The single biggest mistake you can make when you start using Twitter is to use a machine to impersonate you. But to understand why that’s a bad idea, we should first talk about what social media is for. Along the way, we’ll explore something you have in common with Mennonite Christian fundamentalists, Neolithic hunters and the people who make the Gore-Tex fabric I love to wear on rainy days…
How should I use social media to build an audience?
Some people think all social media is a waste of time and should be avoided at all costs (though there are fewer of them these days). Some people think social media should be about building the biggest audience possible, and are prepared to take their personal and professional brand in any direction, or recruit any community or tool that helps them create a larger audience in the shortest possible time. I get the impression there are more of them every day, and more tools, tricks and hacks to try.
Then there are people like me: people who believe most of the effort of building the biggest following on social media is not helping you, it’s actually building a more valuable business for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. That what we should do instead is slowly and carefully grow a coherent, purposeful social media brand for ourselves and our businesses. A brand that stands for something (hopefully several somethings, hopefully all of them important.)
Then we’ll be able to build a smaller social network of people who are more deeply and purposefully connected, because they actually care about being connected to each other, for a more useful purpose than the rat race to gain more connections.
I practice cultivating a small-but-more-deeply-connected set of connections on social media most days of the week:
- I politely decline most connection requests I receive on LinkedIn (here’s why);
- I make sure I set my Facebook Newsfeed to ‘Most recent’ even though Facebook likes to reset it to ‘Top Stories’ again. I want to know what all my Facebook friends are doing, not just those who are more likely to interact with me;
- I don’t automatically follow back everyone who follows me on Twitter. In fact, I don’t do anything automatically on Twitter except sometimes use a scheduling tool like Buffer or HootSuite.
So why am I so contrarian?
Why might a rich social network be more valuable than a large social network?
Hit rewind. In the 1990s I was an early hire at Internet 1.0 boom startup Yahoo! Inc. It sounds crazier now than the idea that people might have carried all their songs around on a portable hard drive that couldn’t make phone calls, but back in 1997, Yahoo! was growing as fast as a startup company can grow.
In the four years between founding the Australian and New Zealand operations in 1997 in a borrowed meeting room with one other guy, to hiring our 151st employee in 2001, we did a lot of hiring, on-boarding, team-bonding and restructuring in a very short time.
Zero to 50 was fine, 50 to 100 was OK, but as we approached and then exceeded 150 employees, I observed that I could no longer remember enough about each employee to sustain a friendly conversation — I was lucky if I could even remember all the names of the newest hires. I started smiling and nodding as I passed people in the corridor, pretending I knew who they were. I started losing track of the spouses and partners, kids and weekend interests of even the first 50 employees, even though I’d known them for a few years. I dreaded the next company get-together when I’d have to admit I knew almost nothing about anybody anymore, and nobody knew anything about me.
I didn’t know it then, but I’d become a victim of the Dunbar Number. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who first observed that human social groups tend to top out at about 150 members. From Amazonian tribes to Mennonite communities to branches of some American companies, the maximum of 150 people we can maintain a real relationship with seems to be hard-wired into the average human brain.
Communities that try to continue growing larger than 150 people suffer in various ways — rivalries and disputes, revolutions, crime, isolation and lack of sympathy for those around us. Communities at or smaller than 150 people experience greater sharing and cooperation, deeper interaction, less crime, fewer disputes, better mental and physical health, and a shared sense of purpose.
I think it’s that increased tendency to share and interact amongst smaller communities that makes a smaller, richer social network more valuable. If the time I invest in creating a brand for a startup or for myself isn’t being repaid by members of my community understanding me better, or interacting with what I’m sharing, or sharing it with others they know will benefit from it, what is this all about?
Note that I don’t mean “hitting the Like button without watching/reading what I posted first. Which is what happens all the time in larger social networks with fewer and less relevant connections between the people in that network.
Sadly, I think what it’s all about in larger, loosely-connected networks is building a bigger business for the social media businesses themselves. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google are all publicly-traded companies whose share prices vary in direct proportion to their growth in new users and advertising revenue — both metrics that improve more easily with fast-growing, loosely-connected networks.
