For me Twitter serves two purposes:
- It helps me stay in contact with people I know but am unable to see often because they live on another side of the world or just because I’m a hermit working from home and never get out.
- It is a moderated feed of interesting content on the web.
These purposes shall thus form the frame of reference for the rest of this article.
One cool thing about Twitter is that it can be pretty much spam-free as far as it affects an individual user. Sure, there are lots of spammers around but they don’t really bother you much since the only exposure to them you’ll ever get is the single email you receive when someone follows you. You can turn off that notification.
In one end of the spectrum in how you handle followers on Twitter is to act like Koz: you let everyone follow you, even spammers. That can lead to a healthy number of followers, and the count will probably increase exponentially. The downside is that most of the followers will meet at least some criteria of the word “spammer”. This ratio will also probably get worse over time because the more followers you have the easier spammers will find you. But hey, at least you can brag about the hundreds of thousands of followers you have.
The polar opposite approach is to only allow your friends to follow you. This will basically make Twitter what Facebook used to be before it gave in to the dark side. Locking up your updates means that Twitter is a radically different tool for you, because you can’t use it to broadcast anything to the public. That’s fine for some people. However, it would totally defeat the second purpose I have for Twitter so it’s not an option for me.
My policy is somewhere between the two ends. Generally, I let everyone follow me. Just don’t expect me to follow you back. I want to keep my twitter feed palatable, so I only follow people based on the interestingness of their tweets. There are, however, a couple of jackass rules that do make me block you from my followers list.
- Let’s get the obvious case done with first: your posts look anything like this:
“how to get 16000+ followers in 90 days, fully automated”
“RECEIVE GUARANTEED $125 Commission When You Sign Up For FREE Advertisement!”
I have a word for that: spam. And not only will I block you, I will hit the “Report spam” button. I don’t care if you are the leading Twitter follower expert in the world. I just don’t care.
- You clearly auto-followed me based on something I tweeted. A year or so ago I tweeted about having watched the film “Who killed the electric car?”. I was immediately followed by @evcast, a podcast about electric cars. It was obvious that my tweet had sparked the action, since I had never heard of EVCast and I’m 100% sure they didn’t know about me either.
A curious anecdote about this is that while automatically following me annoyed the hell out of me and I did block the Twitter account, I still ended up subscribing to the podcast, which is actually quite good and interesting. I wouldn’t recommend copying the habit, though. When the guy behind EVCast, Bo Bennett, later auto-followed me with another Twitter account (one for his own content management system product) after I mentioned the acronym “CMS” in a tweet, I had no qualms about blocking him.
Auto-following is a really pathetic form of follower-whoring, based on the assumption that people are flattered by you following them and follow you back as a favor. Just don’t do it no matter what self-acclaimed Twitter gurus (you know, the ones tweeting like in point #1) tell you. Just don’t.
The two first points in this list were pretty much black and white rules: break them and you’re out. The rest of the list consists of heuristics. Breaking one of them doesn’t necessarily put you onto the black list, but it does raise a flag. Combined, getting two or more hits is very likely to rule you out.
- Make each entry start with the words “New blog post”.
That looks like it’s an automated tweet from your blog software (which it probably is). For me, Twitter is all about authenticity and intimacy.
- Make each entry end with a link to your blog post. Scratch that, make each entry end with a link, period. The link will most likely be a shortened url anyway, so I have no way of knowing where it points to. I’ll thus assume the worst: your own blog post.
This is a more subtle variation of rule #3 and the same comments apply. Let me elaborate a bit more about that, though.
This rule is irrelevant if you are an actual friend and thus meet the #1 criteria in my Twitter usage pattern. For the second point, remember the word moderated. I have reduced my consumption of RSS feeds recently in favor of getting my daily fix of interesting content from my Twitter feed. If all you do is link to your own posts, you’re not contributing to the ecosystem and thus I have no business with you.
This is not to say you couldn’t have an automated Twitter feed for your blog. Just don’t make it your personal Twitter account. A good example is John Gruber, who has both a personal account and another one for Daring Fireball. Of course, the whole DF feed is already so well moderated that I’m following it as well as Gruber’s own account.
- Follow more than 10 times as many people as who follow you. Like said, this is not an absolute measure but a heuristic that tells your Twitter usage pattern doesn’t really fit mine. What it basically tells me is that you’re following people very aggressively and/or you’re not very interesting because people are not following you in return. Either way it reeks of follower-whoring. This can be forgiven if you’re new to Twitter and have only a few followers.
- Follow more than 1000 people. Same as above. If you follow a ridiculous amount of people it’s pretty clear that you cannot really follow them all.
Generally, why do people break these rules? To get more followers. It’s the classic get rich quick scheme. The social media consultants are today’s version of charlatans who sell dreams of risk-free, high-interest investments and shortcuts to riches. The asset du jour for companies and individuals alike seems to be the amount of people following them on Twitter or fanning their Facebook page. And the faster you get those numbers up the better, means and integrity to be damned.
So how can you actively earn more followers without me looking at you in disgust? Glad you asked. It turns out there’s a book about that. The book is called The Cluetrain Manifesto. It was written more than a decade ago. Yes, you read that right. Twitter wasn’t even a wrinkle in Ev Williams’s eye back then, since he was busy starting his previous venture, Blogger.com. However, even today the theses of the book are about as apt and fresh as it gets in regard to marketing yourself on Twitter.
Just like markets, Twitter is all about conversations. Write interesting content. Share interesting ideas. Post thoughtful and interesting replies to others. Point to interesting things on the web (yes, some of them can be your own posts). Iterate, rinse and repeat. Keep doing this consistently and you will find your readership flourish.