Focusing On Value: How I’m Changing How I Use Twitter

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[tweetmeme] This weekend I made the decision to switch things up and reboot my Twitter following list. On Sunday night, with a little help from Jesse over at SocialToo, I ran a script that unfollowed almost 12,000 people. This week, for the first time since the summer of 2007, I’m back to following just over 200.

In this post I’ll discuss why I decided to reboot my list and how I’m planning on changing my approach to using Twitter moving forward. I’ll also show you some data, bust a few social media myths and tell you a few things that those “social media gurus” with large Twitter followings  don’t want you to know. Ready to rock and roll?  Buckle up…

The Big Realization: The Strategy That Got Me Here Doesn’t Work Anymore

When I started using Twitter back in 2007, it wasn’t popular or mainstream the way it is now, and the culture was different. Only the geeks were using it, and the overall experience was more personal, conversational and fun. The newness of the 140 character medium and the cool factor of connecting directly with fellow bloggers and friends on the go was awesome (remember, up until then most of us were just commenting on each other’s blogs).

Then, in early 2008, microblogging started getting popular in the blogosphere and Twitter in particular started to drive significant blog traffic (If you like data, Fred Wilson has a great post about when he noticed it happening on his blog where he shares his traffic stats). A huge cultural shift was taking place – people started blogging less and began abandoning their RSS readers for social media tools like Twitter that had a more interactive, real-time experience. Not only was it more fun and personal, the realization bloggers were having about the power of social media was causing Twitter to spread rapidly throughout the blogosphere. By October 2008, so many people were using social media as a replacement for their blogs, Wired Magazine declared that Blogging was Dead.

Around that time reciprocating when someone followed you on Twitter was becoming a common “friending” practice, and many (including me) thought it was a good way to be social and successful on Twitter. I thought this for a couple of reasons. First, there was the DM problem — you can’t direct message (DM) someone who isn’t following you, which people hated. Second, reciprocity (in theory) encourages engagement by signaling mutual interest. So for many of us, following-back was the social thing to do, and automated scripts made it hassle-free. Sure, your home feed became a rushing river of tweets, but you could direct message others, nobody felt snubbed, and your following number went up and kept going up. It was a clear win-win scenario.

Back then the strategy of mutual following was working well for me. The number of connections I was making was growing steadily, I was interacting a lot with excited bloggers and geeks like me, and I was getting a lot of traffic coming to my blog from Twitter. Around that time I was mutually following a few thousand people and I had started using Tweetdeck to keep up with friends and fellow bloggers I wanted to follow closely. Engagement was high and people were jazzed.

Then in spring 2009 the celebrities arrived and Twitter’s growth exploded. The marketers and spammers, who started getting their hands on automated following tools like Hummingbird and TweetAdder, started flooding the ecosystem with garbage. When people saw others quickly amass huge followings, the popularity contest took on a life of its own. My “reciprocity strategy” turned into a double edged sword. In March/Arpil my follower numbers started shooting up, but so did the spam. Twitter’s traffic at this point was growing exponentially (graph below is from Comscore) and my follower count followed suit.

twittergrowthcomscore

By late spring, I was convinced that following everyone that followed me was the way to go. The data I was tracking showed that the strategy worked well. The click through rates on the links I was posting were growing proportionately with my follower growth,  I was engaging lots of people and the amount of spam I got was small and manageable, so I stuck with it.

Of course, 10,000 followers and 6 months later, I’ve changed my tune. Twitter is not nearly as personal or conversational as it used to be, and I’ve crossed my own personal scalability limit for maintaining relationships. What’s more, the traffic my blog gets from Twitter plateaued a long time ago, and the spam is unbearable.

Last Friday, over tacos and beer in downtown San Diego, Nate Ritter and I had a long entertaining discussion about how significantly Twitter’s ecosystem has changed this year and how we were seeing the click through numbers drop off despite ‘social media gurus’ singing Twitter’s praises. We shared our experiences and data. We talked about what was still working for us. We agreed that the real value was still in focusing on building relationships, and reminded each other how social media done right accelerates serendipity.  By the time dinner was over, we knew it was time to change our approach and reboot. And that’s exactly what I did.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the conversation Nate and I had…

Everyone’s Broadcasting, No One’s Listening

Testing how many people click through a link posted to Twitter is the best measurement we’ve got on how many people are actually listening to you and consuming the content you post.  I’ve been watching the click through data and reading studies about this for months.  It turns out that the data tells a very clear, consistent story – everyone is broadcasting, and only a tiny percentage of people are paying attention and clicking through.

Back in July 2009, Darren Barefoot (co-founder of Capulet Communications) published the findings of a study he did on Mashable on Twitter click through rates – he admits that he’s not a statistician, and his method was basic (using bit.ly link tracking) but this was the first study to be published on a major social media hub of its kind (to my knowledge). The study, done across 60 different Twitter users, indicated that the average Twitter user gets a click through rate of 1-2%, and showed that click through rate, as a percentage of followers, decreases as the person’s follower base increases (i.e the more followers you have, the smaller percentage of them click through). I got intrigued.

I’ve done a lot of bit.ly analysis on all types of users in the last 6 months, from celebrities and social media big shots like Ashton Kutcher and Chris Brogan, to your average Joe Twitterer. The data I’ve seen is consistent with Darren’s study. In fact, as far as I can tell, the percentage of anyone’s followers that actually click through on links is almost always below 1%.

Here’s a screenshot of data from a link Ashton posted from this morning, 3 hours ago. He’s approaching 4 million followers and this link got less than 3000 clicks (including retweets). I’m not saying that every link he posts gets that few clicks, but I’ve done this analysis on many of his links and I’ve never seen a CTR greater than 0.7%.  Ditto for any of the big names out there with +50K followers. The CTR numbers are consistent across all types of users.

ctr

I track data for all the links that I post, and even with almost 13K followers, on average I get 30-50 clicks on a link  (not including retweets). Also, Jesse from SocialToo recently posted on his blog that he was getting almost an identical CTR on his links coming from his 25K followers. These numbers are not what most people expect, but data doesn’t lie – this is the reality of Twitter. What’s interesting is that it implies that even experts and celebrities aren’t getting higher percentages than Joe Twitterer, so if your goal is to drive traffic (be influential) by treating everyone like a school of fish, you have to amass a HUGE following to drive significantly higher clicks per link posted.

