Is Twitter useless for building followers?

It actually offends me how difficult it is to build a Twitter audience by using Twitter. Ridiculous.

Here’s a great example from this morning. I found an amazing quote from a Bruce Lee book on Reddit and tweeted it out. Here it is so you can see how fucking awesome it is.

Bruce had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run three miles in twenty-one or twenty-two minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile. […] So this morning he said to me “We’re going to do five.” I said, “Bruce, I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.” He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.” I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.” So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go on any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still running– “if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you do that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physically or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.

Great quote right? I thought so, and so did Twitter. It got retweeted a bunch of times, and then RT’ed again by their followers, etc. Someone even said they printed it and pinned it to their wall. Good for them. But is anyone new following me as a result? Nope.

For me, the most effective way to get followed on Twitter is actually not to be on Twitter at all, but instead to be somewhere in person (conference etc.) and show your Twitter handle onscreen. Shoemoney recently told a story about this and how effective it is, which is worth reading. But the point is that if you point your audience from Twitter to a blog, they might subscribe, and from a blog, they might follow you on Twitter. But getting RT’ed is doesn’t build audience if it doesn’t go to your content.

This has a lot to do with incentive. I love quotes like these and finding them is awesome, but if I have no incentive to send it to my audience, then I’ll lose the will to do so. If I lose the will to do so, so will many others, which empoverishes the medium as a whole.

It follows that the reason blogs flourished is partially because of attribution and citation. The hyperlink says “follow this to go somewhere that’s really cool,” but the medium of the tweet is too ephemeral to even cause someone to do a simple follow unless they put considerable work into it— at which point you’ve put a ton of work into a platform you don’t even own, and can’t create link equity from. And let’s not forget the devaluation of the follow itself, and the fact that a follow 4 years ago was worth something, whereas most people currently do not even look at their own timeline (ask any power user about this, it’s true).

The reason this is important is because the web’s value is in its distribution of the power structure, and that you can build a powerful channel with much less cost than you previously ever could. So it only follows (heh) that the smart thing to do is send people from Twitter to your own content, at which point they go through the sales funnel (or subscription funnel, whatever), where they can turn into someone that actually pays attention. (Twitter’s design is actually interesting because it actualy encourages this jumping, incentivizing the reader but devaluing the publisher’s content.)

A lot of people in this space work with the idea that they should be on whatever platform is most popular, but that’s actually pretty stupid. The real value is in whichever platform gives you the most credibility and leverage. For some people, that’s Twitter, but for many others, it may not be… they need somewhere to send their audiences.

Is Twitter actually working for you?If so, I’d like to hear how.





35 responses to “Is Twitter useless for building followers?”

  1. Joey Strawn Avatar

    Great post. I was actually one of the people that RT’ed the quote because I thought it was great. I knew it might not do much for your following seeing as I have less than 100 followers, but I thought it worthwhile and wanted to share it. I also have RT’ed the link to your blog many times b/c I feel people will benefit from reading it. I guess the long and short of it is this: content is king and you have great content, keep up the good work if only for people like me who get real enjoyment and worth from it.


  2. Rick Avatar

    Sentence towards the bottom, I’m finding, is key: “The real value is in whichever platform gives you the most credibility and leverage”. That’s what I’ve experienced in anything I’ve done, and I see that all over your blog/content, @chrisbrogan’s, @thebrandbuilder’s, and a few others. Some folks just seem to get it better than others. Still trying here, too.

  3. Ross Hudgens Avatar

    If the content you disseminated was yours, I think there’s a better chance you get the follow. By “pushing it forward”, rarely to people give you the attribution, and often times it takes a few “pings” of your Twitter name to get people to convert.

    You’re right, though, it’s still not a super-effective way to get followers. Think of random stuff and tweet it, but never, EVER do it as an active means of pursuing more followers.

  4. Keith Burtis Avatar

    The term “Working for You” is interesting to me because I think twitter is becoming more and more passive.

    When I was using it primarily to share my woodturnings it was the most powerful tool on the planet. Now that I am working in the social and digital space professionally I might just be percieved as another social media douchebag that thinks he knows it all. Of course that is not the case and I know I have a lot to learn. However, my point is that amazing content like the quote you shared starts to become a dime-a-dozen right? There are so many fucking people (I can say that on this blog) sharing stuff they think is cool that the law of diminishing returns always seems to take effect.

