Monday, December 10

Let Me Check the Numbers: Is it Possible to Have Too Many Twitter Followers?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Social media is a numbers game. How many followers or friends you have, how often you tweet, who listens and re-tweets. It's maddening. It's also been proven that things that get measured are the things people will focus on. So the focus is on how many, not how valuable.

There's no way to quantify whether or not you have "good" followers or just a number. An author with 678 followers where every single one goes out of their way to help promote that author has a far more valuable social network than an author with 12,325 followers who never do anything to help promote their work.

Yet we view the 12K author as more successful.

High numbers look good, but what's the actual value to them?

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about already successful authors. If you're a bestselling author your numbers are people who already like you and want to hear from you. I'm talking more about those still building their social network who work hard to raise their numbers without knowing if those numbers are actually helping them.

For example, I've had folks with high numbers follow me who are clearly doing it to get more followers. The old "follow me I'll follow you" deal. Their bio has nothing to do with writing or books, and their tweets have nothing to do with what I tweet about. They're most likely following me just for the number, and in most cases, when I don't follow back they unfollow me. It's gotten so prevalent, that I rarely follow someone with mega-high numbers anymore.

I chat more with folks with lower numbers than higher, because we actually see each other's Tweets and respond. (No one can keep up with hundreds of tweets per minute in their feed.) I get to know those lower-number folks and thus retweet their comments or start reading (and tweeting) their blogs.

I recently agreed to read an ARC for a possible blurb due to a tweet by a fellow blogger I retweeted. Random connection, mutually beneficial outcome. She'll be a guest on this blog when her book comes out next year. A great example of social media that worked, and not because of our number of followers.

When I first joined Twitter, I got excited when someone with 65,000 followers tweeted one of my blog posts one day. I thought, "Wow, 65,000 people are going to see that link! My numbers are going to spike!"

My blog numbers didn't change. Having that huge-number person tweet me didn't do squat to drive traffic to my blog. It was a very nice thing to do and I appreciated that person sharing it, but one tweet by one person (unless they're famous or some other out-of-the-ordinary thing) isn't likely to affect traffic. There's just too much out there for one tweet to stand out.

But my numbers have been steadily rising since I started tweeting writing links all day, and started connecting more with fellow writers and book bloggers. Most of them have smaller numbers of followers, so when they retweet, people see it. October was my biggest blog month ever numbers-wise, and I recently hit the one million views mark.

(More on my Twitter experiment here)

I believe this success is because I'm offering something of value to people who see it, appreciate it, and are generous enough to pass it on. (for which I'm eternally grateful and appreciative). The fact that most of these people have lower Twitter follows means to me, that they're real people connecting with other real people, not just number hogs.

I notice my number bias now when I decide whom to follow back.

If you're a writer, I'll follow you back because my goal is to connect with other writers. But I'll check your feed first and see what you tweet about. If they're all "buy my book" tweets, I won't follow you. You've clearly established that Twitter is there for you to spam others. I don't need that in my feed, and from a purely selfish marketing standpoint, if you're too busy spamming your own work, you won't mention mine. You offer me nothing, so why should I be just one more number on your tally.

I'll also skip following someone with a huge number of followers with low tweets. This I can't figure out, because how can someone get 95,000 followers if they've only ever tweeted 135 times. (Unless they're famous already) Again, there's no social media value to those numbers. It's folks following and auto-following back.

An author with huge numbers? Unless you're someone I know or have met face to face, (or I just want to hear what you have to say) odds are I won't follow you, because you obviously don't need my help to promote your work. Plus, you have so many fans the odds of connecting with you are slim. You're already getting bombarded with folks hoping you'll tweet their stuff or mention their book. I imagine there's a lot of tweet overload on someone with five-figure-(or higher) numbers. I can't possibly keep up with all mine and I'm just under 7K.

If numbers are all you care about, then those numbers are meaningless. You won't be offering anything of value to those followers, and your tweets will be one more piece of spam lost in a daily feed.

Look at who you chat with, who retweets you, who you connect with and share with on a daily basis. Those are the people you will most likely help, and who will most likely help you. They're the ones you remember because you interact with them.

