The other day, whilst going through my social feeds and