- Update: You might want to read the much shorter “How to get followers fast” before reading this
- To skip ahead, here are links to the importance of reputation, six ways to build your Twitter account, and the ultimate must-read, Twitter’s following rules. I’m trying to provide a pretty complete reference, so you might want to bookmark this to read later if you don’t have time now.
A mystery—In June, 2010 a Twitter account was abandoned:
- All of its tweets, followers and friends were deleted.
- A single tweet was posted saying that the account was now permanently inactive.
Yet, in the weeks that followed, as many as 80,000 people followed the dead account…and over 31,000 are still following it today, eight months later!
It has followed no one back, never advertised, promised nothing, and replied to no one ever again. As tens of thousands of accounts began following it, it remained completely inactive.
Hidden Twitter Following Forces
It was the high reputation of the abandoned account that kept bringing in new followers. People had added it to lists and blog posts that recommended it. Sites that measured influence had ranked it highly. Many tweets had been written about it. Its reputation was so high it continued to grow, even after being abandoned.
But, because it was no longer active, only hidden forces remained to cause it to grow. Even though it could no longer benefit from the actions that built its reputation, its reputation alone continued to feed these hidden forces. So while it takes a lot of well-directed action to build a strong reputation for your Twitter account, as your reputation grows, these hidden forces begin to work automatically in your favor. As you can see, the force of reputation alone can be incredible, even after an account is abandoned! To begin to build such a reputation, you must first realize that…
Quality seeks quality, and builds reputation
This is the trick: If you follow quality people and have quality engagement (helping, conversing, bringing people together), eventually everyone will seek you out. (And you know what? It’s the same in real life.)
More exactly, if you have a high influence/engagement rank such as measured by Klout or TweetLevel, you’re going to get followers no matter what. This is why I laugh when I hear people say “So and so must be popular because they bought followers.” Well-known high-engagement accounts can’t help but get followers…even if they abandon their account!
Of course, most important is that by following quality people, Twitter will become useful to you. If you’re only trying to get followers, you’re using Twitter wrong.
The Six Ways To Get Followers
There are lot of ways to grow a Twitter account, some good, some awful. But first, let me say it again in a different way:
- If you’re just trying to get followers, particularly if you do it by following a lot of people, it will destroy the value you could be getting from Twitter.
Many people with over 100,000 followers (@Scobelizer is one famous example) eventually unfollowed everyone and then very carefully begin following a much smaller number. Overfollowing destroyed the value they were getting from Twitter.
While most of this is common sense, some things you might expect Twitter to ban it doesn’t, and other things that seem fine can get you suspended! But before we get into that, first…another mystery:
Should this company have been banned from Twitter?
Did you know that some new users joining Twitter were once virtually forced to autofollow other accounts? The accounts they autofollowed gained millions of followers. If you knew where to look when setting up you could turn off the forced following, but most new users didn’t realize what was happening. One well-known website owner even offered $250,ooo to be added to the list of Twitter accounts that people were forced to autofollow.
The company that set up the forced autofollowing finally turned it off after months and months of ever louder complaints, only to turn around and start selling followers instead! Why wasn’t this company banned from Twitter?
Because the company that did this…was Twitter itself. The autofollowing was called the “Suggested Users List,” and selling followers is now called “Promoted Accounts.” A lot of people aren’t happy that Twitter now accepts money in exchange for followers. As you can see, understanding where followers come from can be surprising and confusing.
Understanding the six ways to get followers
These are listed in order from best (1) to worst (6). However, even among the best ideas there are ways to do things wrong, and even among the worst ideas there are exceptions that Twitter allows and can be done carefully if you have the right reasons. So I suggest bookmarking this to read later if you don’t have the time now. Also, some Twitter sites and services offer a mixture of tools, some good, some bad, and in each case your intention usually matters more than what tools you use. Let’s begin!
► 1. Build a reputation for quality and responsiveness
There are a lot of ways to do this. In most cases you’ll want to start by listing your account in various Twitter directories (a great list of them is at “How to find and engage influential Twitter users“), and look for people to engage with in those same directories. Four common approaches to begin building your reputation are:
- BUILD A REPUTATION AS A HELPFUL EXPERT. This sometimes called “building your brand,” or “becoming a thought leader in your niche.” For example, creating YouTube “how to” videos and searching Twitter for people with questions in your niche and helping them get answers would be two approaches. A good way to start is to experiment with Twitter searches to find people that you can help. That’s how I started out
- BECOME A “SUPER ADVOCATE” for key people: This is the most powerful way to build your reputation and get influential users to promote you. Read more at “How ANYONE can become incredibly popular on Twitter, or ANY social network.”