It's about quality, not quantity. And honestly, it might not even be that big a deal overall. The Intern had an eye-opening post about an author who deleted her entire online presence as a test. It's a post I think about every time I feel pressured to take time away from writing to do online marketing.

The goal of an author is to reach readers. If all of our numbers are actual readers, then that's fantastic and valuable. High numbers in those cases are good things. But how many really are our readers, and how many are folks trying to bulk up their numbers? There's software out there that says it can tell you, but it's can't. Not unless it knows which of your followers bought your book or helped market you.

It really makes me think.
  • Does there come a point when the number of followers makes it impossible to beneficially connect with those followers?
  • Should we be striving for meaningful connections and forget the numbers?
  • Should we pay more attention to lower number "real" people and less on big-number marketing folks?
  • How do you decide who to follow, and how much do you actually pay attention to what they say once you do follow them?
  • How many people do you actually interact with on a regular basis?
What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. I hate number hogs. They're one of my very few internet peeves. Unless they have a portfolio that speaks for itself, big follower numbers just reek of shallow and annoying, and possibly bought fake followers.

    I generally only follow people who have a descriptive bio and tweet other things than just links to their own blogs. This is my rule of thumb.
    Bios with more hashtags than words, and repetitive tweets about BUY MY BOOK or NEW POST, are a definite turn-off for me.
    And writers who upon being followed spit automatic private messages sending me to like their FB page or buy their staggering work of genius on Amazon, are immediately unfollowed. I want to connect with people, not marketing machines, thank you. I'd rather they didn't thank me for following at all, than those automatic DMs.

    Great post, Janice, and freaktastically awesome blog! Love coming here! :)

  2. I'm also suspect of people with like 20,000 followers and all fo a sudden follow me when I don't know them. How can we really connect?

    If I talk to a person and they're nice, I follow. Or if someone follows me, I always see what they're tweeting about and read their bio first. If they seem nice or interesting, I follow.

  3. This is all very interesting because I'm not on Twitter and thinking of joining next year. To be honest, I worry about having time to have tweet conversations since I work full-time and spend so much time reading blogs. But I'll probably try it and watch people like you to see how it's done.

  4. Vero, I hadn't thought about the hashtag bios, but you're right. A dead giveaway there. Grr, those auto sales DMs irk me too.

    Good to have you here!

    Jennifer, that's pretty much what I do as well. I also add new folks I chat with to a list so I can check back and see what's up with them. It's easy to chat once and never hear from someone again.

    Natalie, it really doesn't take that much time. You might try tweeting something to start conversations (I typically tweet a hello and a question when I log in for my chat time) and then doing something you're online for anyway, like checking email, or checking your twitter feed and friends' lists. Folks tweet back (most times) and you can chat for a bit.

    Or you'll see conversations going on and join in (the mywana and various writing hashtags are good for this). Or reply to folks
    who tweeted you.

    20-30 minutes is more than enough, and that's easy to do when you do other things with it. Like you could start with Twitter, then read your blogs and tweet back as folks reply.

  5. I only follow 66. I started auto following for about month in September and felt like
    I was weeding junk mail all day. So I follow people who also write or who are in the publishing industry. I feel like I'm still on the newbie learning curve. As I see things that are interesting or helpful, I retweet. I also mention when I post on my blog. I also follow quite a few lit. agents. This helps me get to know the "scary" person I'm about to query.

  6. Yes, absolutely, you can have too many. Like you, when I see double digit numbers on someone who has followed me, I assume they are number grabbers. Unless they are bestselling, famous, or an editor/agent/etc., they don't get a follow back.

    And I do follow a lot of people back if they aren't book spamming, don't have crazy follower numbers, and seem to have interests that may match with mine, but it IS hard to follow a lot of people. Especially now, my old tweetdeck seems to be getting buggy and the new version is that constant streaming. I definitely can't keep up with that speed and see anyone's tweets. So I see myself following less people in the future and making even more use of lists so I can see who I want to see.

    Congrats on hitting the million mark! :D

  7. Amelia, hehe that's a good idea about the agents. I read their blogs for the same reason. It's nice that writers can "meet" the agents in such an informal arena.