Superficial Reciprocation Doesn’t Build Relationships

As I said before, reciprocating when someone follows you on Twitter is a common “friending” practice, and many (including me) thought it was a good way to be social and successful on Twitter in the beginning. I used to assume that following people back would encourage the ones who were interested in following me and reading my blog to interact with me and strike up conversation. I was wrong. Over the last 6 months I’ve auto-followed back thousands of people and reached out to many of them, and the core group of people that I have repeated conversations with and who spend the time to comment on my blog are still the same people I was going out of my way to keep up with and talk to in the first place. Lesson learned. If people are genuinely interested in you and your content, they will make the effort to start a relationship with you. Likewise, these are the people I’m going to focus on helping and developing relationships with from now on.

The “So We Can DM” Argument Doesn’t Fly Anymore

I’ve heard (and used) the “I’m following back so that people can DM me” excuse. True, twitter’s conversation model stinks, and early on in Twitter’s past a lot of people thought that giving others the ability to DM you was the social thing to do. Over time, though, I’ve found the only people who ever DM me are my friends (who I’d be following anyway) and spammers. And guess what…the spammers out number my friends 50 to 1, making the DM feature annoying and virtually useless. There are tons of ways to reach me or get my attention – send me email, send me an @ message, join in the discussion on my blog – I pay really close attention to all that stuff. If you do any of that, guess what…I’ll probably follow you on Twitter!  Fair? I think so.

Forget The Numbers Game, Focus on Relationships

If all you want is a large number of followers to feed your ego (and, believe me, it WILL impress people who don’t know any better) by all means, turn that auto-follow script on and leave it on. As long as you’re posting interesting content regularly, your numbers will definitely go up and keep going up. If you want to be really hardcore about it, go out and look for people with 1:1 friends/followers ratio and add them to your list so that they add you back and your numbers go up faster. It works, everyone knows that. There are tons of people out there successfully gaming twitter this way – there are web rings where you can pay for followers, Twitter trains where you can “follow and be followed”, lists of people who auto-follow back and programs like Hummingbird and TweetAdder that allow you to automate following and unfollowing that have allowed many marketers and spammers to accumulate massive (+50K) following lists. But consider this…

You know what happened when I ran the unfollow-all script this week? 3000 people auto-unfollowed me immediately – literally over 20% of the users following me weren’t listening and didn’t care. The same thing happened to the following people:

Jesse – When he unfollowed 25000 followers  6000 accounts unfollowed him (24%)

John Chow – When he unfollowed 55000 followers 10000 accounts unfollowed him (18%)

Robert Scoble – he unfollowed 106K…and around 10-15K accounts unfollowed him. (~10-15%) (Note: This metric was updated per a comment on this post by Robert on 1/3/10 http://bit.ly/5s0rIc)

See a pattern here? These are people (and bots) that are just broadcasting, DMing anyone who’ll follow them and filling the Twitter ecosystem with self-promotional, pre-programmed, affiliate-marketing crapola. You don’t need them. They won’t help you learn, grow, connect with people or achieve your goals. Sure, if you drop those people, they’ll drop you and you might not have a big number in your TwitterCounter badge on your blog, but how much is that number actually helping you anyway?

Now that you can see how the magic trick is done, do you think it’s impressive? Me either.

The bottom line is, chasing numbers doesn’t matter in the long run. It’s just a waste of time. The only networking that matters is consistently taking an active interest in others, helping people achieve their goals, writing and sharing great content. If you don’t think this is true, ask yourself this…If the Twitter servers were shut down today, how many people would come and find you on another service? It’s sometimes helpful to remind yourself that Twitter has yet to find a viable revenue model…

Social Media Isn’t Scalable. Dunbar’s Number Still Applies.

Whenever people asked me the question “how do you follow 12 thousand people?” it always made me uncomfortable, because the honest immediate answer is…”umm, I don’t.” Everyone’s using a filtering tool to keep up with the people that they want to – no one who is following more than a few hundred people uses the main feed these days. And yet most people would admit to feeling a rush of excitement when an influencer starts “following” them (or, more accurately, adds them to a list they never pay attention to). Social media only gives the illusion of scalability. In reality, we’re all following much smaller groups of people with filters and tools – these numbers, in my experience, approximate Dunbar’s number. When anyone has more than a few hundred people in their “following” list, you should assume that they’re not using that list to listen at all.  When I follow someone, I want it to mean something to me AND to them. I want it to say “I’m listening”.

Twitter Lists Will Change The Game

OK, this is the part that Im actually excited about – what’s coming next. Twitter lists. They’re currently in beta, but if they are anything like Friendfeed’s groups, they will significantly change Twitter culture and part of the reason I’m doing this reboot was so that I could start building useful lists. You’ll finally be able to follow people in logical groups like “friends”, “family” or “coworkers”. When Twitter introduces this, you’ll very likely see a few things happen – first, a new surge of people following others (now that they can separate them out) and definitely an increase in spam. But what you’ll also likely see is an increased drop off in click throughs and retweets across the ecosystem as Twitter gives people the ability to segment users they follow into small managable groups and get the intimacy back that they’ve been craving. I’ve seen this happen in Friendfeed and in Facebook, so I’m betting that the effect on Twitter will be similar. The good news is that if you’re actively keeping up with people that matter to you and that add value to your experience, you’re going to do really well – you’ll stay on their radar in one of their small lists. If not, you’ll stay in the list that they never check and, even though you might look successful to people looking at your numbers, your experience will feel like you’re shouting in an empty room. How you approach Twitter (and all other social media) going forward is up to you. Are you going to focus on nurturing lasting relationships with a few, or keep broadcasting into the void?

I’m going with the former.

91 Comments

  1. I've kept my follows low because I could not manage the connection. I also use TweetDeck to create priority lists of those I follow.

    New followers are mostly spammers. I would estimate a 2:1 ratio.

    1. Vada, I also use Tweetdeck – and I just got on the beta for Twitter lists.
      I'm interested to see how public lists mixes things up.

    2. I've always found having lots of followers rather pointless. You may initially exchange a tweet or two, but then the line goes cold.

      Ultimately I think this is just the nature of the beasts involved. People who want a bigger number of followers are likely to want follow many other people unless they are hugely competitive. It's all about popularity, not genuine friendship, isn't it??