    The in-person thing is true as well. People sit at conferences and want to share the stuff your talking about so they actively look you up, follow you and credit you for your amazing wisdom. Ala, your co-Author.

    I’m not sure the answer here Julien. You and I knew each other for three years in person before you followed my musings on twitter and your response was, “I thought I was already following you”. So a lot of that goes on as well.

    The reciprocation thing is interesting too. Someone may have gone to your account and saw that your follower to following ratio is low. (About 10%) Maybe they figure if they follow you that you won’t reciprocate??? A lot of people don’t want to follow a broadcast stream they want to engage.

    There are so many factors that it’s hard to pinpoint. One thing I will promise you however is that I’ll never stop reading your blog as long as your writing it. However, if you unfollow me on twitter I’m going to unfollow you!! HAHAA. Just kidding, keep up the amazing work, tremendous insights, and kick ass content!


  5. Anna Palmer Avatar

    Is twitter working for me? I have made a few friends, and gotten two solid business leads, but in terms of hour by hour return on investment I’d say no. Can I use that fan/radiator image in a blog post? I love it.

  6. David Paull Avatar

    Some interesting points here…

    On the topic of building followers, I agree that most do not come from RTs. Giving your Twitter handle during a presentation or in an email sig does work. But for me I find tweeting with relevant hashtags is what garners the most interest. People search on those hashtags, find my tweet/s and sometimes decide I look interesting.

    Your point about only using the tools that benefit you and your potential audience is also key. For instance, that’s why I don’t really use Facebook. I find that between a blog, LinkedIn and Twitter, I have everything covered. I use each of them differently (more on that here if interested:, but try to not jump on every new things that comes along. It’s about where my clients and potential clients are and what will benefit them.

  7. grantalias Avatar

    4 years ago Twitter was a different place than now.

    Along with the social media outliers there are millions more who just want to follow Justin Bieber and aren’t building a brand or a social empire. Same tool, different experience. That might explain why the follows are far and few between. It’s all the new people.

    I totally agree with your statement about the value follows from public meetings. I guess people still like to meet face to face to build relationships.

  8. Susan Murphy Avatar

    You bring up a really good point. I can talk about all of the new clients I’ve gotten from Twitter, but when I really think about how those people came into my view, it actually wasn’t Twitter at all. Most of my clients find me through my blog, company web site, or via links or comments on other people’s sites, so that’s where I’m putting most of my emphasis. Once they’ve found me in those spaces, THEN they follow me on Twitter, at which point we engage in conversation and get to know each other. If there’s a fit, we end up doing business together.

    So I guess Twitter is more of a “get to know ya” environment for me – and the real business of attracting an audience is going on elsewhere.

  9. Siddhartha Avatar

    This post gave me that A-ha feeling. Good insights. But I agree with Keith, it’s hard to say why people don’t follow.

    I recently found a good friend of mine on Twitter, someone I’d worked with for three years a while ago. We’re FB friends too so it’s not like we’ve been out of touch. When I followed him on Twitter he acknowledged me with an @ message BUT NEVER FOLLOWED ME BACK.

    What’s up with that? This guy is no power user either, believe me. He just completely blew me off. It’s like he was saying, It’s nice that you want to hear what I have to say, but I’m not really interested in what you’re saying.


  10. Shawn Christenson Avatar

    Twitter is working for me because I am paying attention to my timeline and because I am repsonding to those I follow.

    Here’s the problem – those people I follow that ask questions? And I answer them? They don’t reply, and often don’t follow me back. Ever.

    How Twitter is working for me is through seeing when someone has a need I can fulfill, and then offering to do just that. My blog is too young to do anything for me yet. But i can get business on Twitter.

  11. Daryl Woods Avatar

    Twitter works for me but not for building a following. I don’t care about having 1000s of followers who don’t see a thing I write.

    I follow many brilliant people and benefit from their knowledge. I have also developed some important relationships. Links I’ve placed in Twitter have led to minimal traffic to my blog as compared to other avenues.

    I have to agree with Keith about people sharing stuff they think is cool. It’s just time wasting noise and I don’t bother going there.

  12. Eric Pratum Avatar

    I retweeted it. If I recall correctly, one of my followers retweeted it as well. Anyhoo, I do not know what effect getting retweeted really has on follower growth. I tend to think though that using search and conversating with new people is what really does it. Then again, Chris Brogan retweeted an acquaintance of mine yesterday, and he happened to pick up 60 new followers (~9% growth) in the same day. Coincidence or not? It is nonetheless interesting.