    Roni, thanks! I've found lists really helpful for keeping followers organized. Depending on how much time I have to spend online, I can follow/check as many list as I need. I have lists for friends, folks I chat with (who often end up on the friends list before too long), commenters on the blog (ditto), business type stuff (folks in the biz in some way), etc. Makes it more manageable.

  8. I think Twitter is too much "If you give a mouse a cookie" for me.I read a tweet and oh, look! What a great post it links to (and I read it all) and then that post has a link to another post and another, and before I know it, it's 1:30, my stomach's growling and I haven't produced a word yet (unless you count blog comments).

    I keep a toe in Twitter but when I go all in, it's not long before I feel like I'm drowning in tweets!

    (Having said that, thought the INTERN blog post was very interesting--I've read before that old-fashioned word-of-mouth is a powerful selling tool, and I believe that's the truth. I buy books from writer friends I know, either personally or because I've built up an online relationship. If I've read about a great book from a big-name author, and I want to read it, I go to the library.)

  9. I just joined Twitter about a week ago, and it was to enter a writing contest. I followed a few authors (including you, Janice!) whose blogs I already read regularly. I don't feel like I have much to say on Twitter. But I will retweet a particularly good article. Cathy-I agree with you...I link to something that looks interesting and that sends me somewhere else, and somewhere else. And then I'm thinking, wow, I've spent 45 minutes reading this stuff. And who are these people anyway? That said, I'll probably stay on Twitter, I just don't know that I'll be doing much besides retweeting.

  10. Cathy, oo that has happened to me as well. Everyone says word of mouth is the only thing that reliably sells books, and I believe it. Twitter can take some figuring out, but I do enjoy it now. Once you find the best way to interact with it, its much easier to manage.

    HCRaglin, I've found Twitter is a lot of fun when I set aside chat times and reach out to folks. For example, most mornings I toss out a hello and a question that invites folks to respond. Then I check my lists (Twitter can do lists to organize your followers like FB does) and tweet to friends/folks. Those who are online often tweet back and we have fun little conversations, and I start my day with a few chuckles.

    Sometimes I do the same thing in the late afternoons and wind down my day.

    It doesn't take a lot of time, and it's fun. I've met some great folks that way,and since they're often on at the same time, I chat with them fairly regularly.

    I've found the toughest part about Twitter is figuring out how it works for you.

  11. Hi Janice,
    I'm not on Twitter or Facebook. I just have a blog with not many followers, but the ones I do have comment, and we're building relationships so we help promote and encourage each other.
    I follow your blog and comment because you offer excellent content that helps me with my writing.
    Great post!

  12. Janice! I'm so glad you touched on this. I had my monthly Twitter column on Writer Unboxed yesterday and sort of ended up in an argument with someone who found it odd and rude that I follow about 700 people but 2300 follow me. She found it to be a case of ego, perhaps. I tried to explain that the difference in numbers is probably made of people who are not seeing my tweets anyway or who are not engaged in Twitter. I do follow real and engaged tweets. (aka, not the "buy my book" types or the following 87,000 people type as you pointed out as well.)

    Anyway, I loved this point of yours: "I chat more with folks with lower numbers than higher, because we actually see each other's Tweets and respond. (No one can keep up with hundreds of tweets per minute in their feed.) I get to know those lower-number folks and thus retweet their comments or start reading (and tweeting) their blogs. "

    THAT'S what I was trying to explain in response to the comment I got. I still think in the end we had to agree to disagree.

  13. This is a really interesting post, Janice. I have about 4400 followers, and there is no way I can keep up with all of them. And they aren't buying books. Twitter has been useful in getting people to read my blog, but I don't think that translates to book sales, and I'm not sure Twitter is truly useful for that.

    If I tweet buy links, it's almost always other peoples, unless my book gets a great review or something. I'm trying to get on and chat more or at least tweet something fun, but it's hard to juggle everything.

  14. I love the real connections I've made on line. Honestly, I don't even think about it as marketing (or future marketing!) I just think about it as connecting. If a book sells because of it? That's just a bonus.