      1. Paul – Popularity shouldn't be the goal. Engaging people and building
        relationships matters most. We see the evidence that popularity strategies
        dont work clearly in the numbers. People with a few hundred followers
        (average) are getting similar click through rates to people with tens of
        thousands of followers. The size of your tribe doesn't matter nearly as much
        as how many of them are listening.

      2. Paul – Popularity shouldn't be the goal. Engaging people and building
        relationships matters most. We see the evidence that popularity strategies
        dont work clearly in the numbers. People with a few hundred followers
        (average) are getting similar click through rates to people with tens of
        thousands of followers. The size of your tribe doesn't matter nearly as much
        as how many of them are listening.

        1. Hi Steffan, I agree, popularity should not be the goal, but my point is that many people do see it as a goal. That's why, given my experiences of larger groups, I only keep a small group. If I had a group with hundreds or thousands of people and I get no interaction with those people then I really don't see the point them being on the list, unless I'm providing a purely informative service. I guess it comes down to ones purpose for being online in the first place.

      3. Since I use Twitter to engage and stay connected, my follow and follower ratio has almost been 1:1. Our more famous brethren don't have this luxury. Their ratios can exceed 1000:1 because so many people are interested in what they have to say. Clay Shirky describe this phenomenon…

        Fame happens: “The famous are different from you and me, because they cannot return or even acknowledge the attention they get, and technology cannot change that.”

        It's really cool that Twitter supports both use cases. It's tragic that many users make the fame use case a goal.

    3. Well well Vada! Fancy meeting you here.

      I have begun to consider getting Twitter (Big thanks to Steffan Antonas linking Twitters exponential growth chart vs other social networks for helping me to consider this). Still the word count limit for Tweets is what kept me away in the first place, so I still wonder if it will annoy me, once I “jack into” the Twitter network.

      As to the article I was wondering how useful Twitter is for commercial use. When does your content cross the line from being useful to being spam. How do you avoid crossing the grey blurry line even if you keep the number of people who follow you low?

      1. If you enter Twitter-land with commercial intent then your message will likely fall on deaf ears. If you enter with connection intent then you will find a cadre of conversationalists welcoming you.

        As for content crossing the line, I'll quote more eloquent writers:

        “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” -Cory Doctorow

        “We call it advertising when we're not interested in it. When we're interested in it we call it information.” -Vint Cerf

        1. Then the real trick will be choosing WHO is in each membership list VERY carefully. Or perhaps multiple accounts for multiple purposes if Twitter's software is in any way unequal to parsing out lists of people and keeping them separate for the purposes of updates. In other words can I keep messages (for services) that might appeal to an architect away from messages that would appeal to Sci Fi authors. (For example)

          Any resources online that are NOT produced by the “Twitter Team” (other then this great article) that can give me a sense of what the limitations of Twitter are and any abilities that I might not have considered as assets in Twitter? The companies own tutorial resources might overstate or understate the functionality that expert users understand far better then the designers themselves.

  2. I continue to get the most joy from Twitter's ability to provide that social sixth sense. I still read nearly every update that's sent to my stream.

    At one point I got caught up in the broad communication potential of Twitter and started to follow more people. I remember hitting 210 people, looking at my stream, and realizing that: 1) this wasn't manageable; 2) I'm not interested in the day-to-day interactions of some of these people; and 3) many people were broadcasting solely promotional content.

    So I unfollowed many of them.

    This probably won't come as a surprise, but the number I fluctuate around? 150.

    Here's to good relationships and the art of listening.

    1. Well said. Here's to good relationships and the art of listening!

      1. some posts are so thoughtful and complete that it's hard to add to the discussion, so I thought I'd share my $0.02.

        I keep seeing more and more twitter-like usage from friends on Facebook and I wonder – what that means for twitter (considering all of what you have mentioned above).

        1. Honestly, that's a great question. Nate and I were talking about it, so I
          hope he'll chime in here shortly. On Friday night we were both talking about
          how we were using Facebook a lot more these days. In the end, we all crave
          intimacy, don't we? That's what I get from Facebook. Every single person I'm
          connected to there I know well so the status updates are meaningful to me
          and I don't feel so much of that Twitter burnout (velocity in FB is lower
          and there's virutally no self promotion, no marketing etc) – I think the
          additions of the twitter-like tagging is actually a great move on Facebook's
          part – they've taken the best thing about Twitter and implemented it in a
          place where the conversation was already well structured. With the addition
          of FriendFeed to their ranks…they could easily dominate.

          How much do you and the Adaptive Crew use Facebook compared to twitter? Any
          strong opinions in the office on the Twitter lists etc?

        2. Fraser, I agree with Steffan.. it's a great question. The things I enjoy about Facebook now is mostly the ability to follow a conversation thread all the way through. Watching statuses go by is serendipitous, but when I want consistent value, I have to give the kudos to Facebook (and blog posts and comments) for keeping on topic.

          1. Nate – I spoke to Fraser this morning about this and shared a lot of what you said on Friday. I'm actually a smidge *worried* for Twitter. People crave intimacy and connection, and unless you can deliver that consistently (and keep out spam, reduce impersonal information overload etc) people won't stay. There's also something to be said for Facebook status culture – people don't update 10 times a day, so the stream is slow and manageable. That is not true of Twitter. I wonder if Facebook's new tagging and conversational innovations that people will gravitate more to facebook and abandon twitter completely.

          2. Yea, I wouldn't be surprised. It'll be an interesting pendulum swing the other direction and probably the first time I've ever personally seen that kind of mass adoption and then mass exodus *back* to a service that's been known and used previously. That would be a big accomplishment for Facebook in my opinion, and very likely too.

          3. We'll have to discuss further over beers and tacos maybe? :-D

          4. That's how awesome things get done.

  3. Thank you for this! I've used Twitter to follow/connect with people whom I find interesting and also those whom I think honestly to be interested in my children's quilts and stories. I do not automaticaly follow back and get annoyed when I post a Tweet on topic “x” and suddenly 100 people who sell something related want to be my “friend” — I don't necessarily want to buy “x,” just Tweet something interesting that's happening.

