[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.
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.
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:
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.