SoundCloud plays, in fact pretty much anything you need to boost the ranks of your social channels if numbers are all you care about.
Whether I think this is right or not - I often have to explain the benefits and the downfalls of this for clients because, put simply, most of them ask. Most people see these services and think "Why shouldn't I throw fifty quid at this to get the ball rolling and get the Pages hopping - can you do this for us Nik?" Let's assume community growth is part of the strategy, here's the impartial answer I give them:
Having a healthy number of followers boosts credibility, meaning others are (psychologically) more likely to sign-up and join the community, watch the video, eat the Soylent Green, whatever, because they believe it is of value because of the perception of worth indicated by the 'likes', 'plays', 'friends', 'followers', etc.
It's probably cheaper than social ads.
Most of these services are compleatly untargeted and/or fake accounts, even if they claim to be otherwise. As a consequence people don't care about the Page or account they are following, and their interaction stops here. If you could get blood out of a stone Mount Everest would be covered in black pudding factories, it's not, and it's the same thing trying to squeeze interaction out of bought friends, fans, and followers.
Friends might not be as reliable as you think...
There is an ongoing drop off to followers and subscribers that will continue indefinitely. A percentage of these accounts are real people, and eventually these real people will realize you are clogging up their stream with news and stuff they don't care about (probably because your chatting away in a different language or not about Justin Bieber). Eventually they will unsubscribe, and user numbers will start to fall almost immediately - this is especially true with Twitter where many of these are opt-in-bulk-follow-back arrangements.
Channels, notably Facebook, are cracking down on this. Back in August they announced a new automated system to weed out fake accounts and followers, and said they'd penalise numbers accordingly. There's not much point paying for followers if they are going to be removed automatically. If they take this further and penalise EdgeRank, for example, you're in a world of pain. Technically it's against most sites terms and conditions, so you also run the risk for getting your whole profile wiped - which I doubt makes for shits and giggles.
So I'm going to look at this simply. How would I spend that £50 (or less) to get better results?
- Targeted Facebook social ads (or Promoted Posts if you've got something good to say). At least this 50 quids worth of targeted accounts will care about what you do and you might actually get some shares or sales out of it. How about some LinkedIn ads to target companies that need your services? If you need a bit more money signed of for this, how about creating your own and ploughing anything you make on blogs AdSence back into your social marketing? If you go for tight local targeting that £50 will be much better spent.
- Contests, sweepstakes, giveaways. I've always liked WildFire apps for this, they keep everything under correct terms and conditions and they're cheap as chips.
- Fan-specific (you gotta be a 'liker') coupons and discounts (see WildFire apps again)
- A reveal page. If they don't click 'like', they don't get the good stuff. Here's a simple how to.
- Do some outreach. Here's a trick I use for Hootsuite to find Twitter peeps. The rest is chatting in groups on LinkedIn and being happy to answer some questions on the likes of at Quora, Yahoo Answers, and commenting on blogs and Tumblr etc. It'll cost you nothing but time.
- Posting awesome content - take some time to create some white-paper quality stuff, and to spread it around creatively. With a bit more time build an Editorial Calendar and some user personas, and get your colleagues in sync to produce some serious stuff that people will actually want to read.
- Using viral apps like Questions and Offers. It's all there in Facebook's interface, ready to rock.
- Asking f/f/f's to tell their buddies (which is free, but you gottta give them a reason to do so).
- Embed video everywhere. Videos on YouTube are great for long tail search, but embedding Facebook vids in your blog content is a greater reason for people to click-through to your community.
- Check your literature and website. Are your social channels EVERYWHERE? Have people got the URL and links in front of them so that they can easily find your Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, G+, Flickr, whatever?
I could add a lot more alternatives, but I'm starting to bore myself. Weighing up the pros and cons seems to have obvious results. Personal biased aside, that's a lot you can do with just a tiny bit more effort that will be a lot more effective than paying for numbers. There's no substitute for effort, and that's where you should place your £50. If you don't want the hassle yourself, imagine that money is going towards an hours work and to someones wages within your company, it's often a lot easier to justify to the powers-that-be.