    I'm up to 600 followers/following. About 75-100 of those are news and information only (Wall Street Journal, “experts” who are worth their Tweets [you being one], etc.) . I have been thinking that 600 is too many. I do want to continue to build relationships and listen to what people are “saying,” which to me is/was the value of Twitter. I cannot follow 600 and do it well.

    I have observed that the more people I follow, the fewer seem to click through to my blog or website, in absolute numbers as well as percentages. Since I do want to raise awareness of my product, and provide additional value on the blog, the usefulness to me of those Tweets is declining. I think people are getting jaded as Twitter has been taken over by marketing.

    It will be interesting to see whether the lists make a difference and whether Facebook begins to suffer from Twitteritis as it works to compete.

    1. Nancy – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You seem to be having a similar experience as many of us who are here to share information and connect with like-minded others. It'll be interesting to see how lists change how we follow people – you may want to create a list of people who are interested in children's quilts and stories!

      I've been playing with Twitter lists for a few hours and I've noticed that the lists, because they are user created and cannot be edited are devoid of spam – something that I didn't expect. The implementation is quite innovative. We'll continue to keep our eye on it and see how people adapt to the new feature. Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  4. I think this should be required reading for everyone. Excellent thought process backed up by your personal experience and hard data. Brilliant. Thank you.

    1. Thanks @mrdoornbos. Glad you enjoyed reading it.

  5. michellesilverman October 16, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Steffan great post! Like always you nail it! It iwll be interesting to see what happens with Twitter list the intimacy will probably come back!

    1. Thanks Michelle. I'm interested to see what happens as well. I've been playing with the beta for the last 24 hours. I'll let you know what I think the next time we chat.

  6. At BrandNewWorld we found it challenging to communicate to clients the right metrics for understanding social media's impact/performance, this is an exciting way of taking that conversation further than just reporting back, “This is how many new followers we got this week…”

    Great thinking.

    1. Thanks, Bud. Btw, you may want to check out the video I posted from Web 2.0 Expo on measuring social media conversation – I think you'll find it useful for having those talks with your clients. Good data from social scientists.

      http://www.vimeo.com/4004089

  7. My follower count also hovers around 150-200. I'm seeing higher clickthrough rates on my #book micro-reviews than you report, though. Out of 7K followers I get 300-500 people going to Amazon. I wonder what makes the difference?

    1. Kent – this is really really interesting. I'd love to chat with you about it offline sometime if you're game. It's likely that you've done so well at establishing yourself as a tribe leader in the programming space that you've become a trust agent. I also expect that your followers (programmers and alpha geeks?) have got a lot of social media experience, are following small groups of people they trust, and are seeking out your reviews. Thoughts?

  8. Thanks for a brilliant post, especially for those who are using Twitter for marketing purposes. To echo Fraser's sentiments, your insights poignantly demonstrate a fundamental yet not-often-remembered truth about marketing: it's the art of listening.

    Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for tweeting your post. Looking forward to spending some quality time here.

    1. Fraser's definitely got a talent for capturing good ideas as one liners. You're @scubagirl15 right? :) Just found you.

  9. great post, steffan. i was actually one of the people you unfollowed this weekend, and was a little sad to see you go. i've always valued your tweets and the links you shared even though we never interacted very much. in the end, though, i knew i'd still continue to find value in what you chose to share on twitter so i didn't get upset about it or unfollow you. this insight reveals a lot to me, as one of those people (who happened to actually be wondering about what had changed), and it's a great display of where Twitter's at today. I've tried both uses of twitter, the casual listener (my following count hovers in the low 100s and I only follow back if I'm actually interested in the other person's tweets), and the auto-reciprocate broadcaster. the data here about CTRs going down the more followers you have will help me a lot as I plan for twitter campaigns for other projects.

    1. Chris – Thanks for the kind words, and I hope that this has cleared up any confusion you had when I unfollowed you. I just couldn't hold the dam back anymore. That said, I'm really glad you left a comment because it helped me find you and connect – this is exactly what I want to use Twitter for. There's just no way to know who's actually listening and who's not when it's just a number and people are just reading – without the interaction, you might as well be a bot, you know? Now I'll be following you more closely, so don't be a stranger. Problem solved. :)

      1. adding you to my rss reader now, actually ;)

  10. Awesome post. Totally expresses the way I've felt about Twitter since I started last December. I never saw the value in auto following. I've always wanted to be able to keep up with my main stream and follow what each of those individual people that I expressed an interest in by following them.

    What's more I don't want someone to auto follow me. That whole trend has really decreased the value of what following someone is. I want to believe that when someone follows me, they have real interest in what I have to share and in engaging me. It's fine with me if someone doesn't want to follow me. I'm not interesting to everyone – not even close to everyone :)

    When people follow me, I look through their stream and analyze whether that's someone I might be interested in. If it is, I go for the follow. Could I have more followers if I autofollowed? Sure. But honestly I would be ok with my follower count dropping drastically if it showed me who was actually actively following me.

    Regardless I love the ideas and I hope you enjoy your new Twitter strategy :)

    1. Thanks Chris – So many people like you who've commented on this post have been doing Twitter the right way the whole time, so I find it humbling that you're taking the time to comment on this and not saying “DUH”!. I started out the right way and then I switched strategies when I saw the data and knew how to duplicate it – in retrospect this was a bad idea (because it takes your focus away from key relationships and makes you treat people like schools of fish rather than goldfish)…but I love experimenting with tech and I honestly had to know if the other way works. What I hope people get from this post is a clear story, backed up by data, showing that the numbers hype is fluff and meaningless and that the real value is still in focusing on people. The law of the few is still the key to success – human nature doesn't change when the technology does. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      1. Oh yeah I mean I wouldn't say you were doing things wrong. Because back when you started Twitter, the landscape was quite different. And I'd say that autofollow made sense. Now with all of the spammers and autofollow scripts that people use to build their numbers its just impractical.

        And I'm with you. I experiment with just about every little piece of tech I can even if I'm stumped as to how to use it. :)

        But I think it's all well backed up. It's really not a numbers game. Kind of like how Facebook isn't about who has the most friends. It's about the connections. Although for me, Facebook is generally for people I already have relationships with, while Twitter (and Friendfeed for the matter) is so great for finding new people with new ideas.

