How Twitter Users Decide Who to Follow

We get asked about Twitter a lot at FrogDog. Clients want to know whether it makes sense as part of their marketing mixes and contacts want to know best practices for it.

Best practices for social media are always in flux. There was a time when sending an automatic direct message on Twitter when someone followed you was a good thing (although that time was brief). Now it’s so abhorrent that many people will automatically unfollow you if you “auto DM” them.

But following habits—how people choose who to follow on Twitter—has stayed pretty steady throughout the years. Now, we’re talking here about real Twitter users: actual people who are on Twitter and using it regularly. We are not talking about spammers and robots or “bots,” which you can get to follow you simply because you mention a keyword or because you promise to follow them back. There are multitudinous ways to game the Twitter system and appear to have hundreds or thousands of followers.

But we’d say a follower who isn’t actually reading your tweets isn’t a follower at all. Quality over quantity, right? When it comes to achieving your marketing goals, tweeting to no one does, well, no one any favors.

So here are the relatively steadfast criteria by which people on Twitter choose who to follow on Twitter. The information is based on our Leslie Farnsworth’s experience over four years of active tweeting—she’s FrogDog’s most involved Twitter user. Also, Leslie did some anecdotal research with her Twitter connections to learn how they choose who to follow. (Surprisingly, answers from people across the United States and even people in Europe came back with the same answers.)

Want to get more real Twitter followers? Craft a better and more effective Twitter presence with our findings below:

Content of Interest

What are you tweeting about? Relevancy is a primary consideration for most people when they determine whether to follow an account. Pamela Garner, Allan Jenkins (@allanjenkins), Hattie Horn (@my3rdact), and James Glassman (@JamesGlassman, founder of @Houstorian) said they look for content that’s relevant to something they care about or that feeds one of their interests. (We love Allan’s diverse list of interests: He likes to follow clergy, politicos, scientists, cartographers, writers, chefs, socmed thinkers, and journalists.)

Sabrina Lojuk (@slojuk) echoed Pamela and Allan when she said that she looks for people whose profiles and tweets align with hers. She’s looking for like-minded folks to follow.

Danielle Reed (@houstonblogger) said that she prefers to follow people near her (Houston or Austin)—she’s more likely to be interested in someone’s tweets if they’re local.

And FrogDog’s Arti Singh (@arti_singh) said that she uses Twitter as a source of up-to-the-minute news as much as anything else.

As with most other social media, content is king on Twitter.

Interesting Content

Content that the user is interested in is not the same as interesting content. Twitter users may find accounts dedicated to topics of interest, but the information they put out is dry, or boring, or self-serving (just press releases after press releases), or something else. The content has to be delivered in an interesting way. Hattie said that interesting, well-delivered resources are main criterion for her in deciding whether to follow someone.

In fact, even if your tweets aren’t on a topic of particular interest, someone may follow you back because you’re funny, or insightful, or clever. Hattie, Pamela, and James said that whether the person’s tweets are amusing is a big criterion for them.

Interactive

Michael Coppens (@urbanhoustonian) is unconventional in that he prefers to have some sort of interaction with someone—whether on- or off-line—before he follows him or her on Twitter. Steven Stewart (@steveauthentic) said he often follows anyone he’s already connected with on other social networks.

When determining whether to follow an account on Twitter, most people look to see if the person or account interacts with its followers. In other words, does the user just spew out information, never responding to anyone else’s tweets? Is the person silent when someone replies to her tweets or sends her a tweet directly? (Bad form all around.)

Twitter is a conversational medium in many ways. Leslie said that she prefers to follow accounts that have at least half as many interactions as original tweets. Leslie is primarily on Twitter to build relationships and have conversations about topics that interest her. And her preference is fairly standard for Twitter users: Some Twitter best practices manuals say that out of every three tweets, two of those should be responses or interactions with other people or accounts.

In a similar vein, Danielle said that if the Twitter account looks like a spammer or a bot, she never follows it. How does she tell? She assesses whether the account’s bio sounds like an advertisement, and then looks to see whether they’re following a zillion people and only being followed back by a fraction of that number. Both of these things are signs of spammers and bots. And spammers and bots aren’t interactive (or interesting or, usually, putting out relevant content).

They Know You IRL (In Real Life)

Even if you’re boring and your Twitter feed is a one-way street, people who know you will often still follow you. Allan implied that following people he knows is something of a default. Either out of social obligation—they’d feel badly, not following you back—or because they are truly interested out of friendship to know what you have going on, many people will go ahead and follow someone they know personally. (One person we’ll allow to remain anonymous said that he follows “secret crushes.” Aw.)

We’re interested in hearing about how you make the “follow decision.” Are you on Twitter? What makes you decide to follow someone back? Let us know!