Get over the fear of having no followers
When you get started on Twitter, the fact you have no followers is made very apparent by Twitter (remember: Twitter’s quarterly numbers are depending upon you) but having no or few followers isn’t as big a deal as Twitter would have you believe, and you shouldn’t rush headlong into some growth hack promising to build you a large Twitter following in 30 days or less.
My personal Twitter account dates back to October 2006 (and embarrassingly, my first tweet was a classic #humblebrag). It’s been a long time since I didn’t have any followers on that account but since 2006 I’ve created many new Twitter accounts for businesses of my own and for others. They all start out like yours — without any followers — so I know how it feels. It can feel slightly embarrassing, a bit naked and exposed, especially when the Twitter account is for a business that is big in ‘the real world’ — it just feels wrong that it doesn’t have any followers on Twitter. But just because it feels wrong doesn’t make fast growth right.
Fostering meaningful connections takes time. You wouldn’t barge into someone else’s conversation at a party, interrupt the speaker and start blaring on about how awesome you and your business are (at least, I hope you wouldn’t — though I sometimes wonder whether there’s any meaningful correlation between the higher incidence of Asperger’s Spectrum disorders amongst software developers and the way online social networks are designed).
Whether a network is online or in the real world, the right way to build a network is how you’d do it in the real world.
- Listen to many conversations to find interesting interactions between people who interest you;
- Begin by complementing a speaker or speakers (by liking, following, favouriting, retweeting or sharing) without comment;
- Repeat that several times over a period of time so the members of the conversation become aware that you’re actually paying attention; and
- Only then try contributing your own on-topic, relevant thoughts on the issue being discussed.
- Leave the promotion of yourself and your business to the information in your Twitter profile and to the other insights you’re posting regularly to your account.
- Don’t be someone who has no opinion — people whose Twitter accounts are only retweets and quotes get unengaged followers or no followers at all.
- Don’t thank people for following you. Twitter is about following people. Thanking people for following you is like thanking your mum for loving you, like thanking your dog for chewing a bone, like thanking yourself for remembering to breath. The people who’ve been on Twitter longer than you understand this and will think less of you. They followed you for their own purposes and reasons — they didn’t do it to help you, and you don’t owe them any thanks.
But the single biggest mistake you can ever make on Twitter is…
- Using a tool to auto-follow, auto-unfollow or auto-DM people machine-generated messages, whether they be simple thanks for following, self-promotional messages about your business or invitations to also follow you on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media networks.
Why? Because successful online social networks are made by real people, not routines generated by machines, and the richness and depth of connections between <150 people matters more than auto-generated spam amongst machines acting on behalf of >10,000 people.
What’s that, you say? Tool-generated replies and direct messages can be crafted to look real? Puh-lease. People are very good at telling the difference between people and machines. No machine has won a Turing Test yet.
Anybody who wants to see whether you’ve sent the exact same “thanks for following me” to all the other people who followed them simply has to look at your stream of older tweets. Anybody who wants to see whether you use an auto-follow tool just has to look at all the spambot accounts you’re following in your Twitter followers list. Anybody who wants to know whether it was really you who sent them a direct message or a machine just has to reply and see what kind of response they get.
Here’s an example of what the Twitter direct message inbox looks like when a Twitter user cares more for building a large audience than a quality audience:
Row after row of machines, clamouring for your attention. Sad, pointless, and actually achieving the opposite of what the owner intended: a richer relationship.
Remember the conversation-at-the-party analogy? What if, instead of interrupting the conversation yourself with a self-promotional rant about your business, you interrupted the conversation to playback a self-promotional rant you’d recorded on your iPhone? How do you feel when you call a company, and just for a second the realism of the recorded on-hold voice makes you think you’re speaking to a real human being? Doesn’t feel good when you realise it’s just a machine, does it?
If you want people to remember who you are and why you’re awesome, you can’t delegate that to a machine.