        I also think its crucial that people realize that a twitter follow != a facebook friendship. The initial relationship in facebook is merely a relationship, while on twitter it is simply one side saying they're interested in what the other might post. Now when I follow someone, I'm often hopeful that maybe that follow could create a relationship that would warrant a friendship on Facebook :)

        But enough rambling, I loved the article and am pretty amazed at some of those statistics. I've never really studied the analytics and how they relate to my follower count.

        1. Chris,

          You hit on an important point that I tried to stress in the beginning of the
          article. Reciprocity (following back) actually DID work in the earlier eras
          of Twitter. I think partly because it was new and exciting, and partly
          because of WHO was on it (the geeks and early adopters) and the culture and
          engagement they brought. Now it's a whole different ball game and it's not
          impractical. Thanks for recognizing the difference.

          Re: Twitter vs. Facebook. I've got a long article that talks specifically
          about the difference between Facebook and Twitter that mirrors the points
          you made in your comment. I'd happily continue the discussion with you on
          that post if you're game.

  11. I find Hootsuite very efficient to keep track of my links. It's a more organized version of TweetDeck. I recommend it. It has a great use of space for columns. ;) Great insight about the relationship building, although I try to engage a lot with different reporters, bloggers, etc. on Twitter, I rarely get a response.. Any thoughts?

    1. I do have some thoughts on this – I've used Hootsuite before – I tried using multiple accounts for a while because it made using Tweetdeck much more effective and allowed me to keep up with my strong relationships. On Twitter, though, engaging people without taking an active interest in them and helping them achieve their own goals is useless. No one cares. People want intimacy. They even sense when you pre-program tweets and are just broadcasting. Your posts have to always have a personal feel and you have to be conversational and never seem self-promotional. It's the only thing that will increase engagement. For bloggers – start by sharing their posts and commenting on their blogs – when you share on twitter, make sure to include “by @[bloggersname]” in the tweet. People appreciate when you give credit. They'll notice you that way and it's a much better way to start a conversation and build a relationship with them. If you just want to talk and they feel like you haven't been reading them or helping them get their content out there, they will suspect you want something from them without first providing them with value. Make sense?

      1. Sounds about right. I totally agree on your thoughts about intimacy on Facebook. I often feel that Twitter is just a listening device. Thanks for the quick response.

  12. Steffan-
    You continue to stay ahead of the curve in your understanding of human interaction and how technology affect it. Very very very valued learnings here that I will definitely take something away from.
    Cheers,
    Ryan

    1. Thanks for the kind words, man. I'll call you later to chat. I just got your questions over DM. It's going to take a phone conversation to answer them.

      1. As you would say… Word.

        1. I do say that, don't I? ;-)

        2. …. “I know! Right?” (that too). :)

          1. hahahha. yeah. you both got me. :)

  13. Hi Steffan,

    I like to say that listening leads to whispering. You only whisper with the people that matter. It's focused attention.

    Broadcasting is like screaming because attention dissipates when you scream. We humans automatically tune out the screamers.

    Your analysis backs this up.

    Back in June I made a list of people I listened to intently (64 people), I unfollowed over 1000 people and started back from scratch and then refollowed back the people on the list.

    Since then I've applied the follow the tweeps of others when I get recommended. Ex. If someone RT's something I posted and then others rt that and I get a follow I''ll follow them back. Same thing with #FF, those are filtered and may be of some value.

    Right now I have a good 1:1 ratio but still the SPAM is unbearable.

    I think this is and will always be a work in progress.

    Happy to listen!

    1. I like your take on this. Listening, whispering and shouting are good analogies. And yes, everyone's strategy is in constant beta ;-)

  14. Hi Steffan-

    I just e-mailed Nate that I felt the six degrees of separation today. Through a string of Twitter users and retweets, I came across your tweet that mentioned this article. Half way through reading, I see your mention of Nate, who is currenlty developing a website for me.

    I also let him know that, in trying to reach out with social media and create a buzz even before the launch date, I created a Twitter account and had the mindset that the more followers I could “get,” the more people would be aware of the site when it launched. That mindset has completely changed since reading this article…and I quoted the word “get” becuase it sounds so ridiculous to me now.

    I just wanted to give you a big THANK YOU for helping spawn that positive change. :)

    I'll for sure keep checking in here, because the comments and your replies and the overall discussion here is of even further value.

    I agree with @mrdoornbos in that this article should be read and embraced by everyone.

    Great work and thanks for sharing.

    -Ginette

    1. Ginette, let it be known that Steffan is smarter than he is proud. He's a humble guy, so I'll say this right… he's awesome. Mark this on your RSS feed or keep checking back. This guy knows what he's talking about. :)

      I'm glad you found this post, because it does help put the right ideas in your head about how to market your soon-to-be launched awesome site/app!

  15. HI Steffan,
    very interesting. I you went so deep into the subject.
    This geekely clarifies the obvious: real relations with real people is the real value :)
    Internet is becoming more interesting each day
    I'm glad you find this pattern

    1. Sebastian – it's great to see this kind of stuff backed up in the data. People chase numbers too often and fail to focus on real value.

      1. Yes, that's the value of your investigation.
        Social media technology is becoming more sociology than technology each day.
        I'd not be surprised if we end up needing a new profession: web app developers that are designers and socio-psychologists

  16. Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment Ginette. I'm glad you've found Nate and have chosen to work with him. He's one of the best developers out there and he's a solid person with tons of integrity. So happy you got a lot out of this article. I hope to see you in the comments here again in the future. btw – what's your Twitter account?

    1. Ginette Buffone October 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm

      I just saw a recent read of yours was Daniel Pink's, “A Whole New Mind.” I currently work at a private school up here in LA, and a consortium of independent schools booked him to speak to staff/faculty last Spring about the importance of moving education from the left-brained thinking to the right-brained thinking (empathy, creativity, meaning, deeper learning/understanding, playfulness)…and I think that idea ties right in with this discussion, where, with Twitter, it would be great to see the movement towards being personal and engaged in discussion…rather than being passive and a one-way stream.

      Loved reading through this discussion.

      -Ginette (@gbuffone)

  17. Thanks for this great post…

    I really like Twitter for keeping me updated “live” on some specialized topics + I love the possibility it enables to attend an event through a diversity of (wide) eyes/ears/senses (open): it is so enriching (e.g.: I attended an Oreilly seminar in Frankfurt this Tuesday and other people's tweets during the dashtagged event were giving me an accurate idea of what was going on in others groups… ubiquity is possible thanks to Twitter…).

