Cheating is as old as humanity. It happens in all walks of life including school, business and sport. In fact it happens all the time.
It even occurs on Facebook where over one billion people check in every month.
It’s a frequent and recurring issue for marketers running Facebook contests, and it’s one of the most frustrating and time consuming problems to solve.
Based on my extensive experience at Agorapulse with thousands of campaigns spanning the globe, I have summarized the strategies you should use to protect your Facebook contests from scammers and cheaters.
1. Choose your prizes carefully
By offering prizes that appeal to the masses, and not necessarily your target audience, you put yourself in a high-risk zone. Always offer a prize that is only interesting to your target audience. If you sell golf clubs, offer golf clubs, not iPads, unless your contest is only open to your target audience.
For example, we recently offered iPads to clients who wrote a creative review of our software. Yes, after writing extensively on this subject over the years, we offered iPads! This is generally not a good idea, but we didn’t encounter much risk because-
Our contest was only available to our paying clients.
We’re tech. More tech jedi are working mobile and our software works great with tablets.
Offering iPads in a Facebook giveaway is not necessarily a bad idea, but if you do, make sure your participants can only be clients or prospects. Otherwise, your campaign will be a cheaters’ paradise (and a nightmare for you).
Whatever business you’re in, always ask yourself these questions:
Do these prizes only appeal to my core target audience?
Will these prizes attract others who are not my target audience?
If you answer yes to the second question, either be sure to restrict your campaign to your target, or find another prize.
2. Be selective with the channels you use
The rule of thumb here is simple: if you’re only promoting to your clients, your risk of facing cheaters is near zero. If you promote to identified prospects (people you have in your database, for example), the risk increases but remains low. If you target to unidentified prospects (visitors of your website, or viewers of a well targeted ad), the risk increases significantly. Finally, if you target the public without any restriction (like a TV commercial), the risk is maximum.
Depending on the size of your existing database of clients and prospects, you may be tempted to advertise your contest to attract more participants. That’s totally OK, just understand that the broader the communication channel, the higher your risk of attracting cheaters. If you go this route, be sure you apply all the advice in this post.
Facebook ads can be a good idea to promote your Facebook contest. But be careful with the targeting options you’ll use. The broader your targeting, the higher the risk of fraud.
In the example below, if the ad is only targeting photographers, it will be OK.
This ad from Ford though may appeal to a too broad audience. Limiting it to real owners of Ford cars is probably a safe bet.
3. Beware of viral mechanisms
The viral promise of Facebook is very enticing. Especially when you run a contest or promotion. Basically, it looks like that: you promote your campaign to your fans, your email subscribers and your website visitors, they enter and they share it with their friends so you can extend the reach of your campaign beyond your existing audience. Sounds great!
In order to motivate your first participants to share your campaign with their friends, most applications offer built-in “share” and “invite” mechanisms and increase the likeliness to win if you invite friends. Basically, the more friends will enter, the greater your odds of winning a prize. We do offer that kind of option but it is not always a good idea to offer it to your participants.
If your campaign offers very attractive prizes to a non qualified audience, scammers are going to leverage these mechanisms to their advantage. As they probably already have a lot of fake Facebook friends, they’ll use that to increase their chances, and it may well work for them! But for you, it will only generate an awful lot of fake fans that definitely not do you any good. Worst, it may damage your future performance (engagement rate will likely decrease and may hurt your edgerank).
Viral options can be a good idea, but they are also making the life of scammers a lot easier. In some cases, you are probably better off not using them at all.
4. Understand which applications encourage cheaters
Some apps are more prone to risk than others.
Low risk applications
Applications that do not rely on the participation of others to increase your odd of winning are not likely to attract cheaters are the applications . A simple random draw, for example, will not sound very appealing to cheaters because no matter how hard they try to game the system, their odds to win will remain very low. They can still try to enter multiple times with fake accounts to increase their odds, but you’ll spot them easily with the right fraud protection tools.