  13. Ricardo Bueno Avatar

    I use it in different ways I suppose (to chat, to drive visitors to my site, etc.). Is it working? Well, in terms of traffic, I suppose so. My content gets shared often enough and I get subscribers. Last week for example I wrote an ebook wherein I interviewed 8 top real estate bloggers on their methods and successes. I pushed it through Twitter and it culminated in 73-ish downloads over the course of the week. Not hundreds but hey, that’s 73 subscribers to my newsletter that I otherwise didn’t have.

    Oh, and I got a DM once that turned into a paid invitation to speak at a conference (the 2010 Realtor Rally). But that was one instance in years of using the platform so I wouldn’t put it up there as the best marketing solution.

    Anyway, just some thoughts…

  14. Sandy Mackay Avatar
    Sandy Mackay

    i follow this blog currently because of a re-tweet and web link last year that caught my eye. Came to the blog and followed ever since.

  15. Ryan G Avatar

    You are hitting at the core of the issue here about social media. I am seeing signs lately about B2B businesses drawing back on their SM efforts b\c the ROI is such a challenge and I am glad to see this b\c all the hub hub about SM is getting sickening.

    Dollar-for-dollar SM is still a better value than traditional forms of advertising, but your dollar only reaches a portion of your potential audience and that audience is more distracted than the ones sitting on the couch watching TV. Your point about reaching out to your audience offline as a bridge to your online presence is more prophetic than you might realize…or maybe you do.

    I argue that it is not realistic to count on SM to build your brand, but it certainly can add value to it. On the contrary, I discovered this post as a result of being on Twitter and I have subscribed to your blog via email and will probably follow you on Twitter now too so I think Twitter is working for you to some degree. (You can thank @Peterjmoran7 for re-tweeting this post.)

  16. Scott Webb Avatar

    It depends on what you would love to do.

    Does tweeting out that message stand for your own beliefs? If it does, sending it out should be meaningful regardless of getting new followers or not.

    I could say that running is pointless because I’m not going to become the fastest person in the world. But if I believe in being healthy and living a lifestyle that involves living long enough to see my great grandchildren graduate from University or Start their first business, I want to incorporate running in my life.

    Clearly your current followers appreciated you sending that tweet out.

    Are only after acquisition or are you about improving the experience of your current, loyal, and dedicated followers that retweet your messages?

    I can’t remember the last time I looked at how many followers I have on twitter. I was maybe at 650 followers. Low compared to many many people, but I’m proud of that number if it’s gone up or down. I look at my twitter interactivity and have seen it grow nicely of late. I see that through my at replys and my own stream of conversation.

  17. JUlie Sergerie Avatar

    Hey Julien, thanks for the good read again, great one as usual!

    Does Twitter work for me?
    In fact, I’d have to say yes. I’ve been on Twitter for the last 6 months, drinking wise guys like you’s words, tips, ideas, strategies and been following you all on Twitter. Slowly building a community and working hard to keep up the work.

    In a conference in MTL lately, I heard and preciously remembered this great tip to generate followers and it dawned on me that barely no one does it…

    Follow your followers!

    I then realized that it’s true… If I had to refer one profesionnal human being rather than an other, it’ll be the one I “interract” the most with, in other words, the ones that follow back and take some little time to say thanks every once in a while.

    Coming back home, applyed the strategy right away… Works effectively!!!

    Some clients of mine have also seen a difference in the way their audience acted upon them being more “open” to their community.

  18. Gawed Avatar

    While I love your points about following and such, i just want to say that the history and quote is awesome, awesome, awesome. had not seen it 😀 thanks for sharing it.

  19. Dave Larson Avatar

    Though many, many people user Twitter badly, it isn’t ONLY used badly. Just like getting junk mail, there are now junk people with junk behaviors on social media.

    We have 60,000 followers that we don’t follow back (and many more we do) and for years we never had a blog and still aren’t anywhere publicly. So Twitter alone can drive followers to you.

    But I think the main culprit in not getting followers is that it’s still nowhere near easy enough to follow someone by their username. Much less add them to a list.

  20. Barb Chamberlain Avatar

    Hm. Several thoughts come to mind so I’ll just dump them out here.