    I get food for thought on Twitter, and this is possible because those I follow have a perspective which is:
    1) sharing “value-added” information – we look for debate, mind work even with people we know nothing about
    2) this piece of information we share with one another, is to become part of the “cloud” and should be channeled to ALL those potentially interested who respect such ecosystem. Spammers' accounts do not respect it and should therefore be shut down.

    Readers can be/are mostly passive. This does not mean that they are not interested in your Twitter posts – especially when they start following you… but they probably face the same difficulty as you did after a while: following too many and not managing to make sense of it anymore. The use of social media is rather impulsive and pushes us to follow new people every now and then, with the hope that our interests will be even better served – which we sincerely believe…but we keep following the “old” ones too, forgetting too easily that we have a limited amount of time to deal with the generated tweets stream.

    The real problem is that we need to prioritize and Twitter offers no tools so far for managing the necessary prioritization. Will Twitterlists help? I am skeptical – but I shall try the tool. Personally, I believe it is more a matter of acceptance (users) and enforcement (Twitter) of a series of rules proper to Twitter's ecosystem which should be better specified/implemented.

    1. Ruxandra – I love that you're a part of this discussion because you're almost definitely one of the first people I used to engage a lot on Twitter – and you're still here. A perfect illustration of exactly what I'm talking about. Thanks for taking time to join in.

      Re: your comment on seminars and that ambient awareness that Twitter gives you – totally agree. It's especially true at the O'Reilly seminars I think – I first noticed it at ETech in 08 and Web 2.0 '09. The use of hashtags etc keeps honest reactions and information flowing so you feel a connection between the audience floor and what's happening on the stages in each of the sessions. Love it.

      Please let me know how you find the Twitter lists and if you find useful best practices. Now that they've arrived and people are starting to play with them there will be significant amounts of adaptation and experimentation – so try stuff out and see what works!

  18. Thank you for the insight, information and thoughtfulness. I wasn't sure that “intimacy” is what I'm always after with Twitter. I've used it as a virtual university in many cases. But if I look back over my most meaningful interactions, there was a degree of intimacy involved.
    I'm a big fan of Nate's and I'm so glad he posted a link to this column. I still don't understand the big deal about lists, seems like those tools are already available. But part of what makes Social Media so rewarding and exciting is the constant challenge of closely held ideas and opinions.
    Thanks again. I look forward to reading more.

    1. Dorrine – you're right, “intimacy” might not be quite the right word. I'm trying to say connection and engagement. I also use Twitter to learn and listen a lot, but I find that the people I pay attention to most are the ones I trust (because I know them well or I know of them and trust their reputation etc). You're spot on with this…

      “what makes Social Media so rewarding and exciting is the constant challenge of closely held ideas and opinions.”

      Well said.

  19. yes, agreed, i've decided to focus on building quality relationships as well, not just quantity!

  20. This made a really nice change from the millions of “10 ways to use twitter to promote your blog” posts. I've always been a hopeless twitterer, and that's mostly because it seemed to me from the start everyone was talking and no one was listening as you mention in your article. Not to mention the horrible lack of interaction. I started using twitter again recently after a long hiatus and it seemed worse than ever..I thought it was me! lol but having had a look at my followers list which seems to be full of social media experts who are following gazillions of people I see that it really isn't. I would rather have 10 genuine and interested followers that I am interested in also, than 10,000 who aren't interested in a word I say.

  21. [...] ?? ?? ?????????? ??? ????? ????. ? Stefan Antonas ?? ??? ??????? ??? ????? ?????????? ??? ???????? ??? ?? ????? ??? ????? ????? [...]

  22. First point…excellent blog post on the current state of twitter…I'm passing on to all my close friends!

    As to my Twitter experience, I've never auto-followed or used any automated tool to get followers – I follow people I find interesting, and only follow new followers who are using Twitter to have conversations and build relationships. I was fortunate to connect with amazing people early on, did my best to communicate and share relevant links. The ride from zero to 500 took a while, but the subsequent climb from 500 to 5000 happened over just six months, then things tapered off this Spring.

    That change was not due to fewer new people following me, that number stayed constant, but because the ratio of people who actually use Twitter to build relationships (instead of broadcast spam) dropped from 90% to 5% – which is to say that I used to follow back 9 out of 10 new followers, but I'm now down to 1 out of 20.

    I haven't tried the reboot yet, as TweetDeck allows me to follow a reasonable subset of followers (where I spend 2/3 of my time) while allowing me to still see the entire stream when I want, but at times I'm tempted.

    1. Mark – You've hit the nail on the head right here…

      “That change was not due to fewer new people following me, that number
      stayed constant, but because the ratio of people who actually use Twitter to
      build relationships (instead of broadcast spam) dropped from 90% to 5%”.

      I noticed it happening in early summer myself. And I was dying to try
      rebooting for months. I'm actually glad I did though. Believe it or not, my
      click through rate has actually gone up (I'm connecting more with people
      that matter), my spam completely stopped and the utility I get out of
      Tweetdeck and lists is way up.

  23. [...] ?? ?? ?????????? ??? ????? ????. ? Stefan Antonas ?? ??? ??????? ??? ????? ?????????? ??? ???????? ??? ?? ????? ??? ????? ????? [...]

  24. Interesting that it took so many “experts” so long to figure out was obvious to so many of the masses right away: Following too many people on Twitter (and Facebook) kills it's value. I only follow people on Twitter from whom I can learn something new of value. When my Twitter gets over 75, and my Facebook gets over 200, I cull them back.

    1. I don't believe that the answer about the value (or lack thereof) of
      following lots of people is quite as obvious as you seem to think it is.
      Everyone uses Twitter a little bit differently – and if the ability to drive
      traffic in big numbers was supported by the data, a lot of people (including
      me) might be singing a different tune. While it seems intuitive that
      “following more than a few hundred people” kills the value, there are many
      tools out there like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite that allow you to filter your
      list for your favorite people, searches etc

  25. Great post, this is something I have been thinking and talking to folks about for some time, but never put into words.

    Since all Twitter posts are public and search is so easy to use, I find it is easier to look at tweets using search.

    I never bought on to the follow a million get followed by a million hype as a path to get rich quick.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, search is a great way to find the stuff
      you're interested in. filtering and focus on twitter to get value out of it
      is key. Hopefully we'll start to see more innovation around real time search
      in the months to come.