There is an exception- when the app offers an increased chance of winning if you invite friends. Usually, these apps will offer some sort of mechanism that provides several entries to the same users if they invite friends or offer them the right to participate in a secondary draw if one of their friends win. We do offer a viral option such as this in Agorapulse apps but we always warn admins about the potential problems this can create.
Since the positive effects of these viral options are very limited (less that X% of contest participants do invite their friends and Y% of these invited friends finally enter), one should really look at this option twice before using it. It sounds good on paper, but as very few legitimate participants will enter via that option, it only leaves the cheaters room to use and abuse it.
High risk applications
Applications that are very likely to attract cheaters are the one that rely mostly on the participation of others to get a winning ticket. Photo and video contests are in this group.
If a photo or video contest ranks entries based on the number of votes they get, it’s highly tempting to game the system and buy or exchange votes with strangers to increase your vote counts and be on top of the ranking. So, you need to be careful about the way you grant your prizes when organizing a contest based on votes.
We never recommend granting your prizes based solely on votes. Ideally, you could offer the biggest prize to an entry selected by a jury, the second one to a random entry and the lowest one to the one with the most votes. Assuming the 3rd type of prize is not super appealing.
Your jury will be influenced by the number of votes, but they will not be bound by them. And if they feel the entry with the most vote does not deserve a prize because it’s low quality (which is a clue of a cheating scheme) or because your software has detected this entry as a potential cheater’s, you’ll have the ability to select one that looks better and does not have the stigma of a cheating scheme.
Photo contests are one of the most risky apps when it comes to attracting cheaters. Especially if the prizes are awarded only based on the number of votes.
5. Make sure your contest rules protect you
Every contest on Facebook must have official rules. This is required by Facebook’s terms of service, and by law in most countries. That’s reason enough to draft some up!
They’re also your best protection against cheaters. How?
Your rules should give you the right to ban a participant if she or he is suspected of cheating. If this rule is evident from the beginning, you’re safe. If not, be prepared for long and unpleasant arguments on your timeline should you ever decide to ban a user.
Your rules should also explain how winners will be elected. This is where you’ll describe how your jury selection works and how the different types of prizes will be awarded. It’s difficult to be comprehensive on these issues with your contest’s visuals. Your official rules are the right place for this.
Potential cheaters will read your official rules extensively and if they determine that their chances to be successful with their plot are too low, they will turn away.
Ideally, your rules should have a paragraph like this one:
“Sponsor reserves the right to disqualify contestants. Contestants shall not enter multiples times or vote for their own entry with fake Facebook account. Fraudulent activities will be monitored and will lead to exclusion.”
Here you can download some sample rules for a photo contest that contain the right wording to protect you.
6. Favor safe entry mechanisms versus weak ones
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not contest participants should be required to install a Facebook app and accept its request for permissions. I’ve written about this issue several times and, for various reasons I’m convinced it’s the best option. The best reason is that this is your best firewall against cheating.
There are still Facebook page admins who believe that eliminating Facebook app install is the best option for their contest, but wait until they face massive cheating behaviors in their next contest and have no way whatsoever to audit it. They’ll be doomed.
By requiring your participants or voters to install your Facebook app, not only do you make it a lot more difficult to cheat, but you also create a way to easily identify fake participant’s accounts. Read more about this below.
Using an app that requires your participant to authorize a Facebook app will make cheating more difficult as they will have to create multiple fake Facebook accounts. That’s very time consuming to do (more than creating fake email addresses) and risky (Facebook monitors them and regularly deletes fake accounts, undermining the efforts of scammers!)
7. Use Facebook contest applications to help identify cheaters
There are many Facebook app providers out there. Agorapulse is just one of them and we understand how difficult it is to choose the right one.
To help you make a choice, let me suggest this, before you decide to use a Facebook app vendor, be sure they offer extensive options to identify and ban cheaters from your Facebook contest.
