After the @TweetSmarter account had been around a couple of months (by Fall of 2008) it started to get a lot more followers. We were getting tons of recommendations, and working hard to help every single person who ever contacted us, so we naturally got a lot of followers—many more than we were following.
Follower numbers on long-time accounts are partly an illusion
But earlier this year I realized @TweetSmarter had been around so long there must be a TON of inactive accounts we were following—people who were never going to DM us, hence no point in following them anymore. They had abandoned their Twitter account.
So I used a service to look at accounts that followed us that hadn’t tweeted in a long time, and unfollowed those that hadn’t tweeted for many months (inactive for an average of about 90 days). It was nearly 80,000 accounts! It took many, many hours over many days to manually unfollow so many accounts, even though we used ManageFlitter (specifically approved by Twitter), which simplifies the process.
►So this is the dirty secret of many older accounts with lots of followers—many of their followers aren’t around anymore, but are still counted in their total number of followers. Perhaps Twitter will one day start removing inactive accounts (they’ve been talking about doing so for a long time) and will update people’s numbers.
What happens when you unfollow 80,000 accounts?
If Twitter feels you are simply following people, then quickly unfollowing those that don’t follow back in order to get more followers, they may suspend your account for “aggressive follow churn.” (Note: Unlike some people who brag about having their accounts suspended repeatedly, we’ve never had any of our accounts suspended…ever.)
And if you are unfollowing active accounts, many people will tweet complaints. In fact, many services that exist to let you know when you are unfollowed send out an automated tweet in your name saying something like “@SoAndSo unfollowed me.” It’s easy to do a Twitter search for @SoAndSo and see people complaining about being unfollowed by them.
Some people believe their score on a service such as Klout will change for the better if they unfollow a lot of inactive accounts, because their ratio will be better (having more followers than people you follow). As you can see if you check our Klout history, it doesn’t appear to make any difference—though it might affect some other ratings. Of course, it might not apply much to us, since we’ve had many tens of thousands more followers than people we followed for years.
How can you tell who is doing a lot of unfollowing?
One way is looking at tweets to see if there are complaints. More commonly, you can enter their username into a tracking service like Twitter Counter to see what their numbers are.
However, numbers can lie. For example, If someone follows 1 person for every person they unfollow, you would never see their numbers change on a service like Twitter Counter—following would cancel out unfollowing.
As I’ve said before, I’ve learned that the more transparent I am, the faster I learn, and learning is really important to me. Obviously pointing out that our follower numbers are not as good as they seem isn’t “tooting our own horn.” But this is yet another example that you should ignore follower numbers, and concentrate on follower engagement.
And of course it gets really old having people tweet me and ask how they can get as many followers as we have. So I’m happy to say: put in nearly 6,000 hours over 2 1/2 years as my wife and I have done in writing, reading and researching tweets, and you too can have a lot of followers!