Last summer, I went on a quest.

The goal? Accumulate 2,000 followers on Twitter, as quickly as possible.

The motivation? A somewhat arbitrary goal, set by one of my employers. Long story short, if I could “prove” my account was valuable to people by hitting that 2k quota, they’d integrate my @charliezegers account into some new marketing channels, which would (theoretically) increase the value of the account even further.

When I started, I had around 500 followers… and no idea how to quadruple that number. So I sought the advice of friends and colleagues, one of whom shared his secret. It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. Select the Twitter account of someone you admire, or who covers the same territory you do.
  2. Follow every person on that account’s follower list. Roughly 20 percent of the people you follow will immediately follow back.
  3. Those that don’t, unfollow.
  4. Rinse.
  5. Repeat.

Deceptively simple, right? And there are a number of services – Tweepi is the one I found most useful – that all but automate the process. (Twitter policies prevent you from true automation, though I suspect there are ways around that.)

But that method is also tedious. So I tried other avenues. One was Twiends is partly a directory of Twitter accounts, and partly a marketplace. You get points for following other accounts, and you can offer points to people if they follow you.

In theory, it’s a way to connect with people that have similar interests; Twiends makes suggestions of people to follow based on common interest. But in reality, it became a way to inflate my subscriber numbers. I’d follow anyone that was offering points, and I’d give points to anyone willing to follow me. I didn’t much care if they were into multi-level marketing or promoting a band or selling Honda Accords in Waltham, Massachusetts… a follower is a follower, right?

When the influx of Twiends began to slow, and with my (totally arbitrary) deadline approaching, I resorted to the lowest form of follower-building… the dreaded #followback hashtag. If you’re not familiar with Twitter lingo, a hashtag is a text string, preceded by a pound sign (#). They’re used on Twitter as quick search terms; if you want to see all recent posts about the New York Knicks, you can search on the hashtag #Knicks.

If you want to inflate your Twitter following really quickly, you can start including the hashtag #followback in your posts. Or #teamfollowback. Or any one of at least a dozen other versions. Using those tags says to the greater Twitter community, “if you follow me, I’ll return the favor.” And there are thousands of Twitter users who will return the favor. That’s about all they have in common, though. The members of Team Follow Back ranged from raging Justin Bieber fans (is there any other kind?) to high school kids to self-appointed social media gurus to shady SEO consultants (is there any other kind?).

One trait noticeably lacking in the followers I’d picked up from hashtags and follower-building schemes: any interest in what I had to say. I reached my goal of 2,000 followers, actually topping out at close to 2100. But I stopped picking up value somewhere along the way.

Extracting Value from Social Media

My interactions on social media sites have a great deal of value to me. I’ve picked up several jobs by networking on Facebook. On Twitter I get ideas for stories, build my credentials as an expert in my field by interacting with other writers and consumers. There are people who benefit from having sheer numbers of followers – some celebrities reportedly make thousands of dollars per day by pitching products on social networking sites – but I’m not one of them, and I’m guessing most of the people who read this aren’t either.

To get value from your involvement in social media – or any marketing channel – you have to begin with the end in mind. My race to 2,000 followers really crystallized that for me. Many of my new followers would never contribute to a substantive discussion of issues that matter to me… or click on one of my links and generate ad impressions on one of my sites. They were just… there.

I’ve since stopped propping up my numbers with followbacks and Twiends. I’ve lost around 200 followers in the process – and will lose more as I continue to weed out bad fits from my “follow” list.

Your follower count isn’t the only mostly meaningless number that can distract you from your real goals in social media. My friend/colleague/client Jon Loomer recently pointed out how obsessing over a Klout score can have a very similar impact.

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