You’ll probably need to verify the following checklist:
They require participants to install a Facebook app to participate (see above why),
They log and keep track of all the IP address of all the participants. IP addresses are the best way to spot cheating behaviors from users who use several Fake Facebook accounts to vote for themselves or get a lot of “fake” friends to participate,
They allow you to easily identify all the users who have participated from the same IP address as this is a surefire way to identify fake accounts,
They allow you to ban individual users from the contest, but they also allow you to ban all users from one IP address in batch, saving you a lot of time,
When banning a user, or a batch of users, the app should remove their corresponding votes, or adjust the corresponding scores. Banning users should not only handle the source of the problem (the cheating user) but also the consequence of it (the undue votes, score points or additional entries)
Once a user is banned, she or he should also banned from the page timeline and all future contests. So the hard work you’re doing today to get rid of these unwanted participants will not be wasted.
Agorapulse offers all these advanced anti cheating features, other may do as well, make sure this is the case. Without them, managing a contest with a serious cheating issue will be a nightmare.
To limit the pain of having to deal with cheating behaviors, choose a vendor that offers options to spot them and ban them with ease.
8. Know how to spot a cheater
Even with the appropriate software tools, there will be situations where you won’t be sure about who is really cheating and who is not. You may have to use your judgment and common sense to evaluate a participant.
Here are my tips to separate the wheat from the chaff:
#1. Fake Facebook accounts generally have nothing on their wall
These participants will generally have nothing on their wall or profile except for the interests of contests.
If you are in doubt about the legitimacy of a given participant, check their Facebook public profile. A good app will make this easy. Generally speaking, they are either empty, they only like brand pages have few friends and no personal content. Sometimes, they are also 100% private. A legitimate Facebook account is rarely 100% private and always has some content and likes that reflect the life of a “real” person.
Also, names and profile pictures usually don’t sound “real” either. For what it’s worth, we’ve been noticing that fake accounts love using animals and babies for their profile picture!
#2. Mutual friends all link back to the entrant
Cheaters usually hunt in packs! So they will all be voting for each other, and all their “fake” friends will do the same. So, when looking at a specific entry, if you see that some voters have dozens of friends who have also voted for that entry (and possibly others) but they have not submitted an entry themselves, you’ve nailed yourself a cheater. There are very few reasons on earth why a person asked to vote for a friend’s entry would then go out and invite dozen of her friends to vote for that friend also. They have nothing to gain from that, so it looks very suspicious.
#3. Email address looks weird
If users have emails that sound legit, like firstname.lastname@example.org, or even better, the domain name is a branded one, you’re probably safe. But if the email looks like a random suit of letters and or numbers, like email@example.com, beware… Worst, some of them even have email addresses like FBcontest567@hotmail.com, not smart, but they will make your life easier.
#4. Similar name spelled differently (example Andy, Andrew, Andre)
That’s a common thing too. Creating dozens and dozens of fake Facebook account is tough, and they quickly lose their creativity with fake emails and names, so they may well use the same names with little tweaks.
9. Be inflexible with cheaters, your legit participants will appreciate it
Here you are! You’ve conducted your audit, identified unusual behaviors, chosen the software that has filtered out suspicious participants and you’ve eliminated all doubts by checking the Facebook profiles of the users you still had doubts about. You’ve got your cheaters, now, what do you do?
As you have a well drafted official rules (see above), you can easily ban them from the contest and eliminate the effect of their participation (like their votes, points, etc.), and you should do it!
The main reason you need to be firm with cheaters is that your legitimate participants are expecting you to. They’ve witnessed these cheaters gain all these undue votes and that made them feel angry about it. Such anger will be directed at you if you don’t do anything about it.
Your legit participants will hate the cheaters as much as you will! You owe them to handle cheating behaviors and get rid of them so your “right” fans don’t feel that only the “wrong” ones can win.
You probably don’t care much about pissing off the cheaters you ban, but you definitely don’t want to piss off your true fans who have invested time and energy to create a great entry and get their real friends to vote for it.
So go ahead, be strong! Ban those cheaters and keep your real fans happy!
What about you?
What experience do you have with cheating on Facebook contests? Has it happened often and how did you manage it?
Look forward to your feedback and insights in the comments below.
Guest Author: Emeric is the co-founder of AgoraPulse, a Paris and San Francisco based Facebook Marketing Software launched in 2011. AgoraPulse is used by more than 17,000 Facebook Pages.