- BUILD A PLN: This is a “Personal Learning Network.” Seek out people who can teach you something, and people that you can teach something to. You can focus on your business, career, hobby, or any interest. As @olafelch points out in the article Twitter as a PLN, “I have found more resources and got more useful advice for professional development in 3 months on Twitter than in the previous 5 years without it.” Twitter can be just one part of your PLN strategy. And Twitter chats can be a goldmine for PLNers.
- MAKE & PROMOTE INFLUENTIAL CONNECTIONS: See “Use Twitter to get influential people to help you” and “Find and compare Twitter lists” and “How to get followers fast.” Promoting other users usually earns their interest. Strategies include FollowFriday, writing blog posts about top users hoping those users will tweet the post, creating lists of users, retweeting users, etc. Some people try to find various kinds of favors they can do for influential users. It’s all good if you are ethical, sincere and learn from your mistakes.
- LEARN ETIQUETTE & ENGAGE: The idea here to is get to know Twitter’s community guidelines, and then socialize and follow as you see fit. If you feel unsure about what kinds of things to tweet, here are some suggestions. To get you started, check out Twitter Etiquette: Five Do’s and Don’ts, and for a deeper look, see A Brief and Informal Twitter Etiquette Guide. Above all, don’t miss the short, essential and very simple Win Friends And Influence People On Twitter In Just 5 Seconds A Day.
- BE RESPONSIVE: This can be as simple as replying back to everyone that contacts you, even if it takes you a few days. But also, some people build their Twitter community by trading favors. This can be as simple as looking through the tweets of someone who has retweeted you to try to find something of their that you can retweet. Obviously this works best if you are connecting with people who tweet things that you would want to retweet anyway! Reciprocation—retweeting something from anyone that retweets you is extraordinarily common on Twitter. Read more about this under #3 below “Retweet Reciprocators.”
- TWEET POPULAR CONTENT: This can be a real trap if you end spending lots of time tweeting things you don’t really care about just to make yourself more retweetable. Better is become absolutely trusted for truly high quality content about one particular niche. You want people to feel when they see a tweet with your avatar that if they don’t click it right away, they should bookmark it to read later. This means NOT tweeting some things that are good, but not great. Viral news (see @GuyKawasaki and @FlipBooks for two top examples), inspirational quotes and clever factoids are among the most retweeted kinds of tweets. But because they are SO popular, many users are sick of seeing them.
► 2. Promote your account: Ads, Contests, Quizzes, Giveaways, Polls and Heavy Tweeting
See “Follower Groups” below for a kind of advertising that Twitter does NOT allow.
Promoting your Twitter account can be a natural, positive thing, as simple as adding your Twitter username to your business card. Another way is once you have at least a few thousand real, engaged followers, to simply begin tweeting more often, and use 1-3 key hashtags on many tweets. Tweeting a lot will also cause a few people to unfollow you, but it will generate more retweets, more followers, and higher “influence” scores (e.g. Klout, PeerIndex, etc.)
Some accounts that Tweet popular content slowly increase the frequency of their tweeting as they get more followers to increase retweets. Overtweeting can definitely backfire, but for accounts than mainly tweet only popular content (see above) it seems to work well. Of course, they end up working hard just to regurgitate things everyone else is already tweeting, so I don’t generally recommend this.
- PAID OPTIONS: Besides Twitter’s own “Promoted Accounts” service, there are several services (e.g. TwitterCounter’s featured user service) that charge by time period (day-week-month) or by how many people they show your profile to (views). There are even services that charge by how many followers you get. Some people call this “buying followers,” but Twitter allows it as long as it is based 100% on advertising alone. You can also pay other accounts to tweet ads for you, see the section at the bottom of “So How Does Twitter Make Money, Anyway?” For information about directly buying followers, which Twitter does NOT allow and is a really, really bad idea, see section 6: “Fake Accounts.”
