Twitter has proven itself as a fantastic community-building resource for brands of all shapes and sizes, but new research has suggested that the follower counts of these company profiles might not be as receptive to product and sales messages as their marketers might have hoped.

That is, unless they’re using Twitter to sell oil baths.

Marco Camisani Calzolari, a professor of corporate communications and digital languages at Milan’s IULM University, analysed the Twitter networks of 39 major consumer brands, including Samsung, Starbucks, Blackberry, Wholefoods and Pepsi, and discovered that an alarming number of their followers were provably non-human – that is, bots, or other fake accounts.

And in the case of @DellOutlet, that number was as high as 46 percent.

That’s right – almost half of @DellOutlet’s 1.5 million strong network is made up of non-human accounts. And it might be even worse than that – less than one-third (30.29 percent) of @DellOutlet’s 1.5 followers were likely human, with 13.2 unquantifiable, and 10.5 percent hidden behind protected accounts.

Dell were understandably tetchy about the results.

“We don’t control who follows any of our Twitter accounts and we don’t artificially increase the number of followers,” said Richard Binhammer, Dell’s Social Media Relations manager. “In fact, paying third parties to undertake such action is contrary to our policy. While there are some tools that claim to identify bots, they are not 100 percent accurate. The only action we could take is to ‘block’ a follower. We certainly would not want to risk ‘blocking’ a potential customer. Our focus is on relationships and engagements with customers.”

It wasn’t just Dell – Wholefoods and Jetblue also fared poorly in the study, as did international brands such as IKEA and Vodafone Italia.

Starbucks rated best out of the major companies in the poll, with just 6.88 percent of its followers represented by bots.

Of course, many brands outsource their Twitter campaigns to agencies and other third parties, and these findings could be indicative that slightly less than scrupulous measures have been used to build these vast communities.

“The research shows that the number of followers is no longer a valid indicator of the popularity of a Twitter user,” said Professor Calzolari. “Many of the companies included in the research have delegated their public relations activities on social networks to web agencies that in some cases have taken short cuts in order to demonstrate to companies, who are oblivious, that their activities have been successful by generating lots of new users.”

(Source: FT, Camisanicalzolari.com. Robot image via Shutterstock.)