#SMsceptic: True Twitter Authority Is All About Follow Ratio

100,000 CupcakesLet’s begin with a (slightly rude/NSFW) quote:

“Having the most followers on Twitter is akin to having the most imaginary friends, the biggest Gamerscore, or the world’s longest e-penis. In other words, what does it mean in the real world? Precisely f*** all.”

A friend of mine wrote that on his Facebook profile a while back. He was annoyed because a friend of his was paying a lot of money to see a social media professional for social media training. This professional’s big, bold unique selling point was that he had a lot of followers, the most in his chosen field and area of expertise, apparently. So he must know what he’s talking about and be good at what he does if he’s that popular, right? And fair enough, he did have a lot of followers. I saw his profile and he had about 100,000 followers on Twitter. Nice!

The only problem? He was also following about 100,000 in return. His Follow Ratio was pretty much 1:1.

Why do I have a problem with this? A few reasons:

Quantity can be gamed: Auto-follow tools such as TweetAdder make it easy for someone to obtain a large number of followers. Set it to automatically follow people based on various criteria (e.g. their location, keywords in their profile’s Bio, etc.). Eventually, as you’ve gone to the effort of following these people, some will follow you back – and you can even automatically unfollow those who do not reciprocate after a certain amount of time. Rinse, repeat, and after a while, voilà: you’re “popular” (read: you look more popular).

Why do I say “look more popular” when they could be genuine followers? Well…

You could be preaching to following the choir: What if the 100k that you’re following – to get 100k people to follow you back – are doing exactly what you’re doing? Then it’s purely a numbers game – you’re not reading their tweets, they’re not reading yours.

…And why do I say that? Well…

It’s impersonal: I think it’s pretty safe to say that if someone is following 100k people, they’re not actually reading the tweets in their Twitter feed. I follow 200+ people I genuinely care about as I type this, and I struggle to keep up! In fact, at an event I went to a while ago, one of the speakers – who gave a talk on Twitter – said that you should just follow lots of people from your business profile, and use a separate/personal profile or a Twitter List to follow the people you actually want to keep up-to-date with. Umm… no thanks, that’s not for me.

Scrambled NumbersQuantity isn’t everything: Social media isn’t necessarily about having lots of (or the most) followers. As I’ve said before (point #12), I’d much rather have 10 followers who care about what I have to say than have 10,000 followers who don’t and who only follow me so that I follow them back and beef up their stats. As always, quality trumps quantity.

And at the end of the day…

It’s snake oil – it’s tricking potential customers/clients: I know all this, and I’m assuming most other online marketing professionals reading this know all this, but does your average Joe Bloggs – who wants to learn how to use Twitter for business use – know to watch out for it? Probably not. My friend’s friend didn’t.

So why is Follow Ratio (FR) important? Well compare the above gent’s ratio of 1:1 (followed by 100k, following 100k) to someone who truly is an authority. If someone is followed by 100,000 people but is only following 100 in return – their FR being 1:1,000 – then it seems a lot more legitimate that this individual is genuinely being followed because people care about them. The person doesn’t have to follow people back and they will still follow him/her.

Fortunately, contrary to what I’ve said above, I think people are gradually getting wise to this. SEO has had a similar problem: it seems logical to think that the people ranking at the top of Google for a keyword like “SEO agency” are the best at what they do, but what if they’ve gotten via dodgy/spammy means, or it’s a keyword that looks good but doesn’t even get much search volume? Meanwhile, Twitter does have Klout as a metric, but then it isn’t exactly accurate (and I believe Klout doesn’t currently take followers into account)…

To me, what’s important are things like reviews, testimonials and word-of-mouth. Fair enough if this social media trainer with a 1:1 FR is actually really good at giving social media training, but in my opinion, they shouldn’t use “I have lots of followers” as a USP when such a thing can be easily manipulated (and – judging by his profile – probably has).

Funnily enough, as I was going to publish this post, someone on my Twitter feed complained about how people he knows are falling for follower numbers. Using Storify Wakelet, I’ve included the tweets and @mentions between me and two others: @NeilCocker and @tombeardshaw. (More people and tweets were involved in the discussion, but as some of the tweets went a bit off-topic and became quite negative – pin-pointing a particular individual guilty of the practice – I’ve only included a few of them.)

[Image credits: 100,000 cupcakes by Adam Tinworth (because everyone loves cupcakes!); “Scrambled” by Nick Humphries]


  • Matt DSGNS

    April 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm Reply

    Hi Steve.

    Just read through your post, completely agree with the follower numbers aren’t everything! Great post. Glad to know you follow me for the conversation!

    • Steve

      April 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm Reply

      Of course, Matt. Certainly don’t follow you because of your Twitter profile pic (kidding!) 😉

  • Russell

    April 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm Reply

    Good post and point well made but what about those that use the auto follow route and then unfollow hoping that most of their new followers will continue to follow – theres a few people practicing that technique around!

    • Steve

      April 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm Reply

      That’s a very good point, Russell. Unfortunately, I know a few people who have done it and – as a result – look genuine, with lots of people following them and a good Follow Ratio. In those cases, I just hope people catch them on the way up, when they still have the big numbers of people they’re following! 🙂

  • Geoff

    April 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm Reply

    Twitter Counter is a good way to check if someone is following/tweeting in a bot-like manner: http://twittercounter.com/compare/CardiffBiz/3month/friends

    And to quote Merlin mann: “Following 50k people is an effective way to build relationships with anyone who’s dim enough to believe you read over 1,000,000 toots a day.”

    • Steve

      April 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm Reply

      Cheers, Geoff – I’ve used Twitter Counter before but I’d honestly forgotten about it. I might give it a try on the anonymous subject of my blog…

  • Yousaf

    April 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm Reply

    Great post steve and thanks for the mention.

    Here are two things I would like to point out:

    1. Services trying to measures influence take into account the most primitive signals that could easily be manipulated.

    2. Influence is not a numbers game.

    • Steve

      April 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm Reply

      No problem, Yousaf. 🙂

      Very good points you make, especially the first one. For the layman (i.e. someone who doesn’t quite understand how it all works), maybe all they have to go by is numbers, and unfortunately people can easily take advantage of that…

  • Alex Kavel

    April 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm Reply


    I did see the comments on twitter.

    Some wise words Yousaf.

    Followers, ratios and RTs aside the only true measure of success for a SM expert is how effective they’ve been against delivering business/marketing objectives.


    • Alex Kavel

      April 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm Reply

      That should’ve ended:


      • Steve

        April 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm Reply

        Absolutely. Although it can still be a difficult thing to track sometimes, it’s better than thinking a higher follower count or more RTs is a sign of success, because it might not be at all.

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