A more and more popular option for is the “pay with a tweet” giveaway, where users can only get your free offering by tweeting about it. Examples of services that set this up for you are Cloud:Flood, Pay with a Tweet and the WordPress plugin Tweet And Get it.
- FREE OPTIONS: Promote yourself, such as by putting your Twitter username on your blog, in your email signature and on your business cards. For more tips like this, see “How to get more followers on Twitter without using Twitter.” Some accounts also offer prizes for following their accounts (see “Contest Problems” in the numbered list just below this one), or try to create engagement events, like polls. Read more about creating events and contests to build your Twitter account. Offering Twitter quizzes with a giveaway are also popular.
What Twitter Doesn’t Allow:
- ADS THAT LOOK LIKE TWEETS: A direct violation would be showing a bunch of real tweets, and then putting an ad that looks like a tweet near enough to them that some people might think it is a real tweet. Services or websites that do this will have their access to real tweets revoked.
- PROMISING FOLLOW-BACKS: Mostly a non-issue, as the reason many accounts pay for advertising is that they are trying to get followers that they don’t have to follow back—they’re paying to make themselves look “important.” See “Follower Groups” below for what is specifically disallowed.
- CONTEST PROBLEMS: The Twitter contest guidelines outline what to watch out for.
If you’re creating a service or website, don’t try to do anything that fools people into clicking ads and you should be fine. If you’re a user, make sure you aren’t signing up for anything that takes control of your account to follow other users (see “Follower Groups“).
► 3. Become Known As A “Follow-Backer” Or A “Retweet Reciprocator”
3a. Becoming known as a follow-backer
Read carefully! Many folks have told me this seemed innocent enough, but then found themselves victimized by the sleazy tactics used by some Twitter users.
Auto-following anyone that follows you will get you followers. It will also get you a reputation—a BAD reputation. And that reputation will mean that ever-lower quality accounts seek you out. If on the other hand you follow good people, other good people will seek you out, and you will get good followers.
What you don’t want is a reputation for following everyone and anyone that follow you. However, you may not even know this has already happened to you: Thousands of accounts on Twitter, many real and many not, track accounts they think follow back anyone that follows them.
How follow-backing works
At the most innocent level, say you check out someone who follows you and you decide to follow them back. Even though that doesn’t mean you’ll follow the next person who follows you, you might now be listed as a “known follow-backer” in the eyes of the person you just followed. And from there, your name could be added to a list on a website, or tagged in a tweet indicating that it’s believed you’ll follow anyone back.
Some users build lists of users that supposedly follow everyone back, and then sell access to them, effectively trying to sell followers. More simply, many accounts send tweets tagging those accounts they think will follow back with hashtags, so others can just follow back the usernames found in a search of those hashtags. (If needed, see http://j.mp/LearnHashtags.) Here’s one example of a way some Twitter accounts promote “followbackers” (image).
Sleazy tactics abound
- Whether you or others promote your account as a “follow backer” you’ll get followed by other accounts that are most likely to ►unfollow you later ►spam you.
- Some accounts follow everyone back to become known as “follow backers” and then stop, hoping people will still follow them.
- Others follow back, then unfollow after a set waiting period—hoping you won’t notice, and will still keep following them.
- Some who don’t follow anyone back will tweet their own usernames with follow back hashtags, trying to entice people to follow them by claiming they follow back.
So obviously this tactic attracts a lot of sleazy users, and you’d generally do well to stay away from it. Here’s the story of how one user got nearly 100,000 followers using autofollow, but became swamped by the problems it caused, quit, and recommends never using it.
When is it good to be known as a follow-backer?
On the other hand, for some large accounts and in certain situations autofollowing is the most efficient solution, though there is a lot of disagreement on this. (Try Googling Twitter autofollowing.)
Chris Brogan, for example, followed everyone back, then stopped because of problems with the kinds of accounts that were attracted, then started following everyone back again because it was simplest. Chris said it was easier to follow everyone back and then unfollow bad accounts, but obviously it was a challenging at times to keep autofollow turned on.
Also, if you’re promising to follow people who follow you for a contest, or because your account is being promoted to a group of quality users you want to connect with, you might want to briefly use an autofollowing service such as provided by SocialOomph.
