Sometimes people ask me why I bother with social media. I can’t really blame them – after all, it takes a lot of time away from actual writing. But I always just explain that there are two reasons: for one thing, it’s nice to have social interactions. If you spend all your time either writing or taking care of small children, like I do, you get hungry for any conversation that doesn’t start with a plea for more My Little Pony.
The second reason, however, is this: The Powers That Be in the publishing industry –my industry—pay attention to social media, so I think I should, too.
When an agent or publisher is considering working with you, one of the things they will look into is your “platform,” which more or less translates to your reach. The logic is that the more people you, the author, can reach by yourself, the fewer the publisher has to find with expensive advertising. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, this blog that you’re reading right now, these are all ways that you can reach people.
Until about three weeks ago, however, my Twitter numbers were abysmal: 368 followers. For an author with a long-term blog and four books out, that’s pretty bad. Most authors I know about have at least a thousand followers, and the truly successful authors have many thousand or even tens of thousands. But I had no idea how to get more followers.
I knew that my Tweets themselves weren’t the problem: I’d done some research on what followers look for in author Tweets, and I’d taken some good advice and aimed for the one third rule: one third of an author’s posts should be writing-related (progress reports on your current work, teasers, cover reveals, etc). One third should be their personal stuff, which I mostly count as reactions to other books, TV, movies, etc. Finally, the last third should be retweets or comments on industry stuff. For example, I’ll retweet a really thoughtful blog from Chuck Wendig, or share a great Publisher’s Weekly article.
So my tweets themselves were okay, but my number of followers was tiny. And for the longest time, I just had no idea what to do about it, other than keep a Twitter button on my website and occasionally beg my Facebook friends to go cross-pollinate. I also knew the cardinal rule of Twitter, that your number of followers should always be higher than the number of people you follow, but it wasn’t particularly getting me anywhere. People just weren’t finding me.
Early this month, I decided it was time to step up my game, and started really looking at alternative ways to boost my followers. It wasn’t just about a number – I was also interested in looking at what Twitter could do for me, and what I could do for the people on Twitter. If I started looking at the site as a tool specifically for business (as opposed to Facebook, which I use first and foremost to keep in touch with friends and family), I needed to look hard at what I was doing with numbers.
My friend and fellow author Rob Kroese tipped me off to a website called Tweepi, which is sort of like an expansion pack for Twitter. You can get a basic account for free, and you use it to keep track of all the followers: who is following you, who they follow, and, very importantly, who isn’t following you back. The first thing I did was “flush” (Tweepi’s word, not mine) almost all my “unfollowers” – the people I had been following, who had never followed me back: celebrities, websites, magazines, etc. This was almost everybody.
I hung onto a few, of course: I still follow my friends (author and otherwise), plus a few big-name writers who post smart things, and some publications that revolve around the writing world. (Tweepi lets you put a little lock on those people, so you won’t accidentally unfollow them when you flush unfollowers later.) When I’d flushed everyone else, I still had 368 followers, but now I was only following maybe 60 people myself. Which left me with about 300 follows to work with.
See, as it turns out, the secret to gaining Twitter followers is on the surface rather simple: you follow people, and hope that they follow you back. If they don’t, you unfollow them and try someone else instead. Think of it like this: you have 300 invitations to your birthday party. You’ve already paid for everything; this party is happening, so you definitely want 300 guests. You hand out 300 invitations to people you like, the ones you think might really want to come. Of those 300, maybe 200 RSVP yes, they’d love to attend the party. But 100 people don’t respond to you at all. The only thing to do is to take back those 100 invitations and give them to someone else.
Seems pretty simple, right? But just as you wouldn’t throw birthday invitations at strangers, I realized that I couldn’t just pick random names to follow – well, I could, but that would be discarding the whole benefit of Twitter: building contacts with readers, reviewers, and other authors. That’s where the actual business value comes in, and I wasn’t about to give that up.
So how does one find 300 readers, reviewers, and authors? Tweepi has that covered. One of the things you can do on the site is easily follow someone else’s followers. Start with your favorite author, or an author whose work is similar to your own. For example, I first picked my friend Jack Horn, because he writes urban fantasy, like me (and it didn’t hurt that he’s a great guy). I put his Twitter handle, @thelinesavannah, into the Follow Followers function. And it spit out a list of ALL of Jack’s followers.
(I feel like I’m typing the word “follow” a lot. Like a lot.)
