Popularity vs. Trust in Social Media

By Matt McGee on Sep 30, 2010

I struggle sometimes to explain to clients that it doesn’t really matter how many Twitter followers you have, and that getting people to click a “Like” button on your Facebook page doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve suddenly nailed the “trust” thing.

It’s better to have a smaller following that’s more loyal than a huge following of people who don’t really care, I say. But I fear that sometimes those words don’t sink in, because we learn from a young age that bigger is better when it comes to numbers. More, more, more.

social media influence & reach

So I’m quite glad to see some survey data and a wonderful article that I can share with clients in the future to back up the idea that being popular (i.e., having lots of followers) doesn’t automatically mean you have influence and trust.

The first thing is a chart from a recent Vocus study recent Vocus study on social media influencers. This question, about three hypothetical people and their “fans/friends/followers,” got what I’d call the “correct response” from 57% of the respondents.

To small business owners, I’d say this: It’s okay to only have 100 Twitter followers. In fact, it’s better to have 100 Twitter followers who love you and spread your name around to all their friends, than to have 1,000 followers who really don’t care one way or another about your company, products, or services. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of the 100.

How Do You Build a Strong Community of Followers?

For that, I’m going to send you elsewhere. Amber Naslund has written a wonderful blog post called 9 Ways To Build A Twitter Community With Substance. It’s both theoretical and practical, and I love this conclusion at the end:

Remember: Twitter is just the medium. These same principles apply across many things, online and off. It all – always – comes down to your honest intent to build a network of people to talk to, to learn from, to share with. ALL of this depends on your desire to use Twitter that way, and not just to amass a collection of people that you can pimp your junk.

Ah, Twitter. I keep seeing all these people saying “Yay! 1,000 followers!”. And then I get sad, because I think they’re really missing the point. Connecting with people is great, but don’t you want to connect with people who will enrich your experience overall?

Everyone uses Twitter differently and I get that. But I know what’s worked for me. Much of it hasn’t been deliberate or engineered, it’s just what makes natural sense to me. But in case there’s a tip or two in here, I agreed to post about my thoughts on building community on Twitter. Here’s my take.

1. Start With Twitter Search.

Go to search.twitter.com and type in a word or phrase that represents something you’re interested in. Try something like “I’m reading” to home in on people sharing the books they’re reading. Or how about “foodie” to find other culinarily-minded folks? Be creative. Try a bunch of different words. Then follow people who are talking about subjects and areas of interest for you.

Oh, and emphasis on talking; if they’re just dropping links and rarely carry on conversation with anyone, you aren’t going to get much out of the interaction and you’ll end up disappointed.

Go ahead and follow some of the usual suspects if you like, or find “recommended” follows from Twitter, but I’m much more of a fan of finding the like minds than the notable ones. They’re harder to find, but can really be the lifeblood of a great community. Many of my favorite Twitter friends aren’t on the big radar screens (and I hope they never are, lest I have to stand in line to talk to them!).

2. Tweet, even if no one’s watching

When people visit your profile page to decide whether or not to connect with you, what you have there gives them some dimension and perspective, even if only a few people are officially “following” you. Oh, and don’t forget to put up an avatar (of your face please, not a logo, my .02) and fill in the bio stuff. People notice, and it makes you instantly feel and seem like a real human who’s on Twitter to get to know people. That’ll attract like minds to give you a chance.

3. Look at other people’s lists.

Once you find a handful of people that you enjoy following, check out their lists. See who they follow. Look on their profile page and see who they’re replying to. Follow a few more people that look interesting, conversational, and engaged. You don’t want to mass follow hundreds – Twitter will suspect you’re a spam artist – but get started with 20 or 30 and get chatting. Already have a solid following? You need step 4.

4. Jump into conversations that look interesting.

The way Twitter gets good: you have to talk with people. The way to talk with people is to start interacting with them. If there’s an interesting or fun discussion going on, jump in! @ reply someone that you’ve never chatted with before and offer a contribution or a funny. Sometimes you’ll get ignored; that’s part of the deal, I’m afraid. But often times, folks on Twitter are very open, conversational, and eager to meet new people. This is public discourse, not a private chatroom. Consider yourself welcome.

There are tons of Twitter chats that happen regularly; find one in an area that interests you and jump in. They’re fast moving, but you’ll undoubtedly meet people and make some connections.

By the way, I’d hope it goes without saying, but “jumping in” doesn’t mean “hey I saw you tweeting about lawnmowers and I wanted you to see my new website! Check it out!”. That’s just irritating. If you don’t recognize that or see why people would find that annoying, your problem is more complicated than Twitter.

