Follower Numbers On Twitter DO Matter (Just Not In The Way That You Think)

The number of followers you have on Twitter has always been an ill-advised way to measure status and influence. It looks impressive, but in many cases is not indicative of anything.

If you have 100,000 followers it certainly appears that you’re popular, and that you must (in some way) matter, but virtually anyone can reach that number – all you have to do is follow 101,000 people yourself. The actual value of building a large community via reciprocal following (certainly automated) is often very low – by definition, these kinds of networks are not (and likely never will be) all that engaged.

In some cases follow count absolutely is reflective of influence. Many celebrities and brands on Twitter with millions of followers have a huge impact on the infrastructure of the network, and can make and break websites, products and services with well-timed and enthusiastic tweets and recommendations. If you have a hundred thousand followers but you’re only following a few hundred yourself the chances are (assuming, that is, that you haven’t pulled a bait and switch with your network) that you’re somebody who can make things happen.

But where follow count really matters is this: how many people are the people who follow you following?

Fiendish tongue twister aside, this is a vital metric. Let me explain. Let’s say you have a hundred people in your network who are following you on Twitter. If each of those people is following 100 users themselves, this means that (allowing for duplicates) there’s a collective network size there of 10,000 accounts (100 x 100).

Assuming an even world where everybody tweets at a similar pace and has an equal standing, at any given time there’s a 1/100 chance that your message is going to be noticed. This number rises and falls with your perceived importance (justified or otherwise), and is impacted by other things like time of day, what day of the week it is, what’s on television, news and sport events, and so on.

1/100 – a 1 percent chance, if you will – sounds pretty lousy, but in the bigger picture it’s actually decent, and perhaps as good as you can hope for. Imagine if your 100 followers each followed a thousand people. Now, that overall network size has leapt to 100,000 and at any given time your message has a rather humbling 1/1000 chance (0.10 percent) of being seen.

And if your entire network is made up of mass reciprocal followers, each following tens or hundreds of thousands of (like-minded) users, you can dilute that again by at least one magnitude, and likely a lot more – in these kinds of ‘communities’ there’s every chance that your message will never be seen. No matter how hard you try.

If you want your ideas to spread then your message has to be

  1. Noticed
  2. Understood
  3. Shared

The ideal on Twitter is a community where the network is highly-engaged and everybody within it is following no more than a few hundred people on average. And in a perfect world, that few hundred will all be carefully selected and matter, both individually and as a whole.

The tricky part is that this is something over which you have little control. You can’t shape or even really guide the people your followers are following. But you can be a leader in the way you craft your own community, hopefully inspiring others to take a second look at theirs.

The reality is that any retweets or recommendations you’re going to receive from Twitter’s top 100 most-followed users are going to be sparing at best. You certainly cannot come to depend upon it. And (while it’s always welcome) even a nod from Stephen Fry or Alyssa Milano is only going to get you so far – that spike in visitors is nice, but this time next week nobody is going to remember. Or care.

Of far more importance is consistent and ongoing support and approval from your own network. These people are the key to taking your brand or idea forward and making it spread. 100 followers each following and being followed by 100 people individually might not have a lot of sway, but as a collective they can make big things happen. Again and again and again. All you have to worry about is being remarkable enough to get noticed.

(Follow me image via Shutterstock.)

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