To Get Twitter Followers, Be Nice and Be Useful

Now that I’m on Twitter, how can I get people to follow me? (Photo: Marc Hall, North Carolina State University)

Twitter can be a great resource for scientists and science writers. Twitter can be, as Ed Yong said, a “serendipity engine.” But setting up a Twitter account is only the first step – then you need to get people to follow you. Here’s the short version of what you need to know: content is king.

I’ve written about this in a general way before, but a forthcoming paper that examines factors related to getting Twitter followers digs quite a bit deeper. The paper, by researchers at Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan, is scheduled to be presented at the CHI 2013 conference in Paris, which is being held April 27 to May 2. [Note: Thanks to Adrian Ebsary for bringing the paper to my attention. Also: I have no idea what CHI stands for – the conference site doesn’t say. Communication fail.]

Accentuate the Positive

The researchers found that tweets, or Twitter messages, containing positive sentiments (e.g., “This study is really interesting”) are positively associated with gaining followers. It’s not a huge boost, but it’s there. By the same token, tweets with negative sentiments (e.g., “This study is a waste of time”) are negatively associated with gaining followers. The impact here is a little more pronounced.

The researchers hypothesize that this is because Twitter is a platform where users are usually connected by weak social ties – they don’t know each other very well. And, as the paper says, “negative sentiment from strangers may be unpleasant or uncomfortable for a potential new follower to see.”

Taken together, the message is clear: people are significantly more likely to follow someone whose tweets are generally positive than someone whose tweets are generally negative. Nobody likes a downer.

Share Information (You Can Use Big Words)

Sharing informational content – links to news stories, job announcements or new studies – is definitely good. For one thing, it’s a big reason many in the science community join Twitter in the first place. But avoid being a so-called “meformer,” who tweets a lot about him- or herself. The study found that “informational content attracts followers with an effect that is roughly thirty times higher than the effect of ‘meformer’ content, which deters growth” (emphasis theirs).

Further, the researchers found that it’s okay to use big words – as long as you spell them correctly. If you sound smart, you are more likely to get followers. Or, as the study authors put it, “Twitter users apparently seek out well-written content over poorly-written content when deciding whether to follow another user.” As a writer, this fills my heart with joy.

And there’s good news for Twitter users who really only want to talk about one subject, whether it is astrophysics or entomology. The study found that focusing on specific topics also helps to attract new followers (it’s a small advantage, but it’s there).

Fill Out Your Profile

See? I filled out my profile and used a photo. You can trust me!

People are more likely to follow your Twitter feed if you have taken the time to explain who you are on your Twitter profile – especially if your profile includes a URL. The researchers say that completing the user profile may help persuade other users of “one’s authenticity and trustworthiness, making them more likely to become followers.”

A 2012 study, by researchers from Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon University, found that Twitter users think Twitter feeds featuring photographs as the profile pictures are more credible than those that use cartoons or other images. Twitter feeds featuring the default Twitter “egg” image as the profile picture were considered the least credible. So, when filling out your profile, you may want to include a headshot, rather than a cartoon of Ookla the Mok.

Stuff You Can’t Control

The two biggest factors in helping get additional followers are things that you really can’t control. Researchers of the 2013 paper note that people are more likely to follow you if their networks overlap with yours. In other words, if they follow a Twitter feed that follows you, they are more likely to also follow you. That’s not much help. Similarly, if they see other people re-tweeting your posts, they are more likely to follow you. Not much you can do about that.

But you can write clearly, be positive and provide your followers with interesting, valuable content. If you do, you’ll find yourself with more followers and more re-tweets – which in turn will bring you even more followers.

The goal, of course, is not to rack up as many followers as possible. You can’t redeem followers for cash or prizes. But the larger your social network, the more resources you’ll be able to tap for meaningful information: whether that’s information about grant opportunities or having someone send you a PDF of a paper you don’t have access to.

Final Note: Normally I’d talk a bit about the methodology, descriptive statistics, etc. However, in this instance, I honestly couldn’t understand them. That may be due to my own shortcomings or a lack of coffee, but I encourage readers to take a look at the paper.


8 thoughts on “To Get Twitter Followers, Be Nice and Be Useful

  1. Matt the profile pic using a portrait is interesting to me. Straddling two worlds, the artistic side and sciencey side, I find I am a lot more inclined to follow someone listing themselves as an illustrator, artist or cartoonist if they are using art as their profile pic, instead of a photo of themselves.

    The overwhelming number of artist who do this on Twitter makes me wonder if we are all doing it wrong, or if the study didn’t test for this sub-culture somehow.


  2. Good question, Glendon! I’m guessing there are two things at play here.

    First, artists who are judging whether to follow another artist (we’ll call him/her “Artist B”) on Twitter may be more inclined to follow a feed that contains a sample of Artist B’s work. I’m not sure if that would hold true for non-artists when determining whether to follow Artist B’s feed.

    Second, the studies above are discussing broad findings. So, trends rather than universal truths. I, for example, would almost definitely follow someone with an Ookla the Mok profile pic, because I love Thundarr (perhaps I’ve said too much?). But *generally,* more people are likely to follow someone with a photo avatar than a cartoon avatar.

    Lastly, the avatar image is only one variable that people weigh when determining whether to follow a Twitter feed. Other variables appear to carry significantly more weight. So you’re not “doing it wrong” — you’re doing it differently. You are definitely interested in attracting followers from the art (and #sciart) communities, and your profile pic reflects your understanding of what is appealing to those communities. Further, your tweet content and online relationships are more important variables than your avatar when it comes to getting Twitter followers — and you’re doing quite well on both of those fronts! And, of course, I should qualify all of this by saying that this is merely my reading and interpretation of the relevant findings.

    Was this helpful?


  3. Definitely helpful!

    I agree with what you’re saying; again, my interpretation lines up with yours.

    Another context: non-artists looking for artists. Comic book creators have a huge presence on Twitter and are followed by many fans who are not themselves, artists. But the few occasions I’ve come across a comic book creator who *doesn’t* have Thor, Squirrel Girl or Ookla the Mok as their avatar, I wonder if I have the right account. That subculture collectively reinforces non-author photos as the standard.

    If that’s the case and it’s an exception to the rule, I suppose it comes to mind since it feels like over 1/3 of my active feed.


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