3b. Becoming known as a retweet reciprocator
This is probably the most common community-building tactic on Twitter. Folks who make this their main strategy are also the ones that say “please retweet” the most on their tweets. “Please RT” does increase retweets in many cases. It also annoys and turns people off, and is a signal to low-quality accounts that you might also be a low-quality account that will retweet almost anything. It’s a similar problem to being a “follow-backer”—you attracts bots and people who will retweet anything (low quality accounts). There are even services that try to bring people together expressly for the purpose of retweeting one another (I’ve never tried any of these services). Triberr is one such service. They promote things such as “Guaranteed ReTweets—Every tribe member will automatically share your post with their followers.”
THE DOWNSIDE: Of course, whether you do this automatically or manually, it’s problematic. I know several big accounts that exist primarily to reciprocate retweets, so that when they have something they want to promote they will have lots of people who retweet it for them. But that makes them nothing but a stream of promotional tweets.
Accounts that reciprocate extensively thus become similar to a stream of ads for anyone that retweets them. However, since so many people get on Twitter near-exclusively to promote things, this strategy is popular, since you can get a lot of other folks to reciprocate. This is like a lot of strategies on Twitter that can be good or bad. If it’s all you do, you’ve just turned your account into a marketing grind. But if it’s just one part of what you do to connect with quality people, it’s a great community builder.
► 4. Follow & Hope Some Follow Back: “Churning” Automation
Twitter has a very strict set of conditions and rules for following and unfollowing, and they suspend accounts for violations. But Twitter will often unsuspend if you ask nicely, and promise not to violate Twitter rules any more.
In fact, one large, well-known account confided to me that they violated Twitter’s following/unfollowing rules repeatedly in 2009-2010, were repeatedly suspended and then restored after requesting to be unsuspended. (I suspect they may have been suspended/unsuspended no more than two or three times, as I doubt Twitter would forgive more than that.)
What makes too much following bad?
Twitter doesn’t want you following lots of people and then unfollowing them just because they didn’t follow you back (“churn”). But Twitter also limits how many you can follow (no more than 10% more than follow you), so this following tactic doesn’t work unless you unfollow the ones who don’t follow you back. Do this frequently and in large numbers and it’s called “aggressive follow churn” (some users call this “pump and dump”). For more info, see Why Twitter suspends accounts for aggressive follow churn.
MOST of the software that advertises “get more Twitter followers” does it by churn, and so not only can the software get your account suspended for aggressive follow churn, you can also be suspended for violating Twitter’s Automation Rules and Best Practices.
How does the automation work?
First are the services that clean up the problems that come about from autofollowing, or following groups without enough manual review of each user being followed.
“Spam finder” services claim to try find the lowest quality accounts among those you follow or that follow you, and help you manually unfollow or block them. Of course the question is, why did you follow them in the first place? Other services list inactive accounts you follow that may have been abandoned, or show you everyone that you are following that isn’t following you back.
One such service is ManageFlitter, which adjusted its features in consultation with Twitter to ensure it wasn’t in violation of any Twitter rules. Even though Twitter allows it, using it in conjunction with auto- or over-following is still “churn,” and can still get your account suspended. More important than the tools you use are your intentions.
Finally, there are the sites and software that fully automate the process. These usually follow people based on keyword searches, and automatically unfollow those who don’t follow you back after a set time period, which, again, is considered follow churn (though not automatically aggressive follow churn). But keyword searches are a lousy way to find good people to follow, besides the possibility you could be suspended for violating Twitter’s Automation Rules and Best Practices.
All these sites and software cost money, and all offer affiliate options—you make money by selling the service or software to other users. In fact, these services make up the bulk of the “make money on Twitter” websites—they tell you that the best way to make money on Twitter is by selling the software or service, which means they make money helping you sell software that can get your account suspended.
It’s a good idea (though not at all necessary) to follow someone as a prelude to making a connection. And it’s also good to generate lists of people, and then review each one to find good people to connect with. But since keyword searches are an inefficient way of finding great folks (you need to review each manually), auto-following people based on keyword searches is not good. However, you can use more advanced analysis tools to try to create lists of people to follow, and then follow Chris Brogan’s technique of unfollowing any that you don’t want to connect with.
