Lots of Twitter Followers Guarantees… Nothing

Anil Dash posted a story called Life on the List where he describes his experience appearing on the Twitter Suggested User List. In short, Anil appeared on this list of 400 people that Twitter suggests new users follow, ostensibly to make the service a bit more interesting than silence. Anil does not know, however, how he appeared on this list (between Bootsy Collins and Paul Krugman?). What he does know is that his followership is growing by about 100 per hour.

What he has learned is that these users aren’t engaging him, they are just blindly following thanks to the Suggested User feature of Twitter. They don’t retweet, they don’t reply, they don’t follow his links. They are just there, perhaps ignoring their own Twitter accounts. Anil and the other 400 people on the list are essentially bundled content that Twitter doesn’t have to provide, meaning there isn’t really any value to the followers. This ultimately makes his placement on the list meaningless. These are readers he cannot leverage in any measurable way. Anil recognized this pretty quickly (emphasis his):

After just a few days of being on the list, though, I made an interesting discovery that offers a dramatic distinction from buying featured position in an online store: Being on Twitter’s suggested user list makes no appreciable difference in the amount of retweets, replies, or clicks that I get.

In a typically brief missive on Seth Godin’s blog, Seth distills the entire story down to: having ten times as many Twitter followers generates approximately zero times as much value. He argues a general strategy, seemingly to Anil Dash:

The goal shouldn’t be to have a lot of people to yell at, the goal probably should be to have a lot of people who choose to listen. Don’t need a bullhorn for that.

I get the impression Seth just read the singular quote from Anil’s post about no appreciable difference. I hope not. I hope the casual reader of Seth’s post or of the tweets flying around about this take a moment to understand where those followers came from and why they started following. Those followers chose to follow, but they clearly didn’t understand why and have no lasting interest. Anil correctly excludes them when targeting his tweets.

If you’ve been around Twitter a while, you’ve seen how spammers first took advantage of auto-following. A spammer would follow as many people as possible, counting on those accounts following back automatically. From there the next steps was either sending out spam tweets or selling an account with a high follower count.

Since then, some accounts with many followers have begun selling tweets to advertisers. Consider Kim Kardashian’s $10,000 per tweet fee for sneaking sponsored tweets into her own (assuming she actually has any of her own), or Perez Hilton’s similar approach. To be fair, if you follow these accounts you can’t really be surprised that they do this, nor can I be surprised if you fall for it.

If you are trying to get your list of followers up into the stratosphere, you need to consider the quality of those connections. Are these really people with whom you want to, or can, engage in a dialogue? Will they follow your links, or retweet what you have to say? If you’re in it for a quick buck and to be associated with Twitter spamming (or any kind of spamming), then you may consider this approach. Otherwise you should be happy with a list of followers that is made up of people who genuinely engage you and vice versa. These are the followers who bring real value to your social media efforts.

Anil made some additional points in a follow-up post titled Nobody Has A Million Twitter Followers. Having had some time to gather data from others, here is what he has found:

  • Creative Commons, despite being a stalwart organization at the intersection of technology and intellectual property, saw no increase in responses after being added to the suggested user list.
  • NBC’s Today Show is one of the signature brands of broadcast media. But being on Twitter’s list? Didn’t do anything.
  • What about Starbucks, one of the definitive examples of a powerful worldwide brand? Nothing.

The problem here is that employers, sponsors, partners, etc. expect to see high numbers of followers. A high follower count doesn’t mean very much, but there is no safe way to make that argument without offending the person who writes the checks. As long as media outlets and “social media experts” push the follower count as an all-important measuring stick, stressing that the number must climb or that it directly correlates to the success of the tweeter, it will be an uphill battle for those trying to create meaningful connections in their social media accounts (not just Twitter).

Just as the battle was fought between eyeballs and click-throughs years ago, I can see the same battle lines being drawn between engaged followers and blind followers. It just may take a while for everyone else to understand the distinction.