    I’m especially intrigued by @KeithBurtis’s comment–I’ve followed him since back in the day when he was making beautiful wooden bowls and have been having some similar thoughts.

    The business development thing: Well, you know it’s a big “duh” that links back to content on your site will do more for your overall enterprise than links to elsewhere or pithy quotes–it’s the space in which you convert based on the value you provide.

    As for your specific example of the failings of Twitter use, any charm that a great quote once had (and believe me, I used to collect books of quotes and love a well-turned phrase) has been destroyed by the many spammy accounts that churn out quotes on various topics (leadership being quite popular, and “deep thoughts for life”) and follow everyone in hopes you’ll follow back so they can try to sell you their “get rich on the Internet” system which I’m guessing consists of setting up a Twitter account that churns out quotes on various topics….. I block those accounts.

    If you put out the occasional great quote that reinforces what I think you’re about–which would be my reason for following in the first place–or that helps me get to know more about you as a person then it does help (at least with retention, if not with recruitment). If it’s totally random, not so much.

    “Building a Twitter following” isn’t a goal at all, though. It’s a tactic, and only then if you’ve tied it to specific performance indicators such as blog subscribers if that’s what you want or orders for copies of Trust Agents or whatever. Then you’ll know whether Twitter performs better or worse than other avenues. The follower number in and of itself has no meaning–could all be quote-lovin’ spammers.

    My reasons for Twitter use (on my personal account) don’t include attracting follower numbers so Twitter works for me just fine. I utilize it to learn from people who will share their higher ed communications expertise or humor or vegetarian recipes or bike blogging posts or thoughts on urban planning or news and events in my town or whatever it is they put out there.

    Because those topics are what interest me and therefore what I also tweet about, I see some reciprocal following because they recognize our common interests if they look at my tweet stream (on a good day). We interact as I/they have time and interest. If I ever want to job hunt or move to another city you can bet I’ll be all over the relevant Twitter accounts to learn and connect.

    My experience, FWIW; I’ve been on Twitter since fall 2008 and have a personal account, 3 volunteer organization accounts I manage (only 1 really active though), and an account for the campus where I am communications director.

    In managing the campus account, which won an award of excellence from @SNCR last year and resulted in me being named a Senior Fellow, I put out specific content and followed strategically to benefit from reciprocity norms to get the kinds of followers I wanted (seeking more quality than quantity).

    Works just fine. I get the kind of RTs I want because I put out things I want them to RT that will associate our name with specific topics (aka keywords). It’s brand-building. No quotations because that’s not part of our brand. (Case study PDF on the SNCR site:

    How I got to this post: RT by @franswaa who RT @chrisbrogan. I find this funny because I thought I was already following you….


  21. Rufus Avatar

    You’re right about picking up new followers. I speak at a conference, a bunch of new followers. Clever stuff out to twitter, including RTs, etc? Nothing. The only lift I get is when someone like C—- B—– replies to something or sends out a tweet with my @. I get a bunch, but they are just doing the “ditto” thing. (no offense to C—-, but folks he sends over aren’t ever going to be potential customers.. they just follow him like a lack of small puppies.)

    Twitter has become like singing at a family wedding. Even if you are really good, nobody will ever book you for another wedding because of it. And if you really suck, nobody will ever tell you so. All twitter does for me is push out keywords to Google… I think… I hope… and give me a quick connect to other folks like @julien for a shoutout, fist bump, high five, raspberry 😉


  22. Sandra Avatar

    Well, goodness. If you don’t gain followers from posting something, you’ll lose motivation to post? What about all the people you delighted by posting it – the ones who retweeted it? Can’t that be an ends in and of itself? What if nourishing the people who are already following you were the aim and getting new people inboard were just a bonus? Just a thought. Thanks for opening up the conversation.

  23. Iñaki Avatar

    I do not Rt because of getting new followers, I do it because I share a quote. I agree that you add followers because of yourself, not because of RT.

  24. Sue Anne Reed Avatar

    I’m approaching 2k followers and never done anything spammy to get them. The top two things that have increased my followers:
    – Participating in hashtag chats (I’m a regular on #blogchat, #journchat and #pr20chat.)
    – Live tweet and/or live blog at conferences.

    Those are also the same way that I’ve been put on a bunch of the lists that I’m on.

