twitter advice bar

I’m a little hesitant to put up this blog, because when I started this site I had a firm rule: “No social media advice.” It seems like everybody and their brother (or sister) is out there giving advice on how to use social media, especially for authors or others in the publishing milieu, and who needs another one? Then looking over my own entries I saw how much of a hypocrite I have already become, having done one blog on how to be a historical figure on Twitter and my angry rant on TrueTwit validation services. So I thought I’d just go whole hog and present in one place my own thoughts on using Twitter, but with advice not just for authors but readers and fans too.

I’m a pretty heavy user of Twitter. I’ve never calculated how many times a day I tweet, but it’s substantial, and Twitter is probably my primary social media outlet to promote my writing. I first joined Twitter in the summer of 2008 (under another handle) but it’s only in the past year that I felt I’ve truly come to understand its nuances. There really is an art to using it effectively. Just to distinguish myself from the 10,000,000 other people out there with blogs about how to use Twitter, I’m going to focus my advice not just on how to improve your use of Twitter from a utilitarian perspective, but also how to maximize your enjoyment of it. So, this is not a blog about “how to sell books on Twitter.” Frankly, since I would be on Twitter regardless of whether I have a book to sell or not, I’d rather just have fun with it, and if I gain some new readers and fans from it, so much the better.

So, without further ado, here are some tips on how to use Twitter.

1. How To Get Followers: Poach Someone Else’s!

Numerically speaking, getting followers is easy. I’m going to tell you how to do it here, but what you really want is not just followers, but quality followers. That’s why the next section is so important. But before we get there, the basics.

You have to follow in order to get followers. What I do is establish a set number of new Twitter users I will follow every day. It shouldn’t be too high, because you must leave yourself the time to actually look at their profiles, and we all have things to do besides surf Twitter all day. Currently for me it’s 25 per day. As I choose and follow each new person I’ll make a tally mark on an index card I always keep with me. People around me have often seen this card sitting next to me and wondered what it is. Now you know.

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If you’re doing it right, a healthy proportion of people you follow will choose to follow you back. Not all, certainly, but enough to generate a pretty steady stream of new followers.

But it’s not just following random people. What I do is, choose one Twitter user you really like and who has the kind of followers you’d like to have. If you’re an author, it should be someone who has a lot of followers who buy and read the sort of stuff you write. If you’re a reader, it should be someone who has a lot of followers who write what you like to read. Click on their profile, and then click “Followers.” Go down the list and click “follow” on the ones who look interesting. You’re literally poaching the followers of someone else, but it works, and there’s no harm done. No one—not even the person you’re poaching from—will ever know anyway. As of this writing I follow about 1,600 people. I’d say over half of them I have poached from a single Twitter user. (I’ll never say who, of course!)

The key is: don’t just follow indiscriminately. You really should look at each and every profile before deciding whether to follow. Sound time-consuming? It’s not, really, if you use a few key tips which I outline below.

2. Picking Good Potential Followers

It’s not just about your raw number of followers (or people you follow). You want the highest-quality followers you can get, and the ones that are most likely to follow you back, interact with you, and become your friends. Here’s how to vet them quickly before you click the follow button.

For every potential follower you identify, give their name a single click. A “profile summary” box will appear. It will show the person’s avatar a little larger, their header picture, their stats, who else follows them, and their last two or three tweets. From “profile summary” you can tell a lot very quickly. For example, you should probably follow if you see a fair number of these characteristics:

  • Avatar/display pic is interesting and unique.
  • Header picture is also interesting. This often gives a sense of the person’s interests.
  • The number of followers they have vs. the number they are following is not grossly disproportionate. (I’ll explain this in a bit).
  • They are followed by someone else you like.
  • They have tweeted in at least the last three days.
  • Their last few tweets are all originals, or at least contain a mix of original content and @ replies or RT’s.

They don’t have to have all these characteristics, but I find, the more who do, the more likely they are to be interesting people who you will enjoy connecting with, and who will follow you.

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Conversely, here are some signs that turn me off and cause me not to follow:

  • Avatar/display pic is an egg (the Twitter default avatar).
  • Header picture is nonexistent, blank, or a warning sign. For example, if you’re a committed progressive and the person’s header picture is a cartoon of Obama with a Hitler mustache, you probably won’t enjoy the person’s tweets.
  • Followers-to-following ratio is extremely lopsided. (More later).
  • They are not followed by very many others you follow or like.
  • They haven’t tweeted in a long time.
  • All of their last tweets are from automated feeds (“I liked a YouTube video,” “My Last.fm Top Artists,” GetGlue, etc.), horoscopes (which particularly annoy me), or consist of nothing but Instagram links.
  • Their visible tweets have anything to do with weight loss.

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Recognizing Spambots

You can almost always recognize a spambot (non-human Twitter user) by their last few tweets. If, for example, their last few tweets are just shortened links with no text—or, they @ someone with shortened links and no other text—chances are 99.9% you’re looking at a spambot. Almost no one ever tweets a link with no text or some explanation, even to people they know. It could happen, I suppose, in the midst of a conversation or something, but if they do it more than once in a blue moon, they’re a spambot.

