First, realize that you can suspended for reasons other than just your following behavior. This post mainly just addresses following behavior. It is NOT a guide that will tell you exactly how to avoid being suspended. (Twitter doesn’t provide exact information on that.)
In this post, I’ll address what this practice is, why people do it, and compare it to what we’ve done. What Twitter calls “aggressive follow churn” is what some users call “pump and dump” or “follow and flush.” All of these are terms for a practice that is against Twitter’s following rules and best practices, which is NOT what @TweetSmarter does. Note that these rules generally wouldn’t affect you until you are following more than 2000.
What is “aggressive follow churn?”
Twitter explains: “[People sometimes do this because they want]:
- [To] get lots of people to notice them,
- to circumvent a Twitter limit,
- or to change their follower-to-following ratio.
- Negatively impact the Twitter experience for other users,
- are common spam tactics,
- and may lead to account suspension.”
(I formatted Twitter’s text into numbered lists for ease of comprehension.)
How can you identify a “churner?”
The typical churner following chart often looks like a zig-zag, going up for as little as a half a week or so, then partway down, then back up. This aggressive (frequent and rapid) up-and-down is where the word “churning” comes from. The churner follows up to the point that Twitter limits them. But since services like TwitterCounter are public, anyone can check anyone’s else’s following practices. (Note that prior to the unfollowing we blogged about, the last unfollowing done by @TweetSmarter was in November of 2010—hardly frequent or “aggressive” unfollowing.)
Twitter following limits and ratio
Twitter reserves the right to change and keep secret its various limits. One that they have generally kept secret—though it is widely known and cited— is that typically you can only follow up to 10% more than follow you (once you follow more than 2,000 people). So if 10,000 people followed you, you could follow 11,000, etc. An account that follows nearly 10% more than follow them may or may not be “churning” but it is one possible sign they may be following people hoping to be followed back solely or primarily to increase their number of followers. Another “maybe” sign is an account that follows large numbers every week, but never follows back anyone that follows them.
Your ratio is said to be negative if you follow more people than follow you, and positive otherwise. (For example, celebrities using Twitter inevitably have more followers than people they follow—a positive ratio.) Note that @TweetSmarter already has an overwhelmingly positive ratio, since nearly 45,000 more people follow us than we follow.
The “churn chart”
Nowadays some advanced churners hide from services like TwitterCounter by keeping separate lists of followers, and slowly following new users while unfollowing users that don’t follow them back within a set period, as often as every 3-4 days, typically using software to automate this process. This makes the churn invisible because there are close to equal amounts of following and unfollowing every day.
Why do users try churning?
Two of the reasons Twitter believes users do this are:
- To circumvent a Twitter limit
- Or to change their follower-to-following ratio.
I’ll take each of these tactics in turn:
1. In a zig-zag following chart that shows churn, a zig upwards shows following people until an account follows nearly 10% more than follow them. Then they are blocked by Twitter’s limit, so they unfollow people who haven’t followed them back (the zag back down). Since a few of the people they followed will usually follow them back, they gain followers each time they go through the up-and-down cycle. This is one of the main “tricks” that spammy sites will sell you for gaining followers.
2. There are two common forms of the second tactic. First, understand how “popularity” is sometimes measured. Take the example of a typical celebrity: They follow only a small handful of users, even though millions of people follow them. This strong positive ratio is considered a mark of popularity so some users try to artificially create this for themselves:
A. One way users do this is by every so often unfollowing EVERYONE that follows them. A lot of accounts will then unfollow them in response, but a few will remain. Then they will go through the whole process again, usually 6-12 months later. In this way they build up a dedicated “following” of accounts (typically a lot of abandoned or automated accounts).
B. A less drastic method is simply to unfollow people until your ratio turns positive, e.g. if you followed 11,000 and had 10,000 followers, you would unfollow a little more than 1,000 accounts.
The most seriously abusive part of this is that, unless you are getting accounts to follow you regardless of whether you follow them back (you provide something of value, or are a celebrity), to make either of these work you have to unfollow accounts that follow you—people that typically heard of your account only because you followed them in the first place!
If you ever find an account (e.g. @username) doing this, do a to:username search (Twitter search example). If @username was being abusive in this way, you will see a lot of angry users tweeting “I’m following you—why did you unfollow me?” (Look through this search of live tweets at any time to see lots of people complaining like this.)
Regarding @TweetSmarter, anyone can see from searching tweets sent to us that people aren’t complaining to us like that.
To “Get lots of people to notice” you.
This is the other reason Twitter mentions people follow a lot of people. It’s okay to a small degree—following someone can be a lead in to introducing yourself, asking a question, making a connection, giving someone permission to DM you, etc.
Essentially, Twitter does NOT want Twitter accounts becoming rapidly popular due to your tweeting or following practices. (It’s okay to become slowly popular that way.) To get lots of people to hear rapidly of your Twitter account can’t be because you are following or engaging with hundreds of new users each day, but because you are popular for some other reason, such as:
- A popular website directs people to your Twitter account.
- Your tweets are retweeted by popular users
- You are well-known outside of Twitter
How my wife and I got started on Twitter
I wanted to create a Twitter account to answer people’s questions about Twitter. I wasn’t well-known for any reason outside of Twitter. To save time, I didn’t want to write a lot of blog posts. So at first, I couldn’t figure out how to reach people who might need help. I tried finding people who were new to Twitter and sending them a tweet. Many of those accounts quit without ever learning how to read their inbound tweets, I noticed. I tried following and tweeting new users with the same result. I tried the same tactics with users who asked questions, users who answered questions, users who tweeted useful Twitter tips, etc., etc., etc.
But mostly, I worked ridiculously hard to cram as much useful information into each tweet as possible. I had single tweets containing as many as nine tips or five links! (That was too much.) What happened very quickly was we started to get people following us who had heard about us from other users retweeting us, and we grew slowly. And I stopped wondering as much about how to reach people who needed help and concentrated more just being as helpful as I could.
What are @TweetSmarter’s following practices?
We don’t promise to autofollow anyone! People tweet all kinds of fake “engagement” hoping you will follow them, so I don’t have a hard-and-fast “I will follow you if” rule. But some pretty well-known reasons I’ll follow people sometimes include:
- Following user A when user B says “Hey User A, ask your question to @TweetSmarter.” This lets “User A” DM us their question (which dozens do every week) and helps new users not familiar with all of Twitter’s in and outs find and remember us.
- Follow users who say great things about @TweetSmarter to their followers. I don’t always do this, but it’s of course fun to connect with those folks
- Follow users who tweet great Twitter information.
- Follow users I’m having a conversation with.
Another reason we don’t have hard-and-fast rules is that it’s a LOT of work reviewing people to follow when you get hundreds of new followers every day.
I tried turning on autofollowing once (meaning you follow us, we follow you back) because the number of “Hey! Follow me back” tweets was getting annoying. And you know what? People still tweeted that! Many didn’t even bother to wait—or even check—to see if we followed them. It reduced the number of people asking for follow backs, but didn’t eliminate them completely.