How to Win at the Game of Twitter or: Making Your Numbers Bigger and How That Shouldn't Be What We're Focused On

Today, I want to talk about humans’ fascination with making their numbers bigger. As a gamer, I think I run with a crowd who are more obsessed with this notion than the general population but the psychological root of the issue is the same for everyone: we like getting more. We want to be bigger and better. We see and seek out competition in the most inane places and that single-minded focus quite often is detrimental to achieving a much more worthwhile and valuable goal.

For today’s blog post, I’m specifically talking about Twitter and how so many accounts lose sight of creating quality content for their Followers because all they are about is getting more.

I work for a gaming studio running their community and social media initiatives. As such, I spend a lot of time on Twitter. (I also happen to be in love with Twitter, but we’ll get to why I think it’s an awesome platform a little bit later.) My profession and affinity for Twitter also causes me to find amazing uses of Twitter (I’m looking at you @OldSpice. I also praise the hilarious (even when they are inadvertently hilarious) like @CLEATUSonFox or @SeinfeldToday. But with the good comes the bad – and when Twitters are bad they are sometimes very, very bad.

But Elizabeth, you say, Twitter person Y has 75,000 Followers! Clearly, your “quality over quantity” thesis is admirable and altruistic but it clearly isn’t the way the world works.

Okay, let’s break this down. Sure, there are famous people out there that will amass tons of fans no matter what: Justin Bieber’s Twitter is completely inane to me but I respect the fact that 34 million people feel differently. Sure, there are people who get a glorious retweet from a respected person (like that gal Conan O’Brian followed) and suddenly have a fan base. There are also brands who purchase advertising through Twitter to boost their engagement and numbers (it’s still tricky for this to be viable for individuals.) Full disclosure: I use advertising for the brands I work with. And while it’s another blog post entirely, I’ll just say that you can go the cheap and fast route and make your numbers bigger with advertising or you can target and focus your ads to act as a megaphone and bring more qualified people to the party. It really depends on how you work the system.

There is also a fourth category of person: someone who buys Followers who aren’t real. Mitt Romney’s Twitter did this. That didn’t work out well for him.

So what was the catalyst that got me thinking about the state of Twitter affairs and prompted me to write this blog post? Two things happened, actually: the first is that Season Three of League of Legends started, complete with an entirely remade ranking system that hides Elo ratings. Layered over Elo is now a very clever ladder system and makes your number bigger in bite-sized (and much more achievable) chunks that makes Ranked play absolutely addictive. (I have fallen hook-line-and-sinker for this ploy and think about getting to my next division a frightening amount.)

The second thing that got me thinking about this topic was due to something that happened with a colleague’s Twitter specifically: a couple weeks ago, I saw a tweet from a friend who works in the same field as myself, admiring that a third social media professional’s Follower count. As someone who loves making numbers bigger, I was fascinated: this guy had gone from a hundred or so Followers to somewhere in the range of 20,000 in a matter of days. More impressively: there wasn’t a Conan O’Brien connection to be found nor was there a tweet from this person that had cause a flood of retweets, spreading something he said over a spidery network that is social media. And, knowing these folks were honorable and decent, I knew they didn’t fall into the dreaded Mitt Romney category: so it had to be magic, right?

No. Not magic. Actually, it turned out, his account had been compromised. In these rare cases, bots take over your account and follow other bots on a massive scale for the purpose of spamming real people's Twitter accounts. If this happens over a weekend and you aren’t neurotic like myself, you very well might not notice the issue for several days and then, voila! Magical legion of Twitter followers.

I told this tale of the nefarious bot network to Greg, my good friend (who also happens to work for me as my resident social media expert.) To me, this was a story that went from amazing to really unfortunate in the span of a couple seconds. He, however, gave it some thought and said “if you could pay $1,000 or have your account hacked for a weekend and instantly have 30,000 followers, would you do it?” ($1,000 for that many Followers would be a steal, by the way.)

Ergo: blog post.

My gut instinct was “hell no” to which Greg parlayed with something like “but now that guy has 30,000 Followers. Anyone who goes to his Twitter will think he’s important and be more likely to follow him. No one can tell they are all fake.”

