There’s some contention about auto-follow-back features on Twitter. Some people like them, as a way to reward people who follow them. Others consider them a spam tactic.
Personally, I don’t think they’re very valuable to a business. Think about it. You have a few different types of followers.
- People who follow you and expect nothing in return.
- People who follow you and, if they aren’t followed back, unfollow you.
- People who follow you and unfollow you regardless of whether or not you follow them back.
- Bot accounts that follow you, either randomly or because of a service you purchased.
Bot accounts are a prime example of why you wouldn’t want to automatically follow every account that follows you. If you’re an influencer, people expect you to have some finely tuned content stream. If they check to see who you follow and they see bots, they wonder just how valuable you really are. They also immediately wonder how many of your followers are bots as well.
People who follow you and then unfollow you are fishing for autofollow scripts. They’re looking to build their own following through the process of follower churn; sending out follow notifications hoping for follow-backs, and dumping the people they follow to keep their ratios positive. Of course, positive ratios aren’t as important as they think they are, but that’s neither here nor there.
People who are miffed when you don’t follow back aren’t likely to be good followers either. Why are they following you, really? Are they fishing for their own follows, or are they just hoping to turn Twitter into a mutual relationship network like Facebook?
And, of course, the people who follow you and don’t care about a follow back are going to stay following you regardless. Following them might reward them, but they don’t really need that reward, do they?
Plus, if you follow everyone who follows you, you’re going to very quickly reach a point of saturation, where the messaging through your feed moves so quickly and covers so many disparate – and often inane – topics that it’s useless to you. You will need to move the most important sources of information, like news agencies, influencers, and personal friends, to Twitter lists. You essentially abandon your primary feed because the signal to noise ratio grows too small to get value from the feed.
Unfortunately for the proponents of automatic follow-backs, Twitter agrees with me here. Back in July of 2013, they published some updates to their API to clarify that automated following and bulk following is against the terms of service.
Fortunately, all is not lost. There are ways to make following the accounts that follow you significantly easier than it is using the default Twitter process of receiving notifications, navigating to profiles, and following. It’s not automatic, but it’s the next best thing for many of you.
There are many services that offer some form of enhanced return follows. Since bulk and automated following actions are not allowed via the Twitter API, apps that manage your followers have to be careful to rate limit your follow actions and to force you to perform them manually. They can stack up buttons for you to press, but at the end of the day, you still have to press them yourself.
Social Oomph is one such major option. In addition to a variety of features, they include one that compiles all of your new followers in one easy place. You can see who they are, see relevant metrics about their profiles and activity, and choose whether or not you want to follow them. You have to click to follow them individually if you want to, but it’s as close to automatic as you can get.
The trouble, of course, is that Social Oomph charges you for this service. Even if you get the free service, you’ll have to pay for the follower analysis features. More importantly, the fee for these follower analysis features is additional on top of even the premium payments for professional service. It’s really quite cheap – only about $6 a month – but it’s an additional fee you might not have been expecting. If you only have a few dozen new followers per month, it’s easy enough to do it all manually.
That’s the crux of this situation for many Twitter brands I see, interestingly enough. When you have under 5,000 or so followers, you aren’t gaining very many on a daily or weekly basis. You may have a lot of notifications, but various dashboards like TweetDeck and HootSuite allow you to filter through those quickly. It’s frankly easier to just go through your notifications and manually follow back those accounts you feel are worth following.
The only time a new follower filter or semi-automated follow-back process is valuable is when you reach a point where you get so many notifications throughout a day that it’s impossible to sort through them all. Even then, you can tailor your settings directly. Turn off notifications that you don’t care about, like retweeted mentions or emailed tweets. Your notification numbers will drop and it will be easier to sort through your follow notifications directly.
Gaming the System
The biggest problem with automatic following is simply that it games the system. It dilutes the legitimate engagement and follows you get throughout your use of the site. Engagement rates fall when you get more followers who don’t care about you, right? Other brands probably don’t want to have their rates decreased, and some influencers will even unfollow or block accounts with automatic follow-backs or automatic DMs.
If you’ve ever needed proof that auto-follows game the system, just look at sites like this one. It’s a list of accounts that follow back their followers.
The idea is that you can add yourself to the list and get followers who are looking to build their own audiences, in a sort of mutually spamificial relationship. There are 960 pages of these accounts, and let me ask you: how many of them do you think care about your brand? My guess would be somewhere around zero. Most of them are just looking to boost their follow numbers and will happily ignore every tweet you ever send.
