Monday 5 November 2012

Is that Twitter winner a human being?

How could they be anything else? You ask.

Well, we've all seen the "bots" on Twitter who search for particular words and will retweet you or send you a comment if they happen to see you mention their "trigger words". It can be quite fun baiting them - for instance, try tweeting

I have a cunning plan. I will wear big knickers while eating a Jaffa Cake and a Mini Milk and watching Dangermouse and Bagpuss

and see what happens. (Apart from the men in white coats arriving, I mean)

But there are some out there that are set up to search for words like "win", "contest" and "competition" or the phrase "RT to win". They have usually been set up by somebody with a bit of programming knowledge who sees it as an easy way of getting some free goodies. The "comping bot" they have set up will work hard 24 hours a day, searching for and retweeting competitions and auto-following the promoters on their behalf, and they can just log in every day, or week, to claim their prizes. In fact sometimes the people who set the accounts up have long ago abandoned them and the prizes go unclaimed.

So how can you tell if a competition entrant is a real live person or a comping bot? It can be difficult - as you will see, a lot of their behaviour copies that of genuine entrants.

First of all, their Twitter feed consists of absolutely nothing but competition entries. However there are quite a lot of ordinary compers who do the same. A tip to compers here - don't let yourself look like a bot, chat a bit! If you haven't made any friends on Twitter, include a few comments about your life, the weather or the latest cult TV show. Or say hello to me! Just hit the link below

Secondly, their retweets are all the "old fashioned" copy-and-paste style tweets, rather than ones done using the retweet button. But again, a lot of real live human compers prefer to do that too. So my next tip to compers is to mix it up a bit - even if you really do prefer old style retweets, pop a few retweet button ones in among your entries.
NOTE since I first wrote this, the bots seem to have found a way of retweeting "new style", using the retweet button. But a new style of bot has appeared - the new ones do a new style retweet AND a second tweet which @ mentions the promoter and includes just the hashtags from the original competition tweet. Even if an answer or certain text is required, it isn't there - after all, there's nobody around to read the actual competition tweet and see what they have to do! Setting the bots up to do this seems to be a waste of effort since my own experience of running competitions on Twitter has shown that a tweet just containing an @ name and hashtags, with no other text, is frequently filtered out of Twitter search.

Next, they tweet at all hours of the day and night. You will see a steady stream of tweets without any significant breaks, apart from the inevitable times they spend in "Twitter jail". Now real human beings need to eat, sleep, work, bathe and  spend time with their families, so they aren't around for 24 hours a day. However 24/7 tweeting isn't a cast iron guarantee of them being a bot, as some compers are now using tweet scheduling services to send their competition entries at quieter times of the day and night so that they don't annoy non-comping friends and family so much.

The final clue, though, should clinch it if a Twitter feed fits all those above. They are undiscriminating, tweeting competitions from all over the world and even things that contain words like win and competition that are being used in other contexts. Because they aren't human, they can't tell if something contains one of their trigger words but isn't quite what they are looking for.

What can you do about them? What SHOULD you do about them? Well, my personal feeling is - do nothing! Not if you are a comper, anyway. Different people have different views on where the borderline lies between being super-efficient and being a cheat, and while the thought of somebody using an automated comping bot to win makes my skin crawl, other people might admire the person who set it up for their entrepreneurship. I know that in the past a few people have set themselves up as vigilantes, aiming to "name and shame" the comping bots,  but however unfair you might feel these bots are, in most cases they haven't actually broken any rules. If you suspect an account of being one, though, you might want to block it, because one of the ways the bots seach for tweets is to set up lists of known compers and monitor all their tweets for comp entries.

However if you are actually running a competition, do you want to give your prize to somebody who is never going to interact with you, never going to tell their friends about you, never going to come back to you and use your business when they needs the goods or services you supply? Or, sometimes more importantly on Twitter, never send you a virtual cup of tea when you are feeling unwell, or sponsor you in your charity skydive, or congratulate you on your latest good news? And most of all, if it is one of the neglected bots, never respond to your tweets and DMs asking them to claim their prize? I know when I run a competition on Twitter I would hate the winner to be a bot!

How can you prevent a bot from winning? Again, if you are a comper, you can't prevent it. Although if you see a winner announced and you suspect that it is one, you could do worse than point the person running towards this post. But if you want to run a competition on Twitter and want to make sure it is won by a human, there are several things you can do:
  • Don't make it a simple "RT and follow" competition. I know you want people to retweet in order to spread the word, but make them do something else as well. Lots of people are now running "RT, follow and reply" competitions instead. Just getting people to send you one or two words in reply to a simple question will help to ensure that the entrant is actually reading your tweets at the time they enter, which is impossible for a bot.
  • Don't include the phrase "RT to win", or the hashtag #competition - these are just TOO easy for a searching bot to pick up.
  • Add an element of creativity - hashtag games are very popular. For instance get entrants to rewrite the name of a film, book or song to make it relevant to your product, or to include a particular word, then tweet it with a hashtag chosen by you to help you pick up the tweet. The only way a bot could enter something like that is by copying other people's entries, which would make it stand out and be easy to eliminate.
  • contact the winner by direct message, not in a tweet, and don't announce them publicly until they have replied. If they don't reply within a reasonable time, check if their account is still tweeting. If it is, it is likely to be an unmonitored one and you would be perfectly reasonable in withdrawing their prize and announcing a new winner.
Finally, don't be alarmed by all this! There are only a handful of these bots around, but they do come and go and rather like an itch you can't scratch, can be extremely irritating once you know they are there but won't do anybody any lasting harm.


  1. I agree make it more and just a RT comp

  2. Thanks for posting this Jane. Bookmarked for future reference - damn those bots!!

  3. There are a couple that simply retweet everything from the cc twitter account page - they are easy ones to spot - 2 or 3 of them.

    1. I've seen that - they retweet just about everything including things like "good morning"

  4. Ohh my, whatever next. But now you come to mention it, I do see evidence of what you say from time to time. A seemingly endless stream of comps entered. Sometimes I see retweeted comps that closed day, weeks and even months ago. Get people's brains working say I. Retweet comps - enough already!

  5. thankyou Jane hun, How can bots get away with it , its soo anoygin that we try so hard to enter , for me its all day as much as i can and , when you hear of these bots doing it for them it makes me soo angry, get them shut down x

  6. Thank you! Great article. I'm in two minds as to whether I think they are dirty cheats or cunningly efficient compers!


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