  15. I've kind of given up on paying attention to numbers of followers and stuff. I certainly don't care about Twitter, which is probably a bad thing. I must admit I notice when I reach a new blog follower milestone, but sometimes I've gone quite far past that milestone before I do notice. To me it doesn't really matter about numbers, but about those real relationships, as others have mentioned. :)

  16. Hi Trisha,
    I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who doesn't care about Twitter.

  17. Tracy, you must get so much more done, then :) Not everyone needs to be on every online service, and I'm a firm believer in doing what you enjoy. You'll be far more successful with it than anything else. Good luck with your blog! (and thanks!)

    Nina, I saw that, great article (it's on my tweet list for this week). I'm guilty of the "you're welcome" replies :) I always saw it as a way to connect with someone who might be too shy to speak out otherwise. A conversation starter. Maybe I'm should bow out gracefully :)

    I struggled over how many to follow back, so I get it (shame that commenter didn't). At first, I only followed back folks I knew or had interacted with. Then I read a great post on Jody Hedlund's blog about fans reaching out to authors and not getting a response (it was about email and her daughter specifically, but it made me think). Some of those followers could be fans, and by not following back, was I "shunning" them? So I started following everyone who looked legit. (And got some surprised tweets from fans who didn't think I'd follow back!) It's hard to know who to follow and what to do once you do.

    Lists are how I organize all those followers, but it does get hard to keep up with them all. On the upside, I can pick one or two lists and focus on different groups of folks every day.

    Stacy, it really is. I've found picking a time and sending out conversation starter tweets, and replies to those reaching out, typically get the chatting rolling. But some days it's silent out there. There's also no way to know what effect it's actually having on book sales. After nine months, I do see a positive effect on blog hits, though. It'll be interesting to see what happens on my next book launch.

    Julie, that's probably the best attitude to take. And you'll be more successful in it because of that :)

    Trisha, not a bad thing, it's too easy to get caught up in it. You might even be better off in the long run by not being obsessed with numbers :)

  18. Great post Janice, thanks. It's a subject I've been struggling with lately. I still love the principle of Twitter, but in practice it's difficult to decide who to connect with. Even with <100 followers that's more than I want to read on a daily basis. I'm finding the new Google+ communities and following blogs directly much more informative and interactive at the moment.

  19. Thelastdriod, if Twitter isn't a site you enjoy, there's nothing wrong with focusing on what you do like and not worrying about Twitter. You also have to take your readers/potential readers into account. If your audience is on a different social media, that's probably the best one for you to be a part of. It's all relative.

  20. Great post--and it touches on a lot of the problems with social media marketing in general. There are publicists who actually include buying twitter followers in their marketing strategies. I think that's so sad. Big numbers mean absolutely nothing except that you're a number collector/buyer. I get followed every day by people who are collecting numbers. Often they have no idea that I'm a published author and blogger, so they obviously didn't even read my Twitter bio. And who tells these people to send a DM saying "since you followed me back, now you have to FB friend me, read my boring blog and buy my book." No, I have to unfollow you.

  21. Anne, buying followers? That's crazy. Those DMs drive me nuts, too. I also dislike the ones who ask me to tweet their book as an auto response if I follow them. Um, nope. The really sad part about that, is I probably would have if they're spent a minute to actually talk to me and let me see their link on my own. I promote folks I know all the time when I recognize their name (like I'll tweet book reviews or guest posts for guests I've had on my blog), especially if I've spoken to them and know they're good people.

  22. Hi Janice,

    Great article. I agree about quality vs. quantity and, like commenter Jennifer above, also have the approach that 'if someone follows me, I always see what they're tweeting about and read their bio first. If they seem nice or interesting, I follow.'

    This just seems like common courtesy to me. I'm the person who had the back-and-forth with Nina B. on her excellent post; for me, something feels right to have a balance between following/followers -- as your numbers do. I think that's great.

    Cheers and happy writing, reading, and tweeting.


  23. CarolynB, I see both sides to this. It does seem only polite to follow back, but how polite is it to follow back and never look at that person again? Which is what happens when the number of followers gets huge. Organizing by lists helps (which is how I manage it), but eventually even those are going to get too big to manage.

    So small numbers of follows is easier to manage and actually interact with the people who you follow. But then you risk looking snobby is you don't follow many people. It can come off looking clique-ish.