And that is a very valid point (and probably why no one would ever try very hard to have those accounts removed.) There’s a psychological draw to big numbers. People are way more likely to Like a Facebook page or Follow a Twitter account with 100,000 fans rather than 1,000. No one wants to miss out on the next big thing and the fastest way to show people you ARE the next big thing is to have a big number. (This is also a large piece of the core psychology that made Facebook and Twitter ads so big, so fast.) But beyond this gut instinct of not wanting to be the last guy at the big party, what do these big numbers get you? If you don’t post interesting things, real people won’t come to party with the bots.

There are a couple reasons why so many Twitter accounts (both professional and personal) are not interesting and might even be annoying. Sometimes it’s because people don’t know how to use social media or because they don’t realize what people actually want to see and hear. More often, however, it’s because people have lost sight of why you use Twitter. People post to accounts with the goal of acquiring new fans. Their tweets are aimed at making their Follower number bigger. This is absolutely the opposite of what you should do on Twitter. When you tweet, you send out a message to the timelines of people already following you. That means that they are already signed up to listen to you. Twitter’s strength lies in fostering conversations with people who want to engage with you. If you want to make your number bigger, you have to forget about that number and master being interesting and informative towards your already subscribed user base. So instead of saying “Follow X and get this free doohickey!” you post cool content and (gasp) reply to people who talk to or about you. By doing this, your numbers will get bigger as a matter of course. Sure, they’ll grow at a slower rate than if you give away codes or gadgets - but at the end of the day, the quality of the people who follow you will be much higher, much more likely to talk with and about you, and most importantly they will likely retweet what you have to say.

And this, my friends, is how you make your number bigger and win at the game of Twitter. You need to talk to people, not at them, and care about the people who already like you instead of ignoring them and focusing on everyone else in the world who doesn’t give a shit yet. This is how strike that proverbial “viral marketing” gold mine. People will share your content with their social graphs and thus, your will content spread to other like-minded individuals who have a much higher probability of also wanting to hear what you have to say on a regular basis. Why does this happen? Because you are good at what you do, your tweets are worthwhile, and people sign up for things that are quality. In the game of Twitter, you can’t actually succeed with cheap tricks and cons: you might think that you'll get a massive following by retweeting your Twitter name repeatedly on a brand account with a larger following but if your tweets are dull the net result will quite possibly be that people will stop following the brand. Even if you think your consumers and fans are mindless sheep, they aren’t. I mean, I don’t think I’m a mindless sheep. Do you think you are that? If you are insulted when brands you see pull stunts like that, you should smack yourself in the face before trying them on your own customers.

At the time of writing this, I have 2,598 Followers. That's not a ton in the grand scheme of things, but I'm proud of it. And (at the risk of sounding arrogant, which is the last thing I want: humility is a virtue, particularly in this field) this is how I think I've gotten to where I am and how I intend to grow. I'm a prominent spokesperson in the gaming industry (giving me the bonus in that I can give out codes, tweet behind the scenes pictures, and very rarely breaking something resembling news.) This isn't how I got my audience, though: the majority of my Followers don’t come in waves around the announcement of a game or me dropping a beta code. They come in groups of 3 or 4 on a daily basis. I hope this is because I try very hard to post links and pictures that are interesting, to be witty whenever possible, and reply back to just about every damned person who tweets to me. I’ve concocted a fairly strict set of rules on how I think a personal Twitter account should be and another subset of rules that helps me decide when something concerning work should be on a professional account or my own account (and when, in rare instances, a professional account should retweet what I say.) I do this because I believe that every Twitter account I control, be it brand or personal, should adhere to the core principles I detailed above. Be interesting. Focus on the people you already have. Talk to, not at, them. Stop trying to make your number bigger – it turns people off and makes you sound fake. If you want to win at the game of Twitter, channel Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

1 Comment on "How to Win at the Game of Twitter or: Making Your Numbers Bigger and How That Shouldn't Be What We're Focused On"

Feb 11, 2013 at 6:12pm
Wow! Really, really smart.

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