This is only for people that engage others! That means responding and conversing on Twitter. (People who don’t engage on Twitter need to learn how to use it better.)
So if you engage others on Twitter, how many people you follow depends on how you use following as a tool. There are a wide variety of strategies. Because of that, some people have more than one account, so they can use strategies for engaging with small groups that they follow from one account, and extract the benefits of larger groups on other accounts.
Following only people that you engage regularly with and cultivating those connections as a personal learning network is probably the most powerful use of Twitter. This usually (though not always) means following only a small group. This is usually the best way to start on Twitter, even if you later add another account or follow more users. If you have valid reasons for building a large presence on Twitter, see the fastest ways to help people find you on Twitter.
You can engage with anyone, regardless of follow relationships
This is one of the great benefits of Twitter. You can engage with all your followers, a subset of your followers, or a mix of followed and not followed. So, regardless of how many you follow, you can engage with small or large groups of people.
A lot of it comes down to this: How do you find folks to engage with? This can be done in multiple ways. Many search Twitter and elsewhere looking for Twitter users that lead to engagement opportunities. Twitter is a great place for finding people that you can help in some way.
One highly engaged user that follows many people is @Scobleizer. He searches for users to follow, and then primarily reads and searches his followers for engagement and education opportunities. Others use lists in similar ways, though since you can only have 20 lists with 500 followers/list, this can be limiting.
@Scobleizer uses the group of people he follows to find cutting edge information, and engage with the people who provide it. He initially followed most people back to be accessible by DM, but then found he had no value in reading his Twitter stream. He then unfollowed everyone, and began following only the folks whose tweets he wanted to see. He now follows a little over 32,000 people. He repeatedly talks about what great value he gets from reading his carefully selected stream, and is a strong engager on Twitter.
So there are two main strategies:
- If you are cultivating people primarily to gain education by strong engagement, you’ll follow fewer people.
- If you are following people primarily for education by information, you’ll follow more.
What about Twitter Etiquette?
Many people simply follow anyone who can pass a basic test as a real person on Twitter that follows them first, feeling that it is impolite not to follow back. This is fine for Twitter as a hobby, and can work (with some refinements) for businesses who have products or services that anyone anywhere could buy or benefit from.
Better is to review people that follow you by stricter criteria: Have they come to you for help or engagement? Are they responsive on Twitter, and someone you could use as a resource? If either is true, then following back (and reviewing later) is good.
Communication is the best engagement
The best way to engage someone is to communicate with them, on or off Twitter. If your first engagement with someone is by tweet, it’s good (though not necessary) to follow them first so they can DM you if needed, and so that they can follow you without any penalty from Twitter. It’s also good to engage before tweeting someone, such as retweeting something of theirs, or commenting on their blog.
The “penalty” is that because Twitter only allows you to follow 10% more than follow you (once you follow more than 2000), following someone who doesn’t follow you can mean you are blocked from following others eventually. In practice, this is rarely an issue for people who actually engage on Twitter, because they have no need to follow many more people than follow them.
This rule is to prevent a poor use of Twitter: following people you have no intention of engaging with, simply hoping they will follow you back to increase your number of followers, thereby making your account look more significant. An equally poor use of following to gain followers is simply to hope to reach more people with your broadcast tweets. Because using following as a tool to find users to engage with is so badly misused, it is often assumed that anyone that follows a lot of users is a spammer “until proven innocent.”
But: The whole point is to find people you want to engage with, whether you follow them first or not!
Using follow as a tool to find people to engage
See “Three secrets of following” for some of the problems of using following as a tool. However, if you have a very popular account on Twitter that gets lots of followers regardless of who you follow, it’s easier to carefully follow others as a tool to find people to engage with.
Since @TweetSmarter exists to provide help to Twitter users, for a long time I searched for users tweeting Twitter questions and answered them by tweet. But I discovered this was inefficient, partly because there are a LOT of tweets with questions about Twitter every day. It took a great deal of time to find, research and answer their questions. For smaller numbers of questions, such as perhaps a local business looking for people asking about a service they provide, it would be more efficient. Or if I had another person or two helping me I could probably respond to more “found” questions. But the large quantity made it inefficient, especially considering related issues such as:
- Some were suspicious of non-followers replying to them;
- Some had their questions answered already by the time I replied;
- Many never replied making it unclear if I had been able to help at all;
- Many new users didn’t know how to read their @replies yet, so didn’t see them (an awfully common problem);
- Too many were spammers asking questions trying to look “real;”
My hope was that by providing help, users would refer others who would need help, and @TweetSmarter could grow by referrals, and over time help more people without having to find ways to “market” the account. Other ways I tried helping people (such as on third-party sites) made it hard to connect with the people I helped on Twitter.
While I still do searches, now I follow users with Twitter questions instead, and then answer any questions directed to @TweetSmarter. I’ve tried a lot of different strategies for using following, and this is one that has had the best track record in engaging people who need help. @TweetSmarter is so popular it doesn’t matter who follows us back, and so I only occasionally unfollow anyone, and then mainly only inactive or obvious spam accounts (and a few very, very annoying people).
So I search for users that appear real, engaged and who are either helping others with Twitter questions or who have Twitter questions themselves, and then I follow some of them several days a week. I also auto-follow-back a few users, such as most of the people I reply to on Twitter. Over the years, more and more tweets go out saying “Hey, @user, you should ask that question to @TweetSmarter” and so I follow @user so they can DM us. Of course, since that is a direct recommendation from one user to another, I could ignore it, and they would probably tweet and/or follow @TweetSmarter later, but I think it’s more helpful to follow them first.