Automatic follows also tended to spam feeds. Some of the services that provided the option would also post a tweet about “retweet this, follow me, and I’ll follow you back” with their own dumb hashtag. I mean, just look at this. Is that something you want to see in your feed constantly? When you end up in one of these networks of mutual follow-sharing, this is what you end up seeing more than anything else. Then, once again, you get to retreat to Twitter lists and never see new, fresh content from users you might not expect.
I suppose, rather than railing on against the process when it doesn’t even work these days, I can provide you additional tools to help you filter through followers and follow back new followers after a short review. Again, you can’t do these things automatically, but you can do them manually with as much assistance as an app is willing to give.
I already mentioned Social Oomph, and for good reason. They’re a very robust Twitter dashboard with a wide range of features. You can schedule tweets, save drafts for multiple uses, manage up to five Twitter accounts, and take advantage of advanced features. Keyword searches, mimic follow lists, Twitter list sorting, spam protection, and more are all included… in the professional version. To get everything, including the $6-per-month Twitter follower features, you’re looking at about $24 per month all told. Alternatively, you can just pay $7 per month for unlimited Twitter features without digging into the other social networks they manage for you.
Crowdfire is another great option, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. It’s primarily a follower management tool, with the ability to see who you follow and categorize them into various groups. You can unfollow anyone who doesn’t follow you back, or use that as an opportunity to reach out to them. You can see inactive followers, and you can see a list of who has recently unfollowed you. All of this can be built around a whitelist of specific followers – even inactive followers – whose relationship you want to keep unchanged.
ManageFlitter is a bulk follow and unfollow tool that doesn’t have pretensions of being a total management dashboard. It allows you to sort through your followers based on various criteria, like activity levels and whether or not they follow you back, and you can perform actions relevant to the situation. Additionally, you can search Twitter at large for accounts based on specific factors like their most recent tweet, their location, and their follower count. You can then follow or engage with these users as a basic entry level version of influencer marketing.
Tweepi also has a follow-back feature formerly known as Reciprocate. It scans the people who follow you and looks for accounts you don’t follow. It then presents them to you so you can filter the list based on your own criteria, and then take action, like removing them as followers or following them in return. It is, though, another premium tool. Since it’s close to automation, Tweepi limits it to paid accounts and limits the automatic aspects of the feature, to avoid having their API key revoked. It’s a feature available in their Silver plan, which is $13 per month, and it remains available if you upgrade to the $25 monthly Platinum plan.
Interestingly, semi-automatic follow-backs are not a common feature any more. I would have thought that a lot of apps would try to circumvent Twitter’s removal of the feature in their API, but then again, this all happened three years ago. When these apps realized Twitter was right, and users realized the features weren’t really benefitting them all that much, the trend would have dropped.
There are a lot of automatic and semi-automatic follower tools out there, but a lot of them revolve around finding new valuable accounts to follow, or getting rid of spam accounts tied to your own account. You can see a good selection of those tools here.
A Note on Automated DMs
One modern replacement for the automatic follow back is the automatic direct message, or DM. I don’t like these much either, but I can see where they might find a role. However, I highly recommend avoiding automatic DMs that are nothing more than a “thanks for following me” message. These are viewed largely as spam, and can actually penalize your account if you end up sending out too many of them in too short a span.
If you’re dead set on getting an automated follow-back plan working, one thing you could do is set up automatic DMs and send a message to new followers asking them to reply. You can then monitor your responses and follow back anyone who replies. This will reward your interested followers while filtering bot or disinterested followers.
The way I would recommend you use automatic DMs, if you choose to use them, is with a drip campaign. TweetDrip is an app that allows you to set up drip messaging in a way that avoids the common problems with automatic DMs. For one thing, they aren’t necessarily immediate, so they’re made to look a little more like natural, personal messaging. Secondly and most importantly, they follow up on messages in a drip feed. The biggest problem with automatic DMs is that it’s a one-and-done thing. It doesn’t build communication the way a drip campaign does. By using a drip campaign, you can set up something similar to an email onboarding campaign, for much the same effect.
In the end, though, it’s up to you what level of automation you want to use. I’m sure there are black hat non-API tools that automatically follow accounts back, and while using one might risk your account, if you’re that set on automatic follows you probably don’t have a huge investment in your account anyway. Use them at your leisure.