The black hat days are OVER.

black hat SEO
photo via Flickr

In search engine optimization, “black hat” refers to the practice of using unethical techniques to make your search rankings go up.

The same can be applied to social media.

It wasn’t long ago that news surfaced about the black hat tactic of buying Facebook fans and Twitter followers. While not news to me, the general public was shocked—and rightfully so. As minor as buying numbers may seem, it is dishonest. Consumers were angered to learn that not only were these things possible, but they were also routinely practiced by their favorite figures and brands.

While I don’t agree with it, I do understand why companies do it. But they’re thinking short-term only, focusing solely on growing social stats to appear more “popular” in the social space.

So they purchase these “Likes” and fake followers, and voila! The brand now has thousands, maybe even millions, of so-called brand evangelists.

Unfortunately, this is a flawed approach.

Flaw #1: Assuming that people equate higher numbers of Facebook fans and Twitter followers with better brand quality.

This is simply not true. There is no shortcut to building quality. Brands, both old and new, must continue to gain consumer trust the traditional way: through relationship-building.

This is where social media can be a beautiful thing, opening up the lines of communication and making it easier than ever for brands to connect with consumers—what it is not doing, however, is making it easier to fool consumers. If anything, social media empowers consumers, giving them quicker access to the truth about their favorite brands as well as direct access to an even more powerful community: fellow consumers.

Flaw #2: When making those hefty black hat transactions, one huge factor was overlooked: WHO are these “fans” and “followers”?

Considering that these new “fans” and “followers” are fake, it’s laughable for a brand to expect any sort of engagement or loyalty in return. While a brand’s Facebook page and Twitter account may boast stats over 6 figures, check out its page activity. How many likes, comments, and shares is its content receiving? How many retweets, favorites, and mentions is it getting? More than likely none, which in the long run translates to no business. (Now that’s a waste of money.)

So, what are the REAL tricks to succeed in social media?

#1: Research. There’s an audience for everything, don’t forget. Somewhere out there, someone thinks your brand is sexy. Now all you have to do is find them.

An overwhelming challenge indeed, but this is where research comes in. Researching, or “sleuthing” as we like to call it, is essential to a social media campaign, both in the beginning and throughout the duration. But, where do you begin?

Once a clear understanding of a project’s goals and ideal market has been established, we look to industry blogs and their blogrolls for leads to online influencers and media personalities. In addition, we use Twitter to cultivate and build lists of audiences, so when it is time to engage, we’ve got them right in front of us.

Research is an ongoing task, so be sure to allocate ample amounts of time during the week to continue scouring the web and growing your brand’s target audiences.

#2: Engagement. Building long-lasting relationships with consumers is essential for breeding loyal brand evangelists.

Ways to engage:

Twitter chats. Once you figure out who your target market is, think about where those audiences might spend their time online. A great place to start or join conversations is Twitter. A Twitter chat will typically have a moderator, and it will always have (one of my favorite things) a designated hashtag. The hashtag serves as the filter and cultivator of the discussion, so anyone wanting to participate or find out what was said can easily find it.

For example, on behalf of a client in the fashion industry, we leverage the brand through #stylechat, a Twitter chat about fashion and style that happens every Wednesday. For 1 hour, our team keeps up with fellow fashionistas, clothing designers, and bloggers and looks for opportunities to create and add value to the conversation. When engaging though, it’s crucial to not just name-drop. The community will immediately turn against you and your chance of earning their trust is slim to none. Social media is all about what it says it is: being social – so act normal and look at it more as a form of communication and relationship building rather than advertising.

Join niche networks and look for opportunities to create new discussions. We recently put that same fashion client on a newer, more niche social channel: Best way to describe Like Pinterest, but for fashion and specialty items only. Being still quite new, the network isn’t over-saturated yet, and we knew it was the perfect time to dive in, join the community, and start to leverage our client’s brand as we become an influencer in the space.

Just as the world of SEO has drastically changed, with Google going to great lengths to end cyber-spam and penalize those trying to take these dark shortcuts, the same goes for the world of social: there is no quick fix. These under-the-table types of tricks will no longer work. They will instead only hurt a brand’s reputation and harm the integrity of the company.

If you want to succeed in the social space and see the benefits social media can bring to your business, you’d better pack a snack—it’s a long haul.

Mal Janasek serves as Director of Social Media at Highly Relevant. When she’s not behind a computer, you can find her – camera in hand – capturing the world and running

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