If you spend much time around black hat "making money online" forums, you start to notice something interesting.
The vast majority of the posts are not at all about what I would consider “hacking,” clearly not illegal, and not really even unethical by most standards. Rather, most of the popular posts actually represent more of a free-for-all open-source discussion of business plans and marketing tactics that would be welcome in any business class if it weren’t for some of the foul language and juvenile avatars. In fact, much of what you see is well-intentioned people trying to help each other out. Posts along the lines of “I’m behind on my rent and just lost my job flipping burgers. Someone told me I should look into setting up an eCommerce site. Can someone tell me where to go to find more info?” are quite common.
Some of these posts have lasted years, and contain HUNDREDS of pages of discussion, sharing of resources (both free and paid), and are explicitly geared towards bootstrap entrepreneurship. In fact, I strongly suspect that some of the celebrity guru entrepreneurs out there that sell their workshops and digital products for five figures or more got their start in these dark corners of the internet where the very same information is presented for free and without pretense.
That’s a pretty interesting theory in its own right, but it will have to wait for another project because it was a different idea, discovered on a forum post that pointed to a YouTube video, that led to a different YouTube video that I sunk my teeth into: Getting ultra low cost ‘likes’ on a Facebook page by targeting people living in economically depressed countries.
CHEAP PAGE LIKES FROM THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES IS FINE IF YOU SINCERELY WANT TO REACH OUT TO THOSE USERS
Although it was talked about as a "hack," I didn’t think that it was as black hat as it seemed. Most people seemed to be using the tactic to build social proof around their personal brand, which does seem a bit grey-ish. But what if you created a Facebook Page, or even a (gasp!) business built around actually offering a service to that market?
It’s not a crazy idea to make money off of people in poor countries. Yes, there are egregiously exploitative cases, but plenty of entrepreneurs and companies make money in these markets and are lauded by business and civic groups alike.
Working in Korea for as long as I have, both in the world of English education as well as teaching academic (non-ESL) topics to a non-native English speaking audience, I have long wished I had been better about keeping in touch with all of the contacts I have made along the way. The common ground with almost all of them is that they are interested in English as a second language for various reasons. Several years ago I thought about the idea of putting together my own email newsletter to send out with free tips and resources for all my friends that I met along the way. But the idea had a critical flaw. For whatever reason, Koreans just do not seem to rely on email the way that westerners do.
The ‘so crazy it just might work’ solution I came up with was to make a free online course all about international best practices for using English. It would walk them through the whole process of setting up an email account, finding interesting newsletters, and using Google alerts to stay on top of breaking news in their areas of interest.
To help me find a good name, I hopped over to kwfinder.com and one of the suggested related keywords that came up was the little gem “English for Academic Purposes," and an exact-match top level domain (TLD) was available.
After posting about ten posts on each site to start out, I first followed the method proposed in one of those aforementioned YouTube videos. It involved finding a nice image with a heart or the word ‘love’ and making a post that encouraged anyone that is a fan of ‘love’ to like and share the image.
Although I could see doing this in a way that is completely in line with a brand, at this point I just couldn’t bring myself to do try it with an image so flagrantly irrelevant to my topic. Instead, I targeted FB users with an expressed interest in learning English. I also diverged from the proscribed format by actually making my advertisements topical, while still being somewhat platitudinal.
I ran these ads for a few days each, setting a maximum budget of $10 to start, and after the Facebook algorithm worked to get me maximum exposure for minimum cost with that larger budget, I was going to reduce the budget to $5 a day.
What actually happened, though was quite different. The page likes started flooding in as my ad budget shrank at a snail’s pace. I never quite reached the $0.00003 per like range that as promised in the YouTube videos, I was still pretty floored that I was paying something in the $0.003 for each new follower. The disparity in my results could’ve been from not optimizing my ad for mass appeal like instructed, or maybe Facebook had just changed the algorithm to subtly prevent it from being exploited in such a flagrant way. Either way, $0.003 is nothing to sneeze at.
CHEAP FACEBOOK LIKES AS SOCIAL PROOF IS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
Here’s the problem. What use are thousands of followers in Bangladesh going to be for someone selling vacuum cleaners in Boise? Before you rush to judgement, consider what happens when you yourself are invited to like a Facebook page by someone on your contacts list. If it only has five likes, do you click the like button yourself? It probably depends more on your relationship to the person that invited you than your interest in the topic.
On the other hand, having thousands of followers on your page about vacuum cleaners that never engage with your posts is going to find your posts getting severely punished by the Facebook algorithm as well. In other words, Facebook has a built in system to try and counterbalance the manipulation of the system in a way that strongly disincentivizes the Boise vacuum cleaner salesman from going hog wild with this system. Facebook wants people to have a good experience on Facebook and is going to reward posts that are well received by it’s community. This is why I don’t buy the argument that Facebook uses ‘click farms’ and fake user profiles itself to rob us gullible digital marketers, and especially the DIY small business owners of our money. The system is set up in a self-correcting way that heavily incentivizes business owners to target the right demographic for their product or service.
Now what if you weren’t trying to sell vacuum cleaners, but to raise awareness about an issue you were passionate about like the international campaign to ban landmines? What if you, for completely legitimate purposes, WANTED your message to reach those same people? Are going to have the same engagement problem?
This is a bit of an open question that my project doesn’t quite answer. My posts were getting SOME engagement, but not what I would have liked. Maybe my content wasn’t very good. Maybe their base English level wasn’t enough to really understand the content even if my original advertisement caught their eye, or maybe, and this is the argument that click farm conspiracy theorists don’t seem to get, my followers just use Facebook in a different way, culturally, than my friends and I do.
Still, Facebook provides a shortcut: You can pay for that engagement. Yes, you can ‘boost’ posts to your own group members if you are trying to kickstart engagement in your group or launch some kind of product. I tried this with EAP when I finally sat down and created my Effective English Email course and built an entire online platform around it to mixed results. I only spent five bucks on a boosted post and I got about 30ish clicks out of it, but nobody signed up for the free course. Maybe my course landing page is too confusing or not optimized in the best way. Or maybe it’s just not a topic that my third-world audience can relate to.
I suspect that I might have better results if I, rather than marketing to my followers, targeting foreigners studying in North American universities. But that’s a good bit beyond the scope of this particular series of experiments.
ONE STEP FURTHER: A NEW IDEA
Is it black hat to employ the same strategy to offer free or dirt cheap English learning tips and resources to people in those same countries? What about building a business model off of them?
I really don’t know the answer to these questions.
What’s more, I’m not sure I really care. At the end of the day, I strongly feel as though all of these strategies can be employed for good, rather than evil, purposes.
In the midst of this experiment, I had an idea for another one. What if I created my own channel about American politics to talk directly to people in countries like Egypt, Bangladesh, and Qatar and explain why things happen the way they do in American politics?
Is this black hat? Is it propaganda? Both? Neither? Stay tuned…