    It's a tough call, and one that everyone will have to make for themselves. If it's too stressful or time-consuming to keep up with a large follower list, it makes sense to follow only those who you have the ability to interact with. If you can manage a larger list, grow your followers.

  24. Thanks, Janice. Beautifully (and diplomatically!) stated.

    Cheers and happy holidays.


  25. I have a twitter account, but haven't really figured out how it all works yet - probably because I usually forget it's there until I read a blog post about it, or get an e-mail suggesting people to follow.

    I think I followed you, because I like writing links, but I am absolutely not offended if people don't follow me back. :)

    I'm not sure twitter's really for me, but I keep reading blog posts about it anyway, in hopes that I might eventually figure it out.

  26. Gypsyharper, you can always try it out, see if it appeals. If it's not for you, no worries :) You might try a few different ways of using it before you decide yay or nay. I didn't like it at first, then found a fun way to use it and now I enjoy it.

  27. Great post, Janice! I'm always amazed when someone with 20K+ follows me. It's like 'how did you find me?' I always look at an individual's recent tweets to see if they are only promoting their own works. Like you, I don't have time to sift through those folks.

  28. Terrific post! I'm here via YA Highway. I've been blogging for years, but I'm new to twitter. Even before I started tweeting, I was getting followers with 7K following or pushy promoters. Another peeve would be those who tweet non stop and hog my feed - perhaps they should try blogging if they have so much to say? I've learned to ignore those in favor of others who tweet interesting material. I'm now following you too.

  29. I'm still figuring out Twitter and I'm still in the follow back stages - just to learn who people are... but I look to friendly, helpful authors like you for ideas on how to manage my account. I like your reasoning and it resonates with my own deep-rooted opinions on how social media can be both promotion and connection when it's done thoughtfully. IMO, everyone should do what's comfortable for them and sometimes that comes in stages, but I've started giving more thought to it recently. You get out of it what you put in. You're awesome, Janice. Great post. Retweeting now. ;)

  30. Char S, I think some folks just repeatedly click on those "folks to follow" links Twitter suggests. Or they do a word search and follow everyone who's used the word "XX" in a tweet. Crazy.

    Sarah, Welcome! The feed overload bugs me, too. I actually worry about that with my hourly writing link tweets. If someone has a bunch of followers it won't be a problem, but if they have a smaller number who don't tweet often, I might appear spammy. I keep wondering if I should go to every two hours due to that.

    Cat, thanks! I totally agree about the stages. It's too much to dive in and absorb it all at once. It takes time to figure out what you like and what works for you.

  31. I'm not convinced there is any particular connection between social media and book sales. I run a blog and twitter only (no Facebook, Tumblr etc). The blog has handy links to places people can buy my books online - I publish traditionally (Random House & Penguin). Sometimes the links are clicked. Sales? Virtually none. Also, there is little real correlation between the number of twitter followers I have, blog views I get, and clicks on those links. On the other hand, a blog is handy in other ways, not least because of the way it can connect with people - and also allow me to publish things that I couldn't publish via the newspapers I occasionally write for, still less in a book. There is, I think, an expectation with social media which (as always with new technology) isn't quite true.

  32. MJWrightNZ, I don't think there's a direct link either, as in "I saw your tweet/link and bought your book." I do think it's a handy way to meet folks and open doors. Whether those doors lead anywhere beyond a nice chat, who knows. I agree with the expectation aspect of social media. I think folks hope for that quick fix, that silver bullet that works to sell books, and unlike other products, books just don't work that way.

  33. Hey Janice. Honestly, I do love a small following because it's sort of like having this bunch of friends that I can always hang out with. Sort of like an extended Scooby gang. :)

    The thing is, less is more. Perhaps that is an overused phrase, but here it is apt. The less time you spend trying to chase more followers, the more time you have to spend with the ones you do have. They perceive the quality of that time just like you do.

    I'd rather be well-known to a handful of people that I have something in common with. I'm not saying it will help me sell books, but at least I won't feel like a used car salesman when I hop on Twitter. :)

    1. That's sounds good to me. The whole point is to connect, and the more people you try to keep up with the harder than can be.