But not just their names or Twitter handles; no, Tweepi gives you a big grid that includes their bios, their locations (or whatever they told Twitter; turns out there are some crazy answers for this) the last time they Tweeted, and the number of followers they themselves have.
Now, in the free version of Tweepi you scroll through pages of only 20 followers at a time, so if someone has thousands of followers, it takes awhile to go through them. That’s the downside. But the upside is that you can pick how to organize your list. I ordered them by the number of followers they have, with the largest at the top and the smallest at the bottom. I was then looking at a list of Jack’s followers, and I could see exactly how many followers each one of them has. Now it was time to choose my targets. I looked at their bios, and I focused on people who identified themselves as fellow authors, enthusiastic readers, bloggers who review books on their site, etc. I also kept an eye on the last time they posted – if someone hadn’t used Twitter in more than a week or so, I figured they probably weren’t a great addition to my social media army.
But even if a Twitter user met those criteria and didn’t give off a creepy vibe, there was still one other caveat. And I must warn you, this is the part of the method where I come off like just a bit of a hypocritical douchebag: My goal is to get up over a thousand followers, so I only follow targets who have between 1,000-10,000 followers themselves.
Yes, it’s sanctimonious –I of all people know what it’s like to be trying to build your twitter base; so I should be willing to help out poor Twitter users who only have 200-some followers, right? In a perfectly moral world, sure. But- and this is awful – when you pass out invitations to your birthday party, you want to invite people who will have other people to talk to. The guy standing by the wall without any friends is going to drag the party down. Why give him an invite when you could invite one of the cool popular girls who will have tons of people to talk to?
No, I do not feel good about this part of the method.
In fact, it feels a little ruthless and cold to me, and I’m cringing a little even as I write this. Remember, though, that the guy you chose not to follow because he only has 200 followers will never know you rejected him. This is important. Also? This isn’t actually a birthday party; it’s business. In my business I need to consider how I can use the website to benefit my career.
You guys still with me? Didn’t run off because I’m a ruthless bitch? Excellent. Let’s continue.
I’ve explained why I don’t follow people with less than 999 followers, but why set the cap at 10,000? How about a new metaphor: the food chain. Think of the 0-999 range as the lowest link in the Twitter food chain, followed by the 1,000-10,000 link, which is my current goal. In my experience, people in that second link still pay attention to who’s following them, and are therefore more likely to follow me back. If they have more than 10,000 followers, on the other hand, they probably don’t care as much. They’re not hungry, like me, so they’re less incentivized to keep track of every follow and decide individually whether to reciprocate. In short: I’m not worth their time, so they’re not worth mine.
Those are the basics of the followback method: flush the unfollowers, follow new people. (Pro tip: In the middle there I also check to see if anyone within my targeted food chain link has found and followed me, and I reciprocate.) Repeat every day, or every twelve hours, however you want to work it. Focus on authors, bloggers, and reviewers/readers, and make sure you never violate the cardinal rule: your number of followers should always greater than the number of people you follow.
To my amazement, the system worked. I realized that the more followers I have, the more invitations to my party I have to play with, so I started to gain faster. I met some really interesting people, read about a thousand somewhat disturbing bios, and lost my temper over the annoyance of the aptly named TrueTwit. Oh, and as a side effect, I got a boost in book sales. As of this writing I am closing in on the 1,000 mark. It took about two and a half weeks of Tweepi.
Two weeks in, I decided it was worth the money to upgrade to Tweepi’s paid plan (go straight to the platinum level, $15/month. The silver level doesn’t offer much), which lets me find new people by searching for key terms like “urban fantasy” or the name of a convention I’m attending. I won’t stay subscribed forever, but as far as I’m concerned Tweepi has earned my money for a bit. My dream a month ago was to get to 1,000 followers by the end of the year. Now I’m going to reach that goal well before Halloween.
Reading this back, I realize that this all sounds like a pretty clinical approach to what is supposed to be a tool for social interaction. That’s kind of a fair point. But I’m not just ruthlessly abusing Twitter so I can boost a numeral. I’m using Twitter as a tool to find book people – the same kind of people who would probably enjoy following me anyway. And –this is very important – I never, ever stop following someone right after they follow me back. If I follow you, and you follow me back, as far as I’m concerned we can stay that way forever. (Well, unless you disappear from Twitter for months or something. Then unfollowing is justified.) I see mutual follows as being a reciprocal thing: I’m helping your reach; you’re helping mine. And I know it sounds nuts, but something about that feels like thumbing our noses at the Powers That Be.
Which reminds me – you can find me on Twitter with @MelissaFOlson.