I make the assumption in this piece that readers intend to operate as part of the Twitter community and not simply read other people’s tweets. If you only want to read Twitter without getting personally involved, I’d recommend this article on following Twitter accounts anonymously. But for those who do want to be involved, and perhaps use Twitter to broaden their reach in the online world, here are my twelve tips…
1. Recognise that it’s much better to have 20 followers who read what you say and interact with you, than to have 2,000 followers who’ve no idea you even exist, because they're all following so many accounts that their timeline is just a blur).
It's fairly straightforward, if you have the time, to ‘churn’ up a large follower stat by following to be followed, then unfollowing anyone who doesn’t follow back. Provided they observe Twitter's rules on aggressive following and are careful with the follow limit, most people using apps such as Tweepi can built a huge followers total. But if you ‘churn’ up a big following, your timeline will be a blur (which doesn't make for enjoyable use) and most of your ‘followers’ will either be bots or fellow ‘churners’ with no interest in anything but the size of their own following. Conversely, real interactivity spreads, and attracts real users. So whilst 20 attentive followers might not seem like much, it’s a situation that can snowball into all the right circles if your tweets are of value.
2. In keeping with the above, be selective in who you follow. Following a few of the right people can and almost certainly will do a lot more for you than following 2,000 accounts in which you have absolutely no interest.
3. Don’t waste time with services like Twiends or You Like Hits. These sites do at first glance look like a good idea. The concept is that by following other Twitter users, you gain points. You can then offer the points you gain to buy followers of your own. The supposed advantage of the points system is that you’re able to choose whoever you want to follow and select people with common interests.
But in practice, these sites are unlikely to get you followers who will read a single word you ever tweet. Users of these services will be following you for one reason and one reason only. The same reason you’re following people on there: to get points, so they can buy followers for themselves. In fact, you’ll probably find that quite a few of them will follow you to grab your points and then unfollow you seconds later – steal your points, basically. Technically it’s not allowed, but a lot of people still do it. Others will give it a day or so and then unfollow if you don’t follow them back… You’ll probably find that unless you do follow back, the majority will drop you within a few days, and nearly all will drop you eventually, regardless of the quality of your tweets – which, remember, they’re not reading.
So, if you have to follow people back as well as paying them in points (which you essentially do), the services are actually more of a burden than simply playing the follow back game on Twitter itself. These services can also get overrun with commercial accounts, meaning you have to literally hunt for ordinary people to follow. You may also be given the option to buy followers for money. NEVER, EVER, EVER DO THIS. You may be able to buy (usually temporary) followers, but you can't buy their attention.
I used to think Twellow was quite a good resource for seeking out ordinary people to follow. But when I last visited it seemed incredibly slow, and it put up a massive “Add Yourself to Twellow” nag box every time I navigated to a new screen. Quick message for website owners in general… If your site forces me to clear a nag box on every page visit, I’m gone, and I ain’t knowingly comin’ back.
4. Don’t constantly post links – especially links to your own work. The absolute quickest way to lose followers en masse is to relentlessly tweet: “Visit my new web page!”… “Check out my Facebook”, etc. Saying it once is fine, but if you only post links and don’t provide any actual Twitter content, you won’t retain any discerning followers, and those are the ones you really need.
5. Recognise that other people don’t want to read about how great your life is – they want to know how badly wrong it's all gone. For example...
“@TheLadyWife: Please darling, let me back into the house. I’m sorry and I won’t do it again”
will very likely spark interest in your account.
“Hey everyone, just bought a new gadget for my great boat!”
will just nauseate people, and in all seriousness when I was on Twitter I quickly unfollowed anyone whose tweets were like that. I don’t want to hear what people have bought for their great boat. I only want to hear about your great boat if it’s broken or being repossessed.
6. If you’ve set up a Twitter account for a specific purpose, fulfil that purpose within the bounds of your actual tweets. For example, if you’ve set up as a ‘life coach’, people will want to see tweets about how they can improve their lives – not incessant namedropping or promotions for various hotels.
