At ThrillerFest, a social media expert introduced me to a new concept for Twitter platform growth: what I’ve started calling the follow-back tactic.
In short, you search for and follow people in your target audience, and you follow them. They follow you back to reciprocate, and everyone’s platforms grow. So simple! I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of this approach before.
Yet as I’ve tried it out for myself over the last few months, I’ve come to wonder if this tactic is really as simple as it seems. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons.
Most obviously, this tactic is very effective in meeting its goal of boosting your follow stats on Twitter. Which is quite a nice thing indeed.
It also forces you to look for followers in new places, as when you’re looking for followers to add on a daily basis, you quickly run out of the obvious ones. I’ve discovered a number of great publications and authors in these searches.
Additionally, since this is something you’re supposed to do daily, it forces you to look at your Twitter account every single day, with a focus on improving your stats. This is a great thing—when you visit your page more, you’re going to post more. And when you focus on your stats more, you’re going to learn a lot about what works for your platform.
There’s a gap in this process, in that it relies heavily on other people adhering to “the code” and following you back. Many will, but others won’t.
Worse, the ones who do follow back are not necessarily paying attention to you. They’re often following back on autopilot, and then you slip away into the abyss of their feed, never to be given a second thought. I know this because this is how I treat follow-backs in my own feed most of the time.
It’s also easy to get sloppy when looking for people to follow. We all know how it goes with this kind of stuff. I have to admit that though I started implementing this tactic with the best of intentions, eager to discover new people in my target audience to connect to, it quickly degenerated to following whoever popped up in my search, just to cross it off my list and move on.
But for me the most frustrating aspect of this approach is that Twitter caps how many people you can follow depending on how many accounts follow you … and they don’t share how they come up with those numbers.
Then, to keep up your following growth, you have to turn to tools like Tweepi and start unfollowing anyone who didn’t follow you back. Not only does this get old really fast, but I also didn’t enjoy the attitude behind it. It felt very snotty to just stop following someone simply because they didn’t follow me. A lot of my non-follows are publications, thought leaders, and other great industry news sources that hold great value for me in other ways.
Consider this a red flag—Twitter considers this activity spammy, and doesn’t feel it belongs in its network.
When You’re Followed
There’s a flip-side to this follow-back practice, and the implication is that when people follow you, you’re expected to follow back—every single one of them. But sometimes these new followers just have nothing to do with you, and will simply clog up for feed.
You do not, I repeat, do not have to follow every single account who follows you. But it’s often the right thing to do.
Consider following back to be the equivalent of saying “hi” to someone you make eye contact with at a networking event. There are, indeed, times when your radar goes off and it’s just not something you want to engage in. But most of the time, there’s a shared interest there—after all, this person found you somehow.
I’d recommend looking at each account on a case-by-case basis by reviewing the account bio and a few of its recent tweets. If there’s anything there consistent with your author brand (does this person describe him/herself as an avid [your genre here] reader? Do they love knitting as much as you do?), then follow them back.
However, if the headshot is blank, or the bio is a sale pitch, or you just cannot find any common thread, take a pass. Odds are they’re not going to miss you anyway.
It’s absolutely true that this follow-back approach will grow your following, at least by the numbers. But I have to question this as a goal—the size of your platform is nothing to dismiss, but the quality of those connections is way more important.
Do your followers know who you are? Are they hungry for your next book release? Do they engage with your posts, liking, responding and retweeting? Do you engage with them? Worry more about making your followers true fans through genuine connections than your stats.
How to Use the Follow-Back Tactic
The follow-back tactic definitely has its place. In my opinion, it’s best for authors just launching their platform who are looking to get a base of followers very quickly.
Why? It’s the tip jar phenomenon—just as people are more likely to tip if they see there are already bills in the jar, people are more likely to follow you if others are already following you. It’s just how people are wired. So go ahead and use this tactic to make it easy for your early fans to jump on board.
Just bear in mind that the follow-back tactic is a short-term booster, not a foundation to build your platform around. Your real fan base—the ones who will be there when it counts, like pre-ordering your next release—will come from your long-tail outreach efforts through consistency, authenticity and engagement.
By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.