5. Lose your obsession over who’s following and who isnt.

A long while back, I talked about the fallacy of tools like Qwitter (those that tell you who stopped following you). There are some different perspectives in the comments, but overall I don’t recommend you waste too much time and energy over that part. It’s just a follow. A click. Not some demonstration of your worth as a human being. Twitter also does a good job of automatically and misguidedly unfollowing people when they clean out spam and such, which means some unfollows are totally unintentional.

I never, ever notice or pay attention to who unfollows me. I focus on participating in the community that wants to be there. If someone valuable goes away, I’ll notice and track them back down.

As for how many followers you have, remember these things. Twitter has a massive abandon rate, which means that many people will follow you and never return, never say a word, never see a thing you post. Twitter is also thick with spammers and auto-follow bots, so a good chunk of any of our follower counts are made up of complete garbage.

The numbers are inflated. They’re inaccurate. And while reach can be important depending on your goals for participation on Twitter, relevant reach is what matters, and that is only ever built with time and concerted participation.

6. Think farming.

Jay Baer wrote a good post about how social media is like farming. Twitter is very similar. The problem is that too few people have the patience to be a farmer. Cultivating the seeds of relationships and trust takes time. And you can’t shortcut it; if you don’t sow the seeds at the beginning of the year and tend to them properly, you’ll have nothing to harvest at the end of the season.

And there’s no last-minute shortcut that will fix that. You can’t just throw $99 at it and buy a field of crops to harvest, much less one that will support a crop the following year. Try to treat Twitter followers like bargains on a Walmart shelf, and that’s exactly the quality of the network you’ll end up with.

7. Don’t namedrop.

You don’t need to fish the pools of the “popular” to get people to notice you. Calling out celebrities or the Twitterati to bait them into some kind of conversation or to look at your blog isn’t going to do you much good. Bragging about the recognizable people you know or talk to or just had coffee with can easily come off as very (very) thinly veiled self-importance. Be gracious. Be humble. Be real and genuine. Focus on making real connections with real people, no matter who they are.

It’s easy to tell the difference between someone who really has their head in the game, and someone who’s just trying to get people to notice them. Really. We can tell.

8. Share stuff.

Some of my favorites to follow on Twitter are people who mix up conversational updates and back-and-forth with others with links to great stuff. Sometimes it’s a thought-provoking blog post. Other times it’s an article, or a video, or something just to make me laugh.

Twitter is like this micro-library of stuff wandering around for the finding. Share the stuff you find (in moderation). Being a resource to others is a great way to find common ground to talk about, kick around ideas, or open up new dialogue.

9. Have some personality.

The reason things like chat have always been so popular is that you can talk with real, live people over a computer. How cool is that! No crazy phone bills, you can talk to several people at once, and it’s fun to pick out the individual personalities, find the people who like the things you do, talk away about everything from work to life to the movie you just saw and hated.

Twitter is just the new version of chat. We didn’t want people in our AOL chat rooms selling us their “Make Money Online” course, either. With the exception I’m sure, we don’t love them in our Twitter stream. We just want to talk and get to know one another. Open doors. Find affinities. It’s really pretty simple at its core, but man do we try to make it way too complicated.

In Conclusion…

I get asked all the time how I “got all my followers”. I didn’t set out to amass a pile of people, but I set out to build a diverse, active network. In that sense, my secrets are these:

  • I did all the stuff above. Some I realized I was doing later.
  • I’ve never in my life asked for a follow unless I wanted to DM someone and couldn’t. I’ve NEVER begged for followers to reach some kind of “milestone”. It doesn’t matter.
  • I converse a lot, and I make it a point to be as responsive as I can. Look at my Twitter page, and you’ll see that the vast majority of my posts are replied to by other people.
  • I share my own posts about twice a day if I think they’re worth it. I share bunches of stuff from other people that I find interesting, informative, funny. But I’m not a link feed, either.
  • I’ve been doing this for over two and a half years, nearly every day. I’m present. I participate.
  • I try to be conversational, responsive, engaged, and polite. The same way I’d want people to be with me.
  • I started with zero followers, too.

That’s just my method. It seems so simple and obvious to me, but maybe it’s not.

Remember: Twitter is just the medium. These same principles apply across many things, online and off. It all – always – comes down to your honest intent to build a network of people to talk to, to learn from, to share with. ALL of this depends on your desire to use Twitter that way, and not just to amass a collection of people that you can pimp your junk to. Twitter can be a gateway to a much more dimensional relationship with people, or it can just be a means to a rather disappointing end.

Whether you have the patience, time, and desire to invest in it is really up to you.

Does that help? What would you add? What’s worked for you, and where are you still struggling? Let me know how I can help some more in the comments.

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