Ugly Social Truths: Twitter Followers Are Cheap (And Worthless?)

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The popularity contest on Twitter has gotten out of control. Whether you spend $20 for a thousand new followers or take the time to troll #followback for free, a large follower count is yours for the taking. These tricks can inflate your numbers, allowing you to look more popular than you really are, but is it worth it? We all like to feel popular. Those inflated counts can make community managers and brands feel successful. Obviously we’re doing a good job at social media, look at how many people we’re connected with.

But are you?

Twitter metrics often focus on “impressions” or “reach” or some other word with the oh-so-complicated algorithm of: your followers + the followers of anyone who retweeted you. But that doesn’t translate to anything more than “your post was potentially seen by that many people.” Whether or not your post was actually seen by anyone is much more complicated.

As of today, there’s no easy way to determine who has actually read your tweets. And it won’t until computer/phone screens are equipped with cameras that can track eye movement–okay, this exists, but the users have to give us permission to use that data. Until then, there are several factors to take into account when using Follower Count to determine how successful your content is.

  • How many followers are “fake”: The real humans behind cheap paid followers are not paid to read your tweets. They’re paid to create accounts and follow you. All those followback accounts are more or less in the same boat. Eliminate them completely from your reach metrics.
  • How many accounts the follower follows (Part 1): The more accounts, the larger your follower’s stream. How noticeable do you think a tiny pebble is in a raging river? Disregard any account that follows more than 1000 others, unless they’re very active. You may end up cutting a few legit consumers, but you’ll eliminate considerably more cruft than value.
  • How many accounts the follower follows (Part 2): That one project manager at your company who doesn’t really get social media but loves to retweet everything you say is very enthusiastic, but she’s shouting into a vacuum. Followers with very few followers themselves (say, less than 20), who aren’t active on Twitter except to promote you are like the family member who comes to every game and tells you how great you did, even if you never left the bench. It feels good, but as far as metrics go, it’s insignificant. Unless those 20 accounts promote your CPG brand further or could potentially turn into leads, that “reach” isn’t helping you.
  • How active the follower is: Some folks live on Twitter and are diligent about seeing every tweet that crosses their path (note: I said seeing, not reading). Most, however, check once or twice a day, when they have a free moment. If you don’t float past in that window, you’re invisible. Fortunately, several tools can estimate your ideal times to tweet based on when your followers are most active. Finding those windows will increase the chances you’re being seen and make what’s left of your “reach” a more valuable metric.

Do not misunderstand me, followers are important. That large and un-earned follower count can give you an edge when you’re out searching for real accounts to pay attention to you. But at the end of the day, content is king. If your tweets don’t look like something they want added to their stream, it doesn’t matter how popular you are. Your metrics should focus on one simple question: How interesting are you? In those fleeting moments when people are sifting through their stream looking for something interesting, do you catch their eye? Do you have a history of saying something they want to hear? Will they stop when they notice your avatar to read your tweet? Although they play on a much smaller scale than follower counts, metrics involving click throughs, retweets, mentions and responses paint a clearer picture of how successful you and your content are at reaching your core audience.

At the end of the day, that inflated follower count may end up costing your brand more than just the price you paid.

Some hand-picked thoughts from others related to this topic.

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