7. If you really must play the follow back game to get followers, check the stats of those who claim to be #teamfollowback before actually following them. #teamfollowback means the person concerned will follow back anyone who follows them. Or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to mean. Many of those using the tag actually don’t follow back at all – not beyond a day or two anyway.
But their stats will always give away whether or not they’re true to their word. If the number of people they’re following is roughly equal to the number who are following them, then they probably do follow back as they claim. If the number of people following them is much larger than the number they’re following, then clearly they’re liars. Sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of users who blindly believe and follow #teamfollowback taggers without making this simple check. Please also take into account that #teamfollowback taggers are most unlikely to read your tweets unless you specifically @ mention them. Some of them are following forty or fifty thousand accounts, so the chances of them seeing any of your general messages among that lot are basically nil.
One good idea if you're fishing for followbacks is to selectively follow fairly new users who themselves are not following many accounts. That way, if they do follow you back, you know the chances of them reading what you tweet are pretty high.
Another policy which seems to work quite well is to follow people with protected accounts. These users have to approve your request to follow them, which means they'll probably read some of your existing tweets before doing so. If your tweets have value, protected account holders will probably follow you back whilst approving your follow. Don't overdo it with protected accounts though. Some bots have latched onto this idea and only follow protected accounts. The ploy will obviously backfire if the account holders check your page and see that every single account you've followed is protected. They'll either think you're a bot, or think you're up to no good.
8. Avoid being a pawn in the “Retweet this to get more followers! (must be following me)” game. You’ll just annoy your existing followers if you retweet those messages, and the only people who ever really benefit from them are the ones who originate the messages. Below I’ve posted a capture showing how ridiculous this kind of charade can get. Note that the account holder, be it human or a bot, has collected four followers without posting a single tweet. How anyone could think that following this account would get them more followers is very difficult to work out, but evidently, some people do.
9. Don’t waste time trying to flatter people into giving you retweets. It’s not that they won’t retweet you as requested – they very likely will. But realistically, how many people are going to be motivated to follow you because you tweeted someone saying: “I think you’re great. Please can I have a retweet?”… That’ll be a zero. The way to get retweets that lead to new followers, is to say stuff that matters.
10. Sounds really obvious, but don’t follow bots. When you get a follow, check to see if that follower has actual interactive conversations before you follow back. If there are no conversations – just links, quotes or promos, your follower is probably a bot. And if you follow bots they’ll do nothing for you whatsoever, other than spam you with promotional Direct Messages.
11. Equally, don't follow trolls. Even if your follower is obviously a human being, check them out before following back. You can normally see by reading as few as five of their tweets if someone is just on Twitter to cause trouble. There are some really unsavoury accounts on Twitter, and if you end up inadvertently following one, it can damage your standing with people who can genuinely do you some good.
12. Above all, be aware that you have to give followers some value if you want them to categorise you as worthy of attention. In my experience, if you set aside celeb accounts and the like, the individuals who are most successful in attracting and keeping followers are the ones who talk the most, in the most natural and believable way.
‘Talking’, incidentally, does not include issuing quotes, posting links, trolling celebrities, any kind of bragging, or pretending to be Shakespeare. Yes, there are some ‘quote machines’ with vast followings, but they’re long established, and Twitter is now packed to the rafters with ‘quote machines’. Those accounts are also heavily associated with bots, and people may avoid following unknown 'quote machines' for that reason alone.
I’m convinced that the most successful new Twitter user will be someone who avoids repetition, engages followers with tweets the followers find interesting, doesn’t try to hide any negative elements of their life, and seems like they’re on Twitter for its own sake – not because they’re trying to promote something. Conform to all of that, and you won't need a gameplan. In time, success will come by default.
This article was updated in 2015. Please note that much has changed on Twitter since the original post was made, and even with crucial updates, there's a lot that has been left behind by new techniques, and new facilities, such as Muting. My most recent posts about Twitter appear on this blog's sister site Twirpz, whose primary focus is Twitter and related media. You'll find plenty of recent information there.