  26. Great post Steffan,

    I have considered unfollowing for a while now and I think this blog post pushed me over the edge.

    I was thinking If I un-follow all these broadcasters and spammers I can focus on connecting with more people and not have to digg through people to find those people to connect with.

    I think i'm going to do that soon, thanks for the blog post :)

    David

    1. David. I hope you do. Since I've limited my following, my click through rate
      is actually UP from before. I'm connecting with more people, I get
      absolutely no spam and I've been having a lot more fun. Good luck to you. If
      you need any advice on how to best go about rebooting, let me know. I'm
      happy to help.

  27. [...] Focusing On Value: How I’m Changing How I Use Twitter | Steffan AntonasAwesome, inspiring post. [...]

  28. [...] Focusing on Value: How I’m Changing How I Use Twitter This is one of the most substantive blog posts I’ve read in some time, and I especially like it because it addresses, in a very real and pragmatic way, how best to deal with Twitter users who spam. Bottom line, don’t auto-follow everyone back; and most importantly, un-follow all those affiliate marketers who are only trying to “capture” your dollars. [...]

  29. This is a valuable post, Steffan. Thanks so much for explaining the auto following. I was wondering what I was doing wrong with people to follow me and then un follow the next day. Because I wasn't auto following them back.

    Clay Hebert sent me over here and I'm glad. This is a great blog!

    1. Ozzy,

      Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you got something out of this post. Btw
      - love the tone of your blog. What a cool theme.

  30. Thanks man. Just started it a few months ago and its been fun. You into live music?

    1. Definitely. There's no better way to experience music IMO. Check my “7
      Things You Didn't Know About Me” Post that's linked in the sidebar for why.
      ;-)

  31. Steffan,

    I partially agree with you. I've been studying different twitter usage patterns and how the people I work with (professionals like lawyers, consultants and accountants) can use it to initiate and deepen relationships with the end goal of winning clients.

    I've also been experimenting myself with building a big following (currently around 35,000) to see what impact that has.

    Firstly a bit of nit-picking. bit.ly click through rates were very inaccurate in the early days. They way overstated clicks vs what I tracked via my site stats. So I'm not sure clickthrough rates have actually decreased. I think they may always have been very low and now they're just more accurately reported.

    In terms of being able to use twitter to get new clients, there are two very different strategies which work in different ways. The essence is that twitter is a communication mechanism just like paper. Some people use paper to write personal 1-1 letters. Others use it to send junk mail or print magazine ads. Both can work in different ways.

    The strategy that I've seen work best for most people (when I say people I mean my clients: lawyers, consultants, etc.) is to use twitter pretty much as you say – to build relationships with a small number of people. They often have as few as a few hundred followers – up to maybe a few thousand. But because they have meaningful interactions with those people over twitter, they deepen their relationships and eventually they communicate in other ways, have face to face meetings, and get hired.

    Even with the aid of tweetdeck and other automation, it's difficult to keep up with this level of interaction if you have many thousand followers. Believe me, I've tried. You have partial conversations – but if you return a day later, all the relevant tweets have been overwhelmed by messages from the other thousands of people you follow.

    What you can do is broadcast useful stuff – including the occasional link to your site. Your tweets end up being 80% broadcast and 20% interaction. It does drive traffic to your site. But as you say, given the very low click through rates (even when you're tweeting really useful, targeted stuff) you need a huge following to get a decent number of clicks. And a huge following makes it even harder to do deep interactions – it's a bit of a vicious circle.

    Once on your site though, visitors may sign up and return or subscribe to your newsletter. Once they're there it opens up the opportunity for deep interaction again – this time via email or maybe blog comments.

    But I would certainly advise anyone new to twitter to focus on building a small number of deep relationships rather than a huge following. Once you have a huge following your only options are to keep growing it to get more clicks, or to do what you've done and shrink down again (and potentially upset a whole bunch of folks).

    Ian

    1. Thanks, Ian for such a well thought out, detailed comment. I agree with
      almost all of what you said (especially your points about relationships,
      attention and scalability).

      A few things -

      #1 I am aware of the bit.ly issue, but I think it's somewhat of a moot point
      because of the huge degree of disparity between follower count and actual
      click throughs – even a basic approximation shows the reality clearly, so
      fine-tuned accuracy doesn't tell a drastically different story. I have been
      studying this phenomenon over a long period of time, across a lot of
      different links and users. Case in point – this post was Tweeted by Tim
      O'Reilly (+1 million followers) and retweeted over 100 times and I still
      only registered under 10K unique visitors that day in Google Analytics.

      #2 – Hitwise data backs up the sentiment that engagement on twitter is
      dropping off sharply.
      http://weblogs.hitwise.com/bill-tancer/2009/10/

      #3 – Lists further segment the “following” in the ecosystem, and reduce the
      potential for “incidental” clicks that big-following-seekers went for when
      we all only had one stream.

      #4 – the fact that big names (4 sited in the post) are dropping for a reason
      - i.e. they arent seeing engagement or value. If they're willing to risk
      ticking tons of people off (in Robert Scoble's case his total following was
      over 100K) you know something about the reciprocation model is either
      unsustainable or doesn't deliver value.

      #5 – The true risk you have that you'll “tick off a huge amount of folks if
      you reduce your following list to just the people you talk to anyway” is
      perceived (fear), not actual. True, there is some risk that someone will get
      pissed and go on a rant, but you should be maintaining following
      relationships with people you know and talk to anyway. If a user you dropped
      wasn't having conversations with you, and are just listening – nothing
      changes for them – they still follow you. They'll only notice that you're
      not following if they try to DM you…(hint:risk = low, especially if
      they've never done it before). Bottom line: The people who are listening and
      do care about you should stay on your list (you know who they are – the
      number is between 150 and 300 of them tops)). Everyone else should go in a
      list, or be dropped. Just as a matter of experience with the dropping – I
      did not get a single negative Tweet after I made the drop – and I even
      blogged about it.

      #6 My click through rate has decreased since drop, and my follower count is
      decreasing by a few followers a day, every day – this is what you were right
      about. In order to build your ability to drive traffic you have to go for a
      1:1 strategy. However, the number of new users you'll have to recruit to
      follow you using an “i follow you, you follow me” strategy in order to
      increase your average number of clicks per posted link is about 100:1 at
      first, and that ratio decreases (subject to decreased marginal gain) with
      every new user who follows you. If that's what you want to do…good luck to
      you.I chose a different approach ;-).