Yet I don’t recommend this, because the tools are typically both expensive (enterprise level) and time consuming to use well. If you have hours a day to spend on Twitter it can be done well, however. When there is a lot of Twitter activity in some part of the world, I’ll sometimes try to create a list of good people to follow in that area, and then follow the whole list without much review of each user. For more about the ins and outs of using advanced tools to create complex filters of user lists, read The secrets of following people on Twitter.
► 5. Join Follower Groups: “Get Followers Fast” Sites
Some of these promote themselves as “networking hubs” or something similar, and suggest listing your account as a kind of advertisement. Others are more straightforward and admit they’re only there to link you up to accounts that will supposedly follow you back. No matter how they promote themselves, if there is any language about “getting followers” rest assured that most of the worst kinds of accounts and sleaze tactics can be found there.
More specifically, The Twitter Rules disallow “Using or promoting third-party sites that claim to get you more followers, such as follower trains, sites promising ‘more followers fast,” or any other site that offers to automatically add followers to your account.”
Yes, this is such a bad way to use Twitter that Twitter can suspend you just for mentioning sites that promise “more followers fast.”
Blog and retweet groups
You can make agreements with some friends to promote and help one another, or use sites that semi-automate the process of finding like-minded people to promote one another. Depending on how you do it, you can end up sending a lot of spammy tweets, getting very few followers and destroying your reputation, or connecting with some excellent people and doing joint ventures together for mutual benefit. See “Should I join a blog or retweet group?” for more information.
Sites such as Twellow, WeFollow and JustTweetIt simply make it easy to find users that match certain criteria are an invaluable tool for finding people to connect with, and I recommend listing your Twitter account with them. Also, many Twitter bloggers make short lists of quality people they recommend checking out—and you should too! Here’s my list of good Twitter users to check out.
There are other sites that are specifically for finding other Twitter users, such as http://twiends.com. The problem with many of those sites (including Twiends) is that they have a pay-per-use business model, which leads users to only engage with others who will follow them, since it costs less the more people follow you. It skirts the edge of Twitter rules, but the main reason you might want to skip them is that the quality or type of users you meet when money and following are linked is not necessarily the best.
► 6. Multiple & Fake Accounts: Spammers and Follower Sellers
Twitter doesn’t generally allow this (see “exceptions” below), but has trouble catching accounts that do it because they are often use very sophisticated techniques (see How Spammers Are Taking Over Twitter). Some create thousands of fake accounts and offer to have them follow you for a fee. Others simply say they will sell you followers and don’t specify clearly what those accounts will be.
Just to be crystal clear about this: you should NEVER do these things. Let me give you three reasons, for three different kinds of person: FEAR: Very easy to get suspended by doing this; COST: You don’t need to do this to get followers; RESULTS: You’re simply paying to create a fake account with fake followers who will do nothing, when you could just as easily be creating a real account with real followers.
- PAID OPTIONS: By this I mean simply buying followers—yes, there are sites that do this, and NO, Twitter doesn’t allow. Twitter claims to catch some of the accounts doing this, and suspends them. But there are still services that sell followers, and there are “hire a programmer” and “hire an internet worker” forums that will do variations of this for you. Follower sellers of course claim that Twitter won’t be able to tell who their customers are.
- FREE OPTIONS: Create a lot of accounts, and have them follow the account you want to make look “popular.” Again: do NOT do this! Generally this is done by people with the technical skills to write programs that automate the process of creating lots of Twitter accounts for themselves. (If they sell this service or their programs, this would be a paid option again.) There are reasons Twitter allows creation of multiple accounts quickly, but do it wrong and you can still be suspended, regardless of your reasons.
What Twitter Doesn’t Allow:
- CREATING MANY ACCOUNTS FROM THE SAME COMPUTER RAPIDLY: They check the IP address of the computer creating accounts to track this—spammers obviously work around this.
- ACCOUNTS THAT HAVE NO “REAL” PURPOSE: Examples include creating fake accounts for contest entries, to abuse other users anonymously, to follow other accounts, to spam other users, etc.
If you create many accounts from the same IP address over a long enough period of time Twitter is fine with it. Twitter will allow many accounts to be created at the same time if you have a valid reason, but you can’t create them all from the same IP address/computer no matter how worthy they are. For example, when Quora wanted to have multiple Twitter accounts that tweeted about the different question topics on its question-and-answer service, they had to pay dozens of folks to create those accounts for them.
