By Eric T. Tung We’ve all been lured by the appeal of becoming “internet-famous,” an instant celebrity online. Having hundreds of thousands or millions of followers has become a status symbol, not only for companies but for individuals as well. News reports track which political candidates have the most followers, and countless marketing teams track follower counts as a key metric. Even job applicants can be judged by social influence, crudely drawn from follower counts. [caption id="attachment_2212" align="alignright" width="150"]Eric Tung Eric Tung[/caption] To answer this need, a variety of methods have sprung up, with varying degrees of success and risk involved to obtain followers. So how do these methods work, and what are some of the risks and alternatives? Let’s start by taking a look at the various methods used to understand the intricacies and nuances between various methods of obtaining followers. There are three general ways that people engage in non-organic follower growth:
  1. Buying Bulk Followers – The most black-hat of all methods, buying followers typically involves paying a “click-farm” around $10 for 1,000 to 10,000 followers. Most of these organizations are based overseas, and often rely on software to add thousands of fake “bot” followers to your ranks. These followers are hollow shell accounts, who often don’t engage, tweet, or even have any followers of their own. Transactions are normally completed in 5-15 days. Buying followers is the least reliable method and the most risky when it comes to Twitter’s terms and is basically grounds for being black-listed within the social media community.
  2. Follow/UnFollow – This method involves following hundreds of accounts, in hopes that 10-20% will follow you back. “Return on Relationship” author Ted Rubin, and Switch & Shift Social Media consultant, Ted Coine, support this method and explain on their blogs here and here. This method can yield up to 2,500-5,000 followers a month, and can be aided with software costing $10-$40 a month. Some agencies even offer to perform these tasks for you. Perhaps it’s more expensive and time-consuming, but this method is more likely to yield engaging, real followers compared to the bulk-followers method, especially if well-targeted. Many within the social media industry still frown upon follow & unfollowing as it can be a form of spam.
  3. Twitter Advertising – The most legitimate method of generating Twitter Followers is also one of Twitter’s sole sources of revenue, promoted accounts. These ads can be purchased by businesses and individuals alike, and can be targeted towards “people similar” to followers of particular users. Promotions can also be geo-targeted to accounts within certain countries, states, and even metropolitan areas. Expect to spend $0.25-$2.00 per follower, depending on targeting and whether you’ve commissioned your agency to do the work for you. I’ve been able to get followers for as little as $0.02 per follower. More at [caption id="attachment_2213" align="alignright" width="150"]Twitter's promoted profile Twitter's promoted profiles[/caption]
Why Buying Bulk-Followers and Follow/Unfollow Methods May Be Risky Sure there can be benefits from artificially inflating follower counts, from appearing to have a larger community for your company, to having more influence personally. Here are just a few reasons you might think twice about it.
  • Account Suspension or Deletion – Buying Bulk-Followers is explicitly labeled as spam by Twitter, including “Purchasing followers; Using or promoting third-party sites that claim to get you more followers.” Even Follow/Unfollowing is regarded as spam by Twitter, “If you have followed and/or unfollowed large amounts of users in a short time period, particularly by automated means” and specifically calls out people using Follow/Unfollow to gain followers: “If you repeatedly follow and unfollow people, whether to build followers or to garner more attention for your profile.” All of these are grounds for account suspension.
  • Account Security: Some bulk-follow services, and almost all follow/unfollow services require your username and password, or at least authentication into your Twitter account. This has the possibility of compromising your account at the least, or could be maliciously used by the third-party groups themselves. Don’t risk an account hack for trying to get a few new followers.
  • Reputation: It’s fairly easy for others to find the number of fake followers following your account. In the lead-up to the 2012 Presidential elections, Newt Gingrich repeatedly claimed he had “six times as many Twitter followers as all the other candidates combined.” It was later revealed that as many as 92% of Newt’s followers were fake. Don’t risk the public humiliation that can come with buying followers, or blacklisting from the social media community.
  • Engagement: Having fake followers doesn’t just put your account at risk, it can actually decrease the amount of engagement you would have received organically, leading to a decrease in the real followers you actually want to engage with. The cause is two-fold. Firstly, people in your feed will often not be in your language, in your industry, or related to your interests, so you’ll probably decrease your engagement overall. Secondly, Twitter’s algorithms to determine which accounts to feature under “Who to Follow” or the “Discover Tab” are based on the amount of engagement you and your tweets get.
  • Follower Loss: Some fake follower purchasers noted as high as 75% follower loss, typically several months. This may not be due to being unfollowed, but rather that the fake accounts are being tagged and removed by Twitter. Thus, you may end up with considerably fewer followers than you bargained for. [caption id="attachment_2214" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Fakefollowers SocialBakers’ fake followers check can be used to check accounts for large numbers of fake followers. SocialBakers says that 90% or better is recommended.[/caption]

How You can Grow Your Followers Purely Organically

Just like organic produce comes at a premium, an organic Twitter following is more valuable as well.
  • Target Industry: The best followers are those who are interested in your company or industry. Follow influencers within your community, engage with them and their content and share valuable advice and thoughts. Tools like insightpool even make it easy to “Venn Diagram” followers to determine who might be potential targets. If you’re a golf club in LA, you might see which followers of the PGA also follow the Mayor of LA and get a good prospective list.
  • Engage in TweetChats: Tweetchats are a great way to engage with members of your community and increase your own influence. A quick Google search can usually pinpoint the top tweetchats in your industry. Create an meeting invite for yourself to block off the time to attend!
  • Use Hashtags: Hashtags are more than ways to make fun of social media employees (a la “Jack in the Box Social Media Intern”), it can be a serious way to make an impact on your brand. Use hashtags for any conferences or events. In many ways, you can even use hashtags to the mutual benefit of competitors and partners, like my employer, BMC Software has done with #Mainframe50, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the mainframe. Competitors like CA Technologies and partners like IBM have begun to use the hashtag and have made the conversation richer for everyone.
  • Peak Times: It’s pretty obvious that you wouldn’t send a promotional email at 2AM – no one would read it. But at what times during the day do your tweets make the most impact? Several sources have various times depending on time zone, industry and other factors, but why not take a look at your own data to find out when you gain the most activity in retweets, replies or clicks through to maximize your effort. Many free platforms like HootSuite, Buffer App can help you track your stats.
  • Promote Your Handle: Don’t have your Twitter handle on your business card? You should! Also, add it to presentation slides at conferences, on your LinkedIn profile and in your email signature. What about your website and blog? If you have a corporate handle, you should consider that as well.
  • Produce Original Content: Perhaps the best way to build influence and an organic following is to create original content. Whether through surveys, interviews, or even personal thoughts, sharing your original content through blog posts, videos, podcasts and other mediums will offer the best opportunities for sharing.
In the end, organic follower growth will offer the most engaged, helpful and beneficial community for you or your company. Paying for followers may artificially boost your numbers, but will lead to a stagnant and fairly worthless group of followers. What are some of your favorite methods for growing your community? Share in the comments below. Eric T. Tung (@EricTTung) is social media manager and trainer at BMC Software as well as a social media strategist, blogger and speaker based in Houston, Texas. The postings in this blog belong to Eric and do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of BMC Software. Featured photo courtesy of Rosaura Ochoa.