  32. Perspectives On Consultants Using Twitter…

    I don’t often point to comments in other blogs, but Ian Brodie shares some good perspectives on consultants using Twitter (link). It is worth a read if you are a professional consultant and trying to update your perspectives on Twitter……

  33. Hi Steffan,

    Good to see the other stats – that makes the case for decreased clickthroughs stronger.

    I'm still playing around with the clickthrough strategy – I get 10% of my blogs clicks from twitter so it's not an insubstantial amount. While I've got this many followers I might as well see what I can do with it. But certainly, if I was starting again I'd focus (as I said) on building a small, deep network.

    If I was to unfollow folks, it wouldn't be the masses (who aren't watching anyway) I'd worry about. It's the small number of people who I really want to engage with. I fear I might forget to keep them on my list and they'd notice. Probably just paranoia.

    I thought Erik J Heels did the right thing a few months ago when he mass unfollowed people. He did it in blocks of 1000 and essentially scanned each page of unfollows to make sure he wasn't canning someone important to him. But that took him ages.

    A further thought:

    the “deep relationship” strategy (I think) we agree is the best for most folks works (from a marketing perspective) because most of us sell things that require a relationship before people will by. Consultants, lawyers, trainers – people need to know you know what you're talking about and they can get on with you as a person before they'll buy from you. Twitter can do a fine job of this using the deep relationship strategy,

    But most of the internet marketers and “gurus” don't sell services – they sell a product: an ebook, video, software, a newsletter, etc. They talk about building a “list” (man, I hate that phrase – it totally dehumanises your clients) and then selling to it.

    So for them the “build a huge following” strategy is a natural extension of what they do with email marketing and the web anyway. And so that's what they tell other people they should be doing – even the majority for whom it's a totally inappropriate strategy.

    Ian

  34. Here's a great update – Anil Dash just wrote an awesome post about what it's like being on the Suggested User List. He's been on a steady climb to over 250K followers these last few weeks, and he wrote the following points in a post titled “Life On the List” that backs up everything that I've suspected about Twitter and written about here. Thanks much to Anil for his transparency and honesty.

    http://dashes.com/anil/2009/12/life-on-the-list

    Here are some quotes:

    “After just a few days of being on the list, though, I made an interesting discovery that offers a dramatic distinction from buying featured position in an online store: Being on Twitter's suggested user list makes no appreciable difference in the amount of retweets, replies, or clicks that I get.”

    “Once in a while, I get confused replies from people asking who the hell I am, but for the most part they don't interact with me at all. The replies, retweets and conversations that happen for me on Twitter have the same frequency and volume that they would have had if I'd never been added to the list. I'm sure celebrities (whether on the suggested user list or not) get a disproportionately high number of people trying to catch their attention, but for a normal person, being on the list just adds followers, not real connections.

    “Twitter followers who come from the suggested user list don't form real relationships or respond to the suggested users like “normal” followers do. If I'd have continued gaining followers at the rate I had been before being on the list, I'd have about 10% as many followers, but I suspect I'd have exactly the same number of replies and retweets. Before being on the list, a typical link that I tweeted would get between 250 and 500 clicks; After being on the list that hasn't changed at all.”

  35. Actually I only lost 7,000 when I unfollowed everyone (and since have gained almost 15,000 in just six months — all “real” followers).

    1. My mistake Robert – I thought you were around 110-115K when you did the drop. I'll make the correction in the post with a link to your comment. I tried to verify the number before writing this, but….well, you know. ;-).

  36. I can't believe I am just finding this. What a great post! I so am guilty of looking at my numbers to see how many followers I have when I should be focusing on listeners. Out of the 1800 or so people that are following me, I might interact with 50-75 a week, so lately I have been paying attention to who I interact with not how many are blindly following. I will stop talking and look around here. Nice space.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mom Noir. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

  37. I am so glad I found this Post. Thank you.
    I concur about the “numbers” and effectiveness
    of social Media such as Twitter.

    Even tough my Click through rates are around 10-12% consistently on each post with a Link, my platform records “Sales” and those numbers are VERY good.
    Sales in my vernacular is movement to any level, Opt-in to Newsletter, subscription to membership or RSS feed.
    My clients are very pleased with their Twitter “action” also, but we a “small Potatoes” keeping our Lists around 2,000-3,000 in our favorite niches.
    Twitter is Just one Cog in our wheel of Social networking, Off-line and On-line

  38. I am so glad I found this Post. Thank you.
    I concur about the “numbers” and effectiveness
    of social Media such as Twitter.

    Even tough my Click through rates are around 10-12% consistently on each post with a Link, my platform records “Sales” and those numbers are VERY good.
    Sales in my vernacular is movement to any level, Opt-in to Newsletter, subscription to membership or RSS feed.
    My clients are very pleased with their Twitter “action” also, but we a “small Potatoes” keeping our Lists around 2,000-3,000 in our favorite niches.
    Twitter is Just one Cog in our wheel of Social networking, Off-line and On-line

  39. [...] not the first person to say that automatically reciprocating all follows is a bad idea.  And probably, if all you want to do is set up hundreds of twitter accounts selling affiliate [...]

  40. [...] As with all forms of social networking tools online I would say that people need to have an interest in such an environment to begin with. Many people don’t read blogs yet, many are unaware of what RSS feeds are, Twitter would be an annoyance and FriendFeed just one more on the list. It is a very small fraction of the community that is using these tools but it is growing of course. I find FriendFeed of value to ask questions and engage a group of domain experts in discussion but the reality is that, for me, this is a tight knit community and I could engage the majority of them directly by email. I believe that Cameron Neylon and JC Bradley have had success in using FriendFeed to initiate projects and activities around funding applications. The truth is that there are so many groups to interact with and so many activities already underway for ChemSpider that I have backed away a little from all of these tools of late just because of time limitations. I’m focusing instead on building closer working relationships with a select group of people with whom I can get things done and produce an outcome or measurable output. I found that I was losing a lot of time in a week on conversations that didn’t lead anywhere. An interesting discussion was recently started here. [...]

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