YEO – Why Twitter Follower Counts Mean Nothing

Ashton Kutcher is about to pass 1,000,000 followers on Twitter.

I’m happy for Ashton. I mean that. He plans to do some great things with the account and I hope he does. But you’re not Ashton Kutcher and neither am I. Unfortunately there are a whole slew of Twitter geniuses out there encouraging you to focus almost exclusively on getting as many followers as possible. It’s fools gold. And I’m about to illustrate why.

Getting followers is easy. Building a community is hard.

A phone call with Jim Marks about creating some fake accounts (an entirely different post) prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. People ask me constantly, “How do people get all of those followers on Twitter?” To which I answer, “if all you want is followers, I can get you 10,000 followers easy. Building a community is hard.”

I created two fake Twitter accounts.

@jwmont and @holachick are not real. Furthermore, 99% of their tweets were randomly generated.

I set both of these accounts up last Thursday. It took all of about 30 minutes to make up profile information and populate Twitterfeed.com with the RSS feeds that generated the random tweets to their accounts. @jwmont was set up to focus on iPhone twitter search results and @holachick was set up to focus on affiliate marketing twitter search results.

So, how did I get several thousand people to follow accounts that were simply a string of randomly generated status updates in less than a week?

Simple: I followed the followers of one (and only one) affiliate marketer who is using automated techniques to attract people to his particular version of snake oil. I did this manually on the first day. That resulted in just under 300 followers in less than 12 hours. So, I know it’s possible to achieve these results manually. I don’t have that kind of time. So, on the second day, Zeek Interactive wrote a script for me that automatically followed 100 of his followers every hour. That script is still running.

I also used Twengager to automatically find and follow anyone using the keywords “@mrtweet,” “affiliate,” “http://www.twiveaway.com,” and “twellow.” I chose those keywords because of the high probability that anyone using them would automatically follow the accounts back. Then, I deleted any of the accounts I followed who had not followed me back with 12-24 hours using Huitter.com. It’s that simple. No interaction. Very little time taken away from my day. Painless. Easy. And it worked just as I thought it would.

The Specifics

First, I set up their profiles to look like real people. And to help me focus, I used two of our advisory board members as my creative inspiration, Ginger Wilcox (@gingerw) and Kelley Koehler (@housechick). So, the twitter names for my two fake accounts became @gingerxyz and @casachick. No other similarities existed between their accounts.

I then found some stock photography to use in setting up their Twitter backgrounds, to give them some personality. Two photos for each. One used as a profile image, the second used as the background.

Then I began populating their stream with random status updates. The first day I used nothing but “off the shelf” tools. I used Tweetlater’s recurring tweet feature and filled it with randomly generated status updates from Generator Land. I did not edit them. I simply inserted whatever it generated. This later proved to be somewhat offensive, so some editing may have been of benefit and would not have compromised the randomness of this little test. I turned the Tweetlater updates off after two days and relied entirely on Twitterfeed.

Faking A Conversation

I set up the conversations by linking feeds from PerezHilton.com headlines and Twitter Search results, specifically targeting retweets. The goal, make it look as if these accounts were doing the retweeting. Some of the Twitterfeed links were set up to act as if they were engaging in a conversation with the second account. Like the one displayed to the right. It was pointed at a “Brainy Quotes” and updated every 30 minutes with an “@user” message prefix. The second account was then set up to fake the RT of the exact message at the exact same time.

I could have set this to be less obvious. If anyone were paying attention they would have recognized the pattern. But only two people, @mrdave2176 and @theebayk1d, in the thousands and thousands that were followed, noticed the pattern.

C. David Dent sent a direct message to one of the accounts asking for an explanation of why the two were broadcasting the same tweets at the same time. I then engaged him on my real twitter account and found that he had written about the necessity of paying attention to pattern recognition in his post, “Twitter Will Send You To Hell.

He writes, “For myself I think we will find new ways to consider information. I, long ago, started to process information as a stream, letting me see a trend or looking for places where the stream deviated from the expected pattern.” He obviously employed those techniques in perceiving these accounts were fake. Thousands did not.

Thousands of followers.
No one really paying attention.

How do I know this for a fact? Because I changed the names on the accounts three times. And on the account that originally started as @gingerxyz, that account was changed to Racquel Montana (@racquelmontana) and then from a woman to a man – Jonathon Montana (@jwmont). Again, only one person seemed to notice – @pd78, Paul Dennis.

And yet…

After one day, both were recommended several times on #followfriday as people who other users would recommend to follow. People retweeted their random tweets. @jwmont was actually recommended on @mrtweet as a great source of iPhone information. And the venerable Twitter Grader gives them both scores close to 99 out of 100. So it’s easy to see why people get caught up in the follower number game.

And perhaps the saddest turn of events in this entire experiment is this: @jaimeskelton included the fake @holachick account in the same #women2follow tweet as @pistachio. Are you kidding me? I’m a huge Laura Fitton fan. Because she is a true Social Media thought leader. The fact that someone could include this fake account in the same 140 characters as Laura shows how little attention is being paid in these recommendations.

Followers without engagement is worthless.

I see it multiple times every day. Someone, like the guy to the right, follows me who has been on Twitter for less than 60 days and has amassed a ludicrous number of followers. His twitter stream is nothing more than a laundry list of money making schemes.

I explained what I was doing with these accounts to Jay Thompson, a real estate agent in Phoenix, AZ and he said, “I love Twitter, but I’m concerned about the spam and scams and the obsession with “follower count.” The obsession with follower count is the most disturbing to me.”

And it’s disturbing to me as well.

There is a huge difference between a follower and someone who is engaged and listening to what you have to say. The words the online sites use, like “followers” on Twitter and “friends” on Facebook, have drastically different meanings inside those networks than they do in offline relationships. So, psychologically, we give them meaning and power they don’t deserve to have. And when some guru says get more followers we say, “more followers must be better.” That’s not necessarily true, as these accounts clearly prove. We must shift our focus from the words that drive our focus on numbers to the results we want to achieve from our efforts.

It’s all about YEO – You Engaging Others. It is better to have 100 truly engaged, targeted followers, people who are listening to you, care about what you’re saying and are willing to act on your behalf, than 10,000 who wouldn’t notice if you changed your gender.

There is a place for “automation.”

This post is not meant to disparage the highly useful tools used in the creation of these fake accounts, like Twengager and Twitterfeed. Both Twenegager and Twitterfeed are excellent services when the focus is right. The goal of this post is to illustrate the ludicrous and all-too-common extreme of focusing only on numbers and missing the entire point of social media – being social.

In future posts, I’m going to be illustrating how using these same tools with a focus on YEO can make a huge difference in our ability to engage your clients. But I’d like you to take a moment to go look at your own Twitter stream. Are you having real conversations? Are you making an honest attempt to build relationships and engage your followers? Or do you look more similar to these fake accounts?

If it’s the latter, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to rethink the way you’re using Twitter. Stop focusing on numbers. Start focusing on engagement.