Twitter has a lot of issues with exploitative attempts to game the system to gain more followers. They keep setting limits on actions, like the number of people you can follow based on the number of followers you have. They’re trying to keep “follower churn” to a minimum.
What is follower churn? Say I make a new account. I find 1,000 high-profile influencers in my niche. I tweet a few times with content I think they might like, then I follow all of them. With luck, some of them follow me back. I wait a few days, then I unfollow all of them. Now I have an account with some highly influential followers and very few people I follow.
On the surface it’s a way to exploit Twitter culture to gain influence. In practice, it generally doesn’t work. Out of 1,000 influential accounts, you might get 2-3 people following you back. It’s called the follow/unfollow method by some, or follower churn by Twitter.
It’s called such because you’re churning over the people you follow and who follow you, and it’s not a beneficial behavior for anyone. People who you follow have an expectation that you like their content and that you’re there to see more of it. People who follow you want to see more of your content. Churn betrays this expectation by revealing that one or both sides doesn’t care about the social aspects of the platform.
You can read about Twitter’s position for all of this here, in their page about following best practices. If you don’t want to, I’ll summarize:
- There is no limit to the number of followers you can have at any given time.
- Twitter monitors how aggressively users follow other users.
- Repeated following and subsequent unfollowing of large numbers of users is defined as follower churn and is a bannable offense.
- Bulk automated follows and unfollows are grounds for the suspension of an account or the removal of API access from the app that allows it.
- You can follow up to 5,000 accounts until such time as you have close to 5,000 followers, at which point your limit goes up by 5,000 to 10,000. This cycle repeats indefinitely. You can have infinitely more followers than accounts you follow, but you cannot follow an excessive number of accounts without earning followers.
So what about unfollows? What does Twitter consider abusive? Is there a hard limit, or is it a matter of rates, ratios, or percentages?
Twitter’s Unfollow Limits
The fact is, Twitter doesn’t have an explicit upper bound on the number of accounts you can unfollow in a given day, hour, minute, week, or year. There’s nothing stopping you from unfollowing every single account you follow right now.
However, apps and individual users can and have been suspended for unfollowing too many people. What?
Twitter is not very good at explaining it, but there are a few different problems you can run into when you’re unfollowing a lot of people at the same time. It comes down to two things; behavior and intent.
On the intent side of things, you have Twitter analyzing what you’re doing. They want to make sure you’re not churning followers. If you’re purging a bunch of inactive accounts, that tends to be fine. Twitter can see that those accounts haven’t tweeted recently and won’t care much that you’re unfollowing them. It’s a perfectly reasonable action.
On the other hand, if you just followed all of those people last week, unfollowing them today is considered churn. It becomes pretty clear that you followed a bunch of people in hopes that they follow you back, and you remove the ones that don’t. Since follow-back etiquette hasn’t been a major behavior on Twitter for several years, this is going to be the majority of the people you follow.
Now, there’s some obscurity to the rules if you’re unfollowing recently followed accounts because you’re shifting the intent of your page. For example, maybe you’ve been on a campaign of following anyone for a long time, but you’ve decided to go with lists for most of your monitoring instead of follows, so you want to prune out the people you follow. Twitter might see this as aggressive, when you aren’t intentionally trying to churn your followers. You risk getting suspended even though you’ve technically done nothing wrong.
This is where the behavior side of things comes in. Twitter pays attention to behavior and, while there’s no limit on the number of people you unfollow in a day, there are limits on how you do it. Essentially, there are two limitations; the first is on API access and the second is a rate limit.
Unfortunately, neither limit is actually posted anywhere. This is because, while the Twitter API does have the unfollow action, it does not have a rate limit because automated unfollows are technically banned. The only reason the API has the action at all is because Twitter knows all the various app managers for Twitter all want to be able to, well, manage Twitter properly. Leaving out such a fundamental action would kill any interest in having such a manager, and would probably drive away a lot of the people using Twitter through such a program.
So, Twitter suspends apps and users who bulk unfollow people using an app; what about manually? Well, technically Twitter does not suspend people for taking repeated manual actions. In practice, though, if you’re unfollowing people too quickly, they might suspend you for churn anyways. This is a frequent complaint; this forum thread from 2013 is discussing it, and the issue hasn’t changed.
Twitter’s official stance is actually a lot more aggressive than you might think. In fact, they actively monitor all apps using API access to manage Twitter, and if those apps allow frequent bulk-like unfollows, they issue warnings. They have in the past asked big-name apps like Manage Flitter or Social Oomph to remove their unfollow capability for specifically that reason.
Heck, in that forum thread, the app in question doesn’t even allow bulk unfollows. It requires that the user perform the action manually, by clicking a button. The problem as Twitter sees it is that the rate at which app users can click that button is too high. They adamantly refuse to name a limit at which the app would be safe, though, because it’s not about hard limits, it’s about changing behavior.
Honestly, if you want to bulk unfollow accounts, you should do it slowly over the course of days. If you try to unfollow too many people in a day, you’re likely to be banned. Stick to a handful of accounts every minute and, if possible, unfollow through the official web or mobile apps, not a third party app.
The primary reason people aggressively unfollow the people they follow is follower churn, which as I mentioned, isn’t a very good growth strategy. It used to work, but it hasn’t for several years, and these days it’s a bannable strategy. So what can you use to grow your Twitter profile other than such exploitation?
Unfortunately for those of you looking for a shortcut, there aren’t a lot of options. You can try follower churn, but you’re going to get suspended for doing it.
Instead, you’re going to have to become a legitimately valuable account. If you don’t have a blog or a site that gives you that value, though, don’t worry; you can do it entirely on Twitter.
Technique 1: Sharing Valuable Content
The first technique involves keeping a close eye on industry sources, regardless of your industry. Whatever you’re focusing on, find websites, blogs, trade shows, and important people relating to it and keep an eye on them. When you see something of value, share it.
The goal here is to be a content curator. For example, in the gaming niche, you have Twitter accounts like VG247 and PC Gamer. These accounts are constantly broadcasting gaming news they get from their sources. They have become hubs of news for their industries, and they’ve racked up a significant number of followers for that reason.
You can even find other curators and curate their feeds into your own. Don’t just tweet the same things they do, though; be selective about it. Try to restrict yourself to just publishing the best content you can find.
Technique 2: Retweeting Influencers with Value Adds
This technique is very much like the previous one, except with a twist. First, locate the influential sources of information, be they curators, content producers, or highly monitored critics. Keep an eye on the things they share and look for opportunities to add your own spin.
What you’re going to do is retweet value that these users bring to the table, and add your own on top. Express your opinion, share a link to something relevant, or even just ask a good question. At minimum, you’re providing additional value to anyone who follows you. Ideally, the content producer themselves will publicly respond to you, giving you that much more value.
Technique 3: Follow Industry Keywords and Discuss
This technique is doing pretty much the same thing as the above, except you’re not following influencers, blogs, or sites. Instead, you’re following industry keywords. There are a lot of people out there posting about things in your niche. Monitor keywords through Twitter search and look for opportunities to either retweet something to your audience for value – as in the previous step – or to step in and answer a question. As a person of some authority, you can help people, and you don’t even need to pitch answers. Just by being helpful, you attract people to view your profile and visit your website.
Technique 4: Focus on Relevant Follows
The previous technique was all about following industry keywords, but what about industry people? There are always going to be people who are a lot more valuable to you than the average user. These people own sites or businesses in your niche, or are just popular, influential people, and they’ll be the sources of a lot of valuable tweets and information you can then share with your audience. Remember, you’re trying to be a central location for all things value; if you follow people selectively, you’ll have an easier time harvesting that value.
Twitter moves very fast, and there are a ton of people on it. Even with only 100 or so people followed, you’ll notice that it’s increasingly difficult to catch important stories. This is even worse if someone you follow is like William Gibson, who retweets 100+ tweets per day. That’s a heck of a flood of content on your feed.
Follow relevant people and relegate the rest to lists or a different personal account. Better data sources means better value to your users.
Technique 5: Use Your Brand, Website, and Presence
The above tips all work even if you’re just trying to build a presence on Twitter, but don’t have a website or a business attached to it. This one is where I cover all the techniques you can use if you do have a website or a brand to build from.
- Put social sharing buttons on your website. This is a simple and obvious way of adding Twitter value to your user experience.
- Embed a sidebar box with your recent tweets. This shows users how active you are and the sorts of things you tweet without sending them off site.
- Use a click to tweet plugin to allow users to tweet a message you design based on your current blog post or what have you.
- Use Twitter as a customer support portal. Most Twitter users – 72% of them according to Lithium – expect brands to respond within an hour when they tweet about customer service issues. Strive to be one of the brands that supports quickly and you’ll gain followers and respect.
- Include your Twitter URL on all the various promotional material you can. Brand print ads, business cards, email signatures, TV ads, anything you run that can have a Twitter URL attached.
Anything that uses your existing brand presence and resources to promote Twitter is a good thing; people will discover it and will be more likely to follow and engage with you. Plus, Twitter is so common and innocuous that people who don’t care about it won’t even notice it. It won’t annoy them; it’s just there.