For brands that are active on social media, success is benchmarked by how many likes and followers they have. Everything stems from the idea – and not a bad one either – that traditional web audience measurement tools (based on the number of visits) do not reflect the extremely qualitative aspect of social interaction. A consumer that follows a brand, likes it or writes about it, should be perceived as being more important than another who simply visits the website or Facebook page. As such, a brand has great reason to value its friends and followers. There is even an elite pantheon of brands, like Starbucks or Coca-Cola, whose consistency, quality, ethics and depth are enough to generate unsolicited support and admiration from their loyal customer base. If anything, having millions of fans can convince others that a brand is worth liking by leveraging the ‘If everyone else likes this, I should like it too’ mentality held by many consumers.

Just as in real life, however, problems arise when you try to be liked for what you are not.

Many brand marketing executives who haven’t had the good fortune of being “loved brands” have jumped into the race to get the greatest number of likes, followers, re-tweets, +1s or subscribers.

These days, even the most ethical of marketers are using contests to attract new fans. It becomes an ethical gray zone, however, when the brand wants something in return: “You want to see my promo video? Like me first.” For those who have lost all scruples, they can save a tremendous amount of time by simply buying followers.

Some sites offer these kinds of promotions:

It is also possible to purchase Instagram subscribers, Facebook friends, Google +1s or Pinterest repins. The arrival of these kinds of proposals is very similar to what makes purchasing web traffic somewhat dubious; that is, where it costs peanuts to buy millions of clicks in the hopes of creating a torrent of sales. The worst thing about all this is that it does actually work.

From a strictly business perspective, sales are about numbers; the more people you reach, the more you are going to sell. If you’re buying a million new likes, you’re likely to see higher sales – but you’ll also be killing your brand in the process.

If the truth does manage to come out, however, the damage can be virtually impossible to reverse. For Obama, finding out that millions of his Twitter followers are fake could be more harmful than any Republican attack ad.

In the excitement of managing a brand or launching a new product, the most important thing to do is to recognize the line and not cross it. If people aren’t engaging with your product or service, it’s a sign that it must be reworked (it’s up to the advertiser and the agency to bring this up) or sold differently (the agency’s job). In this viral era, it’s rarely the case that you just have to wait for potential customers to come around.