Facebook may have its friends, Google Plus its circles, but Twitter has always used the ambiguous term “follower.” Odd, only because a follower could bring to mind one of those unfortunate people that drank the grape Flavor Aid with Jim Jones.
But pool-side in Cancun, you might catch your significant other following an attractive person with their eyes, a meaning that seems to fit the Twitterverse.
When Twitter first came on to the scene, many marketers jumped on and played what I call the Twitter Follower Game or Follower Churning, wherein you follow a fair amount of people.
In a few days, you unfollow anyone who hasn’t followed you back, and repeat the process. And while it’s contrary to Twitter’s terms of service, there’s even software that will automate the process for you.
The thinking goes, though, that in this way, you can build up your follower count to a shameless number in no time. Of course, it doesn’t help too much for using Twitter effectively, as that mob of followers probably isn’t noticing anything you say, and you’re very likely not noticing anything they have to say. It’s just a numbers game.
What Should Community Managers Do?
Of course, as individuals, when many of us get followed by someone, we quickly look at their profile, and if they are not spamming their list and seem like a real person, we’ll follow back. The question is, as community managers of brands, what should we do?
In reviewing some of the largest brands on Twitter, you’ll often see brands that have a significant following, but don’t reciprocate:
Every so often, you’ll see brands that do follow a significant number of people back:
(note: these were the numbers as of 30 April 2012)
Scott Monty of Ford wrote that, “at one time, we followed everyone back who followed us, but relied on a third-party service which was not always reliable. Now we simply follow people back who we find interesting, or when we need someone to DM us some information.”
The reality is that when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of followers, having a person sit somewhere in a cubicle clicking on each new follower, seeing if they’re “real,” and deciding to follow back could be a full-time job. It just isn’t practical. It would be less troublesome to follow the examples of @Google and @Twitter and just ignore the hoi polloi.
Using software tools to programmatically follow back individuals using some criteria is against Twitter’s terms of service. You are allowed to follow everyone back with automation, but not selectively. And following everyone back would mean that you’d be following the spambots, too. Even using software, the task would require some human touch.
In a recent #atomicChat, Community manager Brandie McCallum (@lttlewys) suggested that if someone is attempting to join your community and engage with you, you should engage them back — and thus follow them. This is actually a fairly simple rule to follow and not at all labor instensive.
Influence tools like Klout and Kred have brought an emphasis to your ratio of followers to followees, with the notion that it demonstrates some sort of influence if you’re following fewer people back than are following you. If you’re followed by ten thousand individuals, and you only follow a hundred back, you must really be a big cheese, right?
While a high follower to followee ration does seem to have an element of social proof, there really isn’t any basis for the idea that a high ratio signifies a higher influence. Back in high school, I remember that one popular kid who, unlike others in their clique, did not shy away from saying hello to the math and chess club membership. If anything, they were perhaps even more influential.
It’s been suggested that someone who has a perfectly reciprocal follower ratio isn’t applying any criteria to their following, and thus a higher ratio indicates someone who is being selective. Does that, though, mean more influence?
Why Should We Care If We’re Following Back?
Of course, when you are following more than a few thousand individuals, you’re not likely to be reading all of the tweets that stream by. The gesture of following someone back at that point is symbolic.
But little symbolic gestures can be pretty powerful. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that a follow-back is a sort of gift — a microgift. Follow-backs on Twitter have value to many people. We know this, as there are people who will help you get followers in exchange for payment. Brands want followers, as they provide both an audience and social proof.
Countless studies show that in gifting, there is something called the rule of reciprocity, which states that we all feel bound to some extent to reciprocate when we feel that we’ve received a gift.
Certainly, many of the people you follow on Twitter won’t even notice you’ve followed them — which means that they aren’t going to feel that they’ve received a gift. Those that are aware, however, might feel that very tiny feeling that they’ve received a little something.
Some marketers fear that by following someone back, they’re tacitly approving that person. But as social media becomes more and more a part of the fabric of our society, it is becoming better understood that just because we follow, friend, or plus someone, that we are not approving of that person. If a journalist discovers that a major brand has been following an arsonist, it simply wouldn’t be newsworthy enough for even a mention in an article.
At the end of the day, brands that are being parsimonious in their Twitter following are missing out on the opportunity for creating a community, and being part of a small exchange of gifts.
Feature image and accompanying images from iStockPhoto used under license.
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