    Again, your last quote reinforces the idea of it being about the who not the how many. Are you being followed by the right people — he ones that will pay to see you speak or buy your next book?

  25. Mack Collier Avatar

    “Great quote right? I thought so, and so did Twitter. It got retweeted a bunch of times, and then RT’ed again by their followers, etc. Someone even said they printed it and pinned it to their wall. Good for them. But is anyone new following me as a result? Nope.”

    So how many of those people that RTed you, did you follow?

  26. Joe Sorge Avatar

    After listening to you speak to this as part of media hacks, I nearly totally agree. Using Twitter itself to grow your followers there is not the most effective way, just as you said, it’s in that “cross pollination” where it appears the highest efficiencies lie. Thanks for that.

  27. Shamir Katsu Avatar
    Shamir Katsu

    Interesting, I looked around on your web site to see if I could find your twitter ID in order to follow the person that originated that great quote, but I didn’t find it on your web site.

    Perhaps you could make it easier to follow you on twitter?

  28. Chris Avatar

    Julien, this is a really thought-provoking post on many levels.

  29. Kathy Jacobs Avatar

    To me, it isn’t the number of followers I have or the number of followers any single post “gets” me. To me it is the chance to interact and connect. To reach out to those I agree with, disagree with, or just want to know. And I agree with @shamir, I would have followed you to see what other thought provoking stuff you offer, but I can’t find your twitter id either.

    My two cents.
    @callkathy on twitter

  30. Ric Nunez Avatar

    Building the network is what really matters.
    Good question Mack.

  31. Andre Natta Avatar

    It’s been a mixed bag, but I’d say that what you share on Twitter has to be seen as valuable.

    If you actually engage with others you’re likely to gain followers – or maybe even some new friends (which I find much more beneficial).

  32. Ardath Albee Avatar

    I have to say I’m with Mack on this one. When I see that you have over 12K followers, yet follow less than 2,000, it feels like you’re expecting people to do what you want them to more than to respond in kind.

    Isn’t that what social media is about? Interactive goes both ways.

    1. Julien Avatar

      @Ardath– interesting point. Thing is, I only recently started following people back with the frequency I do. i’ve been on twitter almost four years though, so that’s why there’s such a huge discrepancy. I can’t go back and do them all so I just accept that the ratio is what it is. It’ll improve over time though.

  33. Ric Dragon Avatar

    In the ‘early days’ of twitter, I worked at building audience. Then I gave up on that. No one was really listening.

    Then, I switched gears. What if I gave up on being listened to and followed a small group of hyper-relevant individuals. Hyper-relevant to my interests, that is.

    So that’s what I’ve done. Now, when I open up twitter to read the feed, it’s ALWAYS interesting. If I change my mind about someone, I unfollow.

    I still go on and tweet. And maybe someone is listening, maybe not. Perhaps I’m hyper-relevant to someone else.

  34. Violet Bliss Dietz Avatar

    I arrived at this blog because of a tweet by Chris Brogan

    But I ended up on this post because the blog design intrigued me … in particular, the archive navigation which, as I’ve been looking at redesigning it for a client’s site, has been a subject of interest in the last week or two.

    The blog post title caught my eye so I scanned it and then the comments. All of this is by way of saying that I normally spend no time seeking out or reading anything that ‘social media types’ have to say even though, as Chris noted in his tweet today, there’s some outstanding thinking and writing going on.

    For those who don’t understand why someone didn’t follow them back, may I offer this suggestion. Twitter is a tool, just a tool, that can be used in a number of ways.

    For me it’s not a collegial hang out place but a place to scan what’s going on in web design and development. For the most part, my decision to follow someone on Twitter is based on the substance of their tweets and whether or not it relates to my primary interest.

    Check my twitter lists. You’ll see my focus. A couple of those lists, I follow and refresh throughout the day. I may scan the others occasionally if I have time but a month can go by when I don’t.

    Twitter is a giant fast-flowing river. I dip in with my net set to filter out what I’m interested in at a particular moment. Though I could (and have) spent hours dipping in and following all the links, I need to make it work *for* me. That means I’m selective about who I follow and who I add to the lists that I watch regularly.

    There is no reason that someone should be “obligated” to follow someone else back just because the former ‘followed’ the latter. And it’s a constricted approach to Twitter not to realize that others may use Twitter in entirely different ways than you do.

    Enough said.

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