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Updated 11 Dec 2016

Reasons People Follow

For any individual looking to gain a significant following on twitter, trying to understand why people follow each other can be maddening. It might seem like you are doing everything right - the followers you have are engaged, and you post regularly to ensure consistent reach. But you might find that you are still not seeing the kinds of gains you would like to see. Meanwhile, you take a look at other accounts that are one-dimensional, trivial or even boring, and they rack up followers at breakneck speed.

screenshot of Kirstie Alley tweet

If you want to start building your following in a powerful way, the path to success begins with understanding what makes a user dive in and click the 'Follow' button next to your twitter handle. Let's take a look at the most popular reasons why users follow certain accounts on twitter.

Reputation and Fame

Let's get this out of the way right at the start - the most common reason why a user chooses to follow someone is their built-in real world reputation. Essentially, people want to follow famous people on twitter, even if their tweets are painfully boring like this one from former NFL star Tim Tebow:

screenshot of Tim Tebow tweet

This is certainly not a ground-breaking revelation, and you might be wondering how this information can help you gain a following. Well, you might not be Kanye West or Katy Perry, but any level of attention you've received, no matter how small or niche-specific, can work to your benefit in growing your twitter following. The trick is to maximize your ability to leverage real-world attention into twitter attention, a process with two sides.
Firstly, build a reputation outside of twitter. Don't attempt to grow your twitter in isolation - post on guest blogs, speak at seminars, publish eBooks about your area of expertise. Make yourself known to the world. The example below shows how Lee Odden, Steve Rayson, and their respective organizations are incrementally building their reputations as content experts through the webinar below. The beauty of this practice is that even if you miss the webinar, the fact that you have seen this tweet will probably reinforce their status as experts in your mind - it's a proof point in itself.

screenshot of a webinar announcement tweet

Secondly, direct the attention you receive to your twitter account. Fame or reputation won't do much for your follower numbers if users don't know where to find you. Anytime your name appears in a positive light, ensure that your twitter handle is visible. Then make sure that anyone who comes across your profile will be able to quickly and easily recognize you as the personality they're looking for. Upload a clear profile picture and write a clean, concise bio that identifies you as 'that-guy-that-does-that-thing-I-like'.
The dark side of fame-based twitter followings are those based on infamy. Many users will follow certain accounts in anticipation of reading something outrageous, controversial, or offensive. Celebrities like Kanye West know that by making inflammatory statements on their feed they'll attract significant attention to their account.

screenshot of a controversial Kanye West tweet

Relationship

Twitter users follow the people they know. Whether through business relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships or familial bonds, many of the accounts followed by twitter users belong to their acquaintances and loved ones. This is how most social media outlets begin, as a means for real-world relationships to extend into the online sphere and remain tied there.

picture of scrubs friends

If you happen to be just starting out with your twitter account, these personal bonds will likely be the source of your first group of followers. And there's nothing wrong with that! Like an entrepreneur who's very first investor is their mother, your initial followers might not seem significant but are the first stepping stones to legitimacy on twitter.

Familiarity

Sometimes, follows stem from familiarity built through the platform itself. A user might have exchanged a few replies back and forth and formed a casual online friendship even if the two parties operate in different fields and share few interests.
This is actually one of the most powerful ways to grow an engaged following, however it is very time-consuming. If you had enough time in the day to have 100 meaningful exchanges with other people on twitter, then there's a good chance you would be converting a large chunk of them to attentive followers. The reality is though that there just aren't enough hours in the day to do this at a scale.
This is one of my strategies for building connections on twitter, but I'll be honest that I only have the time to do a handful of these in a week. A shout out to @steverayson from Buzzsumo who I chatted with recently. Check out their blog, it's awesome. Below is a snapshot of a familiarity building conversation.

screenshot of a conversation on twitter

Substance

This goal is perhaps the most obtainable but can sometimes be the most difficult to execute - obtaining followers through quality posts. In a perfect world this would be the only marker by which twitter users decided who to follow, but even in the real world this can be the most affective means of obtaining long-term twitter success.
But what does a substantive tweet look like? Each user is unique and looks for something different from the accounts that they follow. What you might consider useless drivel might be exactly what a million other users are looking for. Interesting and value-adding tweets can fall into some of the following categories:
News (and Gossip)

A couple of decades ago the major news stations dominated any developing stories and were on the front line of delivering those stories to people. Now, social media consistently allows for the fastest flow of information, often leaving major news outlets to play catch-up. Many twitter users access the platform primarily to receive and explore information about current events, then share their unique perspective on these stories with their followers.