I remember one case where a husband and wife created a bunch of accounts for a completely innocuous purpose (something like a grade school project for a group of kids), spent an entire evening setting up a few dozen accounts, only to find them all suspended the next morning. They begged and pleaded with Twitter, who acknowledged the non-spam nature of the accounts, but wouldn’t unsuspend them. I’m sure Twitter realized that if they made one exception and word got out, they’d have to staff a whole department to make decisions on who should get exceptions in the future.
Can You Ever Be Too Popular?
Yes you can! Using @TweetSmarter as an example, I get tweets every day from people saying “Hey, follow me back!” It’s annoying and makes Twitter less useful for me, since there is no easy way to hide these low quality tweets from cluttering up the stream of tweets I actually want to see. If I turn on autofollowing, I get a few less of these tweets, but not enough to make autofollowing worthwhile with all the other problems it entails.
Also, @TweetSmarter gets lots of tweets and “pokes” (tweets with nothing but your username) from people who simply tweet any account with a lot of followers, for example. (Some people call this “celebrity baiting.”) Doesn’t happen to us as much as to actual celebrities, but still plenty enough to be annoying.
Then there are the automated fake engagement tweets, like “Love your tweets, could you help me with this?” and then a link to some spam website, in addition to less clever spam tweets, such as “buy my new album!” etc.
Had you not heard the story of the abandoned account getting and keeping 10’s of thousands of followers, you would never think much of these forces. But they are powerful! Becoming known in your niche as a quality account to engage with will “work while you sleep” to find great people to connect with. The four forces are:
- FOLLOW TO FIT IN: You may have heard “Twitter consultants” recommend that if you’re new to Twitter, you should follow a mixture of well-known, respectable accounts when you first join to “get engaged” and look like you know what you are doing. People judge you on who you follow, they say, so start by following people that will make you look good.
This a good idea. But also realize that fake spam accounts do the same thing, meaning that well-known accounts get both spam and real accounts following them—because following high-reputation accounts make them both seem to “fit in” better on Twitter!
- FOLLOW QUALITY BLINDLY: People are always looking for good accounts to connect with on Twitter. If an account’s reputation is solid enough—especially if its name and avatar clearly match its purpose—many will follow it automatically without reading its tweets, just clicking “follow” on lists of recommended accounts.
- FOLLOW HOPING FOR FOLLOW BACK: Accounts that become known will often get followed because people hope it will follow them back. Stick around on Twitter long enough and this will happen to you too, often inappropriately! See the section on “Follow Backers” for more info.
- LEAVE QUALITY ALONE: Tweeting in a way that shows you fit into the Twitter community builds reputation, and helps you gain followers. It means first and foremost, understanding Twitter etiquette. Accounts that don’t stand out from the crowd in a bad way get unfollowed less. In the case of the abandoned account, many people followed it without checking it, but then never unfollowed it, because they never noticed it again—it never tweeted anything objectionable!
So knowing how to make your tweets “fit in” on Twitter will help keep your followers. See “Build a reputation for quality” at the top of this post, and for more tips, check out “Should you ever repeat the same tweets?” and “When is the best time to tweet?“
Want to get something out of Twitter? Work at getting value, not followers. Many, many people have written about how trying to get followers destroyed the value they were getting out of Twitter. Don’t be another casualty! If you build a reputation for quality by following quality users and appropriately promoting your account, you can achieve virtually any kind of goal on Twitter. And over time, if it’s appropriate to the reasons you’re here, you may end up with a lot of people following your Twitter account.
I hope this post will also help you evaluate what other Twitter accounts are doing, and keep a clear head when looking at different services that claim to help you grow or “clean” your followers. I also hope you’ll get an idea of the myriad problems having too many low quality followers can bring and realize, as the article on Twitter spammers points out, the various rules help Twitter help you by limiting the use of Twitter by spammers.
I think it’s appropriate to give Twitter the last word here, from their Twitter Following Rules and Best Practices article:
Remember, Twitter isn’t a race to get the most followers. If you follow users that you’re interested in, it’s more likely that legitimate users will find you and read your updates.