The most effective way to gain Twitter followers

A recent study by the lab at the University of Georgia dissected 500 Twitter accounts and about half a million tweets to determine what was most effective to acquire Twitter followers. Their results were quite interesting, but I wonder if they are practical for most businesses and users of the platform.

How to be a Twitter superstar

From their research, the following three conclusions were drawn:

  • Message content significantly impacts audience growth.
  • Social behavioral choices can dramatically affect network growth.
  • Variables related to network structure are useful predictors of audience growth

One of the more interesting insights was that informational content has about thirty times more user affinity than self-centered content. This confirms some of the data that researchers have already found about sharing. They also said that the size of a network didn’t necessarily create an affinity to follow (apologies to any Twitterers that may have purchased followers assuming the contrary to be true).

All in all, a lot of the information was very intuitive. Poynter summarized some of the best practice recommendations:

Number of connections in-common with potential new followers
High frequency of others retweeting your tweets
High frequency of informational tweets
A detailed profile description or “bio” 
Profile has a URL listed 
“Burstiness” of your tweets, or the peak rate of tweets-per-hour 
High ratio of followers to following
Lots of tweets with positive sentiment 
Use of long, fancy words
Your tendency to follow-back those who follow you 
Profile lists your location

You can see that very detailed criteria can be derived from this.

Is social affirmation the point?

While studying passively acquired Twitter followers is interesting, I question its relevance to both business and personal users. Specifically, do people use Twitter for the purpose of follower acquisition?

For a business, that would be a pretty reckless strategy. Most businesses would prefer to have a high-concentration of fans that are congruent with their target market, and that necessitates an acquisition strategy that is much more deliberate than residual outcome of published content. Also, Universal McCann’s Wave 6 study showed how analogous social content can be interpreted differently depending upon the vertical. So while there is merit to a study of Tweep acquisition for businesses, it seems to me that it’s recommendations are probably too generic to be useful.

For a typical Twitter user, I’m not sure that this is a recipe for success either. Is the purpose to be on Twitter to gain as much audience as possible or to publish user-specific content (what the study calls “meforming”)?  While there is some ego involved in all social media, I’m not sure that the gamification of running up a follower number is sustainable or important to most.


Photo by Sheryl Leigh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • Kathy Davis

    For me it’s quality over quantity. I don’t seek out large numbers of followers just for the sake of having more. Still a newbie, enjoying the socializing and hoping to build up others. Congratulations Jim on your accomplishments, and thanks for the useful information.

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Kathy – I think you’re the perfect example, what’s the point of growing a massive, passive audience if you can’t interact with them. Cheers!

  • Amy Kopinski Donohue

    There’s nothing in here about being social, though. I don’t agree with having a lot of followers if you don’t interact with them. In fact, I rarely follow an account back with more than a few thousand followers, because after I look at their profile, I don’t see them engaging at ALL. That’s a huge fail, in my book.

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Amy. I think your approach is completely reasonable for you but may not be for somebody else. A reason why studies that purport to know exactly how to do anything with social media are inherently flawed – different people are there for different reasons.

  • Michele Price

    We are not in control of those who follow us – numbers. We are in control of the quality of content we tweet – followers.

    Since everyone uses twitter for how it serves them – it is a platform first, how you use it gives it style and substance.

    As unpopular as it may be – when I read I focus on quality over quantity it makes me want to ask. Why is it an either or equation? How about both!

    My community follows me because of what I tweet and how I am supportive to the people and the topics I find interesting. The most important question to answer is “WHY” are you on twitter?

    • jimdougherty

      Great points all Michele. I do think that this study shows that there are some behavioral choices that can affect which you focus on, but you hit the nail on the head when you pose the question “why are you here?” Because there are many different answers to that question.

  • Aaron Brinker


    As a dad blogger, I try to be very engaged with my followers on all of the social networks that I am part of. I work at responding to posts and tweets. I try individualizing as many responses as possible (yes, I still use some automated tweets too but you can tell the difference when I individualize a tweet). I might not have the biggest following but at almost 3000 twitter followers I can hold my own (not including my facebook fanpage, google + and so forth….) I think it’s about trying to be social as much as possible as well as tweeting and re-tweeting content.

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • jimdougherty

      Hey Aaron – thanks for the comment. Incidentally we have a Xander, too. I think your point is perfect – do you need a gazillion people to see your tweets? Some businesses may, but all intents and purposes you go from a more collegial interaction to a publisher and a consumer. I think everyone’s aims are different. Cheers!

      • Aaron Brinker


        Originally, we were going to name our son Alexander. We made the mistake of telling a friend. They liked the name we choose and used it before the birth of our son. We then had to come up with another name. I had always been a “fan” of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and they had a character named Xander Harris (I really liked Sarah MIchelle Gellar). He was the inspiration for keeping a “form” of the original name Alexander. Now, I can’t imagine anything but Xander for our son’s name. It is a GREAT name!!

        I was going to add with my original comment, I think your followers are more tolerant of automated tweets if they know you are an engaged user. It is just my observation but I have never had anyone tell me “I know you use automated tweets.” It’s being able to do both and keeping a balance.

        Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

        P.S. Thanks for the fanpage follow :)

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