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Updated 11 Mar 2016

Followers vs Engagement

Generally we see that people have two objectives in mind when it comes to growth. Grow my followers and grow my engagement. In truth they are really a means to the same end - growing an engaged audience (or online influence). How many people can you reach and influence with your message each day? Do they see what you tweet, does it filter into their psyche, do they pass your message on?
But real online influence can be hard to quantify. So with follower and retweet counts being so visible it's natural that we tend to simplify and focus on these numbers. There's nothing wrong with that - they are proxies for the overall goal after all - but it's important to remember that the ultimate prize is to build an engaged online audience.
So let's look at the two pillars of audience growth in more detail.

Follower Growth

Follower growth is easy to measure due to prominent follower counts. But we all know that this doesn't tell us the proportion of followers who will actually see our tweets. Fortunately, twitter now provides detailed analytics over and above basic follower counts. This means you can now see the number of impressions your tweets get.

screenshot of twitter analytics

This gives you a much better measure of how many of your tweets are actually being seen by your followers on a daily basis. The more engaged, active, and attentive your followers are the greater your impressions will be. You can view this for your whole account or any tweet individually.

screenshot of tweet analytics

You should keep an eye on impressions because it's a good measure of whether your actual audience is growing. If you go to Fiverr and buy 1000 followers your follower count will go up, but your impressions will probably not (just an example, please don't do this!). Whereas if you give a talk at a conference and some audience members follow you, it is likely your impressions will go up.
So look a little deeper than pure follower count. For sure it is the first step toward our goal, but it has to be balanced with the value of those followers too. Here are some general rules of thumb when planning your follower growth promotions.

The greater the effort, the greater the value

Assuming your effort is focused on the right things, then we can generally say that the more effort you put in to gaining a follower the more valuable they will be to you in the long run. We can use twiends as an example here. It is easy to get followers on twiends - you just add yourself and people will follow you.
But it's also true that it is unlikely that many of these new followers will engage with you unless you actually interact with them on twitter - and this is where the effort comes in. Replying and adding thoughts and ideas to retweets takes time and energy, but it is fundamentally what twitter has been built to facilitate.

screenshot of a quoted tweet

The truth is that it's this effort that will create the valuable follower, not the initial introduction made by twiends. Likewise, doing outreach, running contests, and hosting twitter chats all take effort, but they will all move you higher up the value-stack.

The greater the cost, the greater the value

I'm not talking about buying followers here, but I am talking about the cost of real exposure building promotion. Spending $5 a bid to target a very niche group of users via twitter ads will cost you a bundle, but it may also be the only way you can reach those users.
The same goes for hiring a creative agency to build exceptional content, or investing in awesome giveaways for a contest. Money well spent can translate into the highest value follower growth. It cost's Buzzsumo a tidy sum to get custom illustrations for every post, but it makes their tweets stand out. They inspired me to do the same for this guide, and I can tell you it's not cheap.

screenshot of custom tweet illustration

The newer the users, the more 'dormants' you'll gather

Let's face it, twitter has a user retention problem. It's no secret, even wall-street obsesses about it now. Most people that sign up do not continue using the service in the long-term. It's complex, noisy, and can be used partially without signing in. This all translates to lost users.

screenshot of Mark Zuckerberg dormant account

The more 'exposed' a promotion method is to newly signed up users the higher the proportion of dormant users you will accumulate in your follower-base. Twiends, twitter ads, and most other high-exposure methods are not immune to this phenomenon. Because these methods expose you to a large number of new users, some of these users will become dormant over time. Unfortunately there's no way to avoid this when you promote yourself.

Dormant is not the same as fake

Dormant users are often mistakenly classified as fake. A fake account is one that does not actually belong to a real person, uses a fake name, masquerades as someone else, etc. Celebrities get accused of having massive fake followings all the time - up to 50%. The truth is that celebrity accounts are always the first accounts shown in the user signup process on twitter (what we in the biz call onramping), so they have the highest exposure to new users who become dormant.

screenshot of mashable Obama article

Engagement Growth

Engagement is easier to measure, but it can also get fuzzy. It loosely describes all the interaction that you get from your audience. This includes retweets, replies, likes, link clicks, etc. Of the bunch, retweets and likes have always been treated like royalty - because their numbers are so visible.
If people retweet and like your tweets then other people will see this. It somewhat means that they are putting their stamp of approval on your message. These are powerful metrics, because they shows you at a very basic level whether your message is resonating or not. But there is more to it than that.

Retweets don't tell the whole story

Studies have shown that people tend to share items that portray them in a certain way, rather than items that they may have read or been influenced by. They also have a propensity to share things that they think their followers will like, rather than just things they like.

screenshot of funny cat tweet

So, that funny picture of a cat has a higher chance of been retweeted than that article that took you a month to research. Coupled with the fact that content is multiplying at an exponential rate, it is getting harder to get retweets in any case. Somewhere between follower count, impressions, and engagement will be the true picture of your success.

Your interaction grows engagement

Regardless of the type of promotion you use to grow your following, your engagement will grow faster when you interact with your followers. This means you need to reply, mention, and reach out to your followers. The more familiar you become to your followers the more they will interact with you. The only people that get a pass on this are celebs and gurus, as their followers have a inherent desire to see what they say each day.

screenshot of Funny or Die tweet

Getting engagement is hard

Don't become disillusioned, this is tough for everyone. Twitter is very noisy and people are very busy. There are so many tweets in a person's timeline now that they may not even see your tweet if you sent it an hour ago. Twitter is currently moving towards an algorithmic timeline which will change this dynamic further still. And it is bound to change multiple times after that. So focus on building solid connections with your followers and let the engagement metrics sort themselves out over time.

Both Is Better

The best pursuits are those that will grow both your audience and your engagement at the same time, but these are hard to come by. More often than not your campaigns will focus on one or the other. Doing featured promotion will help with follower growth but it will not help with engagement. Conversely, running a creative tweet contest will grow engagement, but may not grow followers much.
There are some opportunities to do both though. Peer outreach and twitter chats are two such examples. They are more tightly focused and will take longer to execute, but will deliver both growth objectives at the same time.

screenshot of Buffer chat tweet

It's ok to phase these

There's no right or wrong way to grow your audience - except for buying followers which is definitely wrong. You can focus on follower growth and engagement growth at different times. For instance you may focus on growing an initial following first - even if they are unengaged - and then focus your efforts on growing their interaction. Just understand which phase you are in, and know that you need to do both at some stage to be truly successful.

Summary

If you want to grow your twitter you have to focus on both follower growth and engagement growth. No tool or service can deliver both, so build your campaign using a variety of methods to attract new connections, stimulate interaction, and capture their attention.

The Word 'Audience'
I use the term audience a lot, because it's generally what most people understand it to be. But there's a real danger of only thinking of your followers as an 'audience' to be broadcasted to. The more you think of your followers as peers, acquaintances or connections the better you'll do. Unless you are a celebrity, your audience will interact with you more when you interact with them. If you only broadcast to 'an audience', then you will unlikely grow your engagement very much.
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