screenshot of a news tweet

Humor

Twitter users love to laugh, and one sure-fire way to gain a following is to deliver consistently funny content. Users are always looking for some light-heartedness in their feeds, and many perceived-as-serious public personalities have used twitter to highlight the lighter side of themselves and reaped the benefits of increased attention as a result.
Humorous posts can include jokes, anecdotes, video or image attachments, or funny conversations. If it makes people laugh, they'll follow it. @Brilliant_Ads is one of my favourites.

screenshot of a funny Pepsi Light tweet

Insider or Niche Content

Many twitter users direct their attention to accounts that deal with their own professional sphere, field of study or personal interests. They will follow those users who provide insights behind-the-scenes of their favorite shows or movies, interviews with the authors they admire, or intimate details about the celebrity icons they adore. In the example above, Nike provided NBA-loving followers with exclusive images from a meeting between retiring legend Kobe Bryant and current star Lebron James.

screenshot of a Nike niche content tweet

Additionally, many hobby-centric twitter accounts attract loyal followings through insightful and on-message content, catering to lovers of crafts, decorating, writing, fishing, aviation, and any other interest you can imagine.

Inspiration

Another good example are inspirational quotes, thoughts and images. Twitter users enjoy the pick-me-up that comes from an inspiring word or picture on their feed, and will follow the accounts that provide them with consistent messages of hope and positivity.

screenshot of an inspirational tweet

Advice

Free advice is also a strong force in attracting an audience. Professionals and hobbyists in various fields relish the opportunity to receive a steady stream of tricks, tips and titbits delivered right to their feed and will follow accounts that offer advice and insights into their areas of interest.

screenshot of an advice based tweet

Curation

As social media juggernauts like twitter and facebook have become ubiquitous, the internet has begun to shrink. Countless websites are posting content, but increasingly often that media is being consumed from the comfortable familiarity of social media as embedded or linked content.
Users want to have one digital place where they can go to receive their news, entertainment and gossip, and social media services like twitter are already conveniently central to their lives. As a result, some twitter accounts focus solely (or primarily) on content curation, acting as a middle man for followers who want to be provided with a running feed of the best the internet has to offer.
Twitter users looking to grow their following like this approach as well, because the internet provides an endless stream of interesting content that can appeal to potential followers. Buzzfeed's various twitter accounts act primarily as content curation feeds and it's paid off for their engagement in a big way. But be wary of being just another curator who doesn't offer anything new and fresh.

Reciprocation

Another reason people follow each other is that they expect a follow in return. Smart users follow targeted accounts that interest them on a regular basis, hoping they'll be rewarded with some attention of their own. There's nothing wrong with this approach and it can be an effective way to gain meaningful followers who share your interests. But don't go overboard following thousands of people with no common connection to them. If their tweets don't interest you, will yours interest them?
The best reciprocative twitter users look for users with whom they share common interests, ideas or career fields. They strike up conversations, engage one another, share each other's tweets and ultimately follow one another. These reciprocative follows are the most meaningful and often lead to more follows from each party's respective fans.

Incentives

Savvy twitter users looking to grow their following will often launch incentive programs targeted at their followers as a powerful method of engagement. We're not talking about sending five bucks to everyone who follows you, but rather targeted and relevant giveaways that interest and excite your followers.
For example, a food and cooking-based twitter account might offer entry into a giveaway for cooking supplies to everyone who retweets them. Everyone likes free stuff, and users follow accounts that provide giveaways.

screenshot of a sweepstakes tweet

Requests or Support

An often overlooked reason for a follow are requests and support. If people need information or help from you then they will usually follow you - either temporarily or long-term. They may need to ask you something about your website or business, or they may be looking for customer support.

screenshot of an Amazon customer support tweet

Beware that you need to be attentive to these followers. They may genuinely need assistance, and if you don't help them sufficiently you may make an enemy out of them. So track new questions coming in each day and be responsive. If you deliver awesome assistance then you may make a loyal follower (and supporter) for life. Also, occasionally let people know that you offer support via twitter.

screenshot of a Buffer support tweet

Chats & Events

A very successful approach for getting people to follow you is by hosting a twitter chat or live tweeting an event. This works so well because it creates a compelling reason for people to follow you for the duration of the event. Many users will initially follow the host and special guests just so that they don't have to search for their tweets, and they will often continue following afterwards.

screenshot of twitter chat event

Summary

At the end of the day, users follow the accounts that offer them something of value. Whether it's advice, a chuckle, an insight into an industry, a follow-back or just a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, users will follow the accounts that increase the quality of their own personal news feeds.
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