Hacked Accounts

Sometimes a legitimate user—not a spambot—will have had their account hijacked by some sort of automated program. You can also usually recognize this instantly, especially if the last few tweets are the exact same text, or if the tweet is about weight loss (“I lost 40 lbs last week!”) This tends to happen on accounts that aren’t very active, because if the user was still around to monitor their Twitter feed, they’d realize they’d been hacked. This is a telltale sign that the user isn’t on Twitter much anymore, if at all. (Almost 80% of Twitter accounts are fallow).

Gross Follower/Following Disparities

Do look at the number of followers the person has vs. the number they are following. Also look at these numbers versus the number of total tweets the person has made. If the numbers are grossly out of whack, this is a red flag—but be careful eliminating someone on this basis alone.

Example: a user you’re interested in is following 5,632 people, but has only 25 followers and 32 tweets. A person with these statistics is probably a spam account—perhaps not an automated one, but a spam account nonetheless. They follow indiscriminately but their tweets haven’t attracted much independent attention.

Converse example: another user follows 432 people, but has 5,891 followers, and has tweeted 40 times. I can guarantee you a person with these statistics bought their followers. Never, never, never buy followers. They’re mostly spambots anyway. Avoid this person.

However, do be careful. Especially newer Twitter users who are totally legitimate will often struggle to get new followers in the beginning. In the early days I followed probably 500 or so people but it took me weeks to break through about 185 followers. These numbers are not red flags. Make a decision based on the totality of information you see in the profile summary.

Celebrities

Celebrities present a special case. If you’re following a Hollywood actor, rock star or bestselling author, expect their numbers to be a bit out of whack, and don’t be surprised if they don’t follow you back. For example, actor Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) has 4.9 million followers, but is only following 109 people. He also doesn’t tweet much—only 278 tweets. Following celebrities is fun and to each their own, but their tendency not to follow back can present problems for you vis-à-vis the follow limits, if you have a lot of them on your list. A bit more on that in a future blog.

Social Media Consultants

There are a lot of people on Twitter who are—or say they are—“social media consultants.” I’m sure many of them are legitimate and valuable. But my own personal preference is, unless I have some independent other reason for following them, I generally don’t bother. They’re usually not very good followers. Most of what they tweet are links to their own websites or promotional materials. They don’t tend to engage in good conversation. If they follow you back, great, just leave them in your list and forget about them. But anyone and everyone claims to me a SMC these days, and aside from the ones I know personally, an over-the-transom follow of a SMC is not likely to be really worth it unless you’re really hungry for a lot of milquetoast social media advice.

3. Just For Authors—Who Should You Follow?

Here is some advice specifically aimed at other authors on Twitter regarding picking people to follow.

Other Authors?

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers on Twitter follow other writers. Certainly I do this as well. Whenever promoting anything on Twitter—your book, your band, your low-budget horror movie you’re funding through Kickstarter, whatever—the unspoken rule is, “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Some authors in particular are very diligent about RT’ing or promoting links to others’ books, and a lot of promotion is done through blog tours, interviews and such. Authors are clearly very valuable people to reach out to, and many of them can become your friends as well as colleagues (or potential competitors).

I would be wary, however, of having your list of people you follow be too heavily slanted toward authors. They are often so busy writing their own books and promoting them that they may not be as good as non-authors who like the kind of material you write. Obviously I write zombie books. Although I follow many people who are also horror authors, it’s horror fans—not authors—who are most likely to buy my books and connect with me. So, while following other writers is crucial for an author, especially an independent one, take care not to make this your sole focus.

Agents?

Literary agents tend to be active on Twitter, some extremely active. If you’re represented by an agent and they’re on Twitter, by all means follow them. But, again my own personal preference, I’m following a lot fewer agents than I used to be. It’s hard to make a personal connection with them because every other author on Twitter follows them and is secretly hoping to be landed by them as a client. I can’t even imagine the number of story pitches that big agents must get as @ replies over Twitter (which is a horrible place to pitch a book anyway). So do them a favor, and yourself—don’t pitch them anything. Agents on Twitter tend to tweet a lot of advice for new writers. If you need this advice, be my guest, but be aware that if an agent is giving writing/query/publishing advice on Twitter, they’re probably giving it on their blog too, and their blog is probably a better source of that advice than a 140-character tweet.

Book bloggers?

You should seek out book bloggers, but it’s probably not best to have a follower base that is extremely heavy on them. As authors we need book bloggers. These people—they are overwhelmingly women, though there are a few guys out there—promote our books and give us reviews to flaunt on our websites and in our own tweets. They can also be good friends and loyal followers. But keep in mind, they are absolutely buried in material. Don’t expect them to follow you back, even if they’ve reviewed your book. It can also be difficult to establish and maintain a personal relationship with them—but if you manage to do so, you’ve got a very powerful ally!

Fans?

In this category there is no equivocation: yes. Follow as many fans of the type of stuff you write as possible. In this sense, the user you should be poaching followers from should be your competitor or the creator of some media that taps the same fanbase as yours. For example, a lot of zombie fans on Twitter will put in their profiles that they are fans of the TV show The Walking Dead. Chances are that if someone likes a TV show about zombies, they will probably like a book about zombies. How many fans of The Walking Dead do I follow? Dozens, if not hundreds. Sometimes I will even search for the hashtag #TWD to pick up more of them.

Thus, if you write vampire romances, you should probably be following a lot of people who say they like Twilight or Anne Rice novels, even if you aren’t a fan yourself. If you write space operas, you need to search the hashtags to see who’s tweeting about #StarWars or #StarTrek or who has the word “Galactica” in their Twitter handle, even if that’s not your precise niche. If you write high fantasy, the list of people you follow had better include a lot of avatars with orcs and elf ears, regardless of whether you are one of the two people on earth who didn’t like the Lord of the Rings movies. See what I mean?

4. Diversify Your Own Interests.

It’s not just about who you follow (and, hopefully, who’s following you). You need to market yourself, and that’s true whether you are an author, a fan or just an average person seeking to connect with others through Twitter. When I worked as a lawyer I learned that a law firm with a narrow client base is in very fragile condition. That’s good advice to apply to Twitter.

You can use your own Twitter profile—especially your bio—to advertise your own interests and thus make a case for why people should follow you. And my advice is, don’t be a one-trick pony.

Right now I am promoting my book Zombies of Byzantium. However, my bio reads, “Author, historian, teacher, metal fan, wine lover and citizen of the world. My book, Zombies of Byzantium, is out now with Samhain Publishing!” It would be easy to just plug Zombies of Byzantium and leave it at that. But I also want to show that I’m not just an author pushing a book. I don’t just want horror and zombie fans following me. I have other interests as well, and you should, too.

I do often tweet about wine, some of my tweets are about my career as an educator and historian, and I often comment about heavy metal. Consequently, I am followed by a couple of vineyards, some wine bloggers, graduate students, at least two people who do history podcasts, and a lot of metal fans and musicians. Maybe some of these people like zombies or are interested in buying my book, but certainly some of them couldn’t care less about Zombies of Byzantium. As a result my base of followers is pretty diverse.

5. Don’t Auto-Follow, And Don’t Be #TeamFollowBack.

Should you follow everyone who follows you? The answer to this is unequivocal: no. If someone follows you who you are not already following, use exactly the same profile summary procedure I outlined here before deciding whether to follow them back. Never, never, never auto follow-back. This is how you wind up following spambots. In fact, making a firm decision not to auto-follow, or to follow back without looking at someone’s profile, will render you largely immune from spambots. Most spam accounts are short-lived. If you don’t follow them back, they will either unfollow you (as being an unlikely customer) or get suspended in short order. Either way their crap won’t junk up your timeline, so it doesn’t matter if they follow you for a short time, long enough to lose interest.

For the record, I tend to be pretty lenient in following back. If a person I’ve never seen before suddenly follows me, chances are good that I’ll follow them back unless I see something in their profile or tweets that I don’t think is a good fit for me. As a result, the majority of people who follow me, without me having followed them first, wind up getting followed by me. But I don’t guarantee it, and neither should you.

What about people who say they are #TeamFollowBack or who specify “I always follow back” and the like? They can be totally fine—I have made many decisions to follow people with these characteristics—but beware of the users for whom follow-backs seem to be their primary activity on Twitter. It’s often worth loading their profile in a fresh browser tab just to look at their tweets more closely. If the vast majority of their tweets are “@[username] Thanks for the follow-back!” and you see this again and again and again in their timeline, my advice is, don’t bother. They’re playing for different stakes than you are.

If, however, there is a legitimate independent reason to follow someone who says they are #TeamFollowBack, it’s a win-win for you. You’re following someone you would have otherwise followed anyway, and if they really are #TeamFollowBack, you are guaranteed that they’ll return the compliment, so long as they honor that commitment. My only point is, auto-follow-backers are fine, but you shouldn’t necessarily commit to being one.

6. Do Not Use TrueTwit or Other Validation Service, And Don’t Follow Those Who Do.

Don’t use TrueTwit. Don’t even think about using TrueTwit. Personally, I will not follow anyone who uses it; I unfollow instantly when I get the DM telling me to click a validation link. I’ve explained my reasons for that in this blog, so there’s no need to rehash it all again, other than to underscore the point: don’t do it.

Next Installment: How To Manage Your Content.

Since I’ve already done one Twitter advice blog, I might as well do another one. In the next installment I’ll give you some tips on your Twitter content, conversations, how to RT and how to make your Twitter feed one that others will enjoy and motivate them to reach out to you. That’s the true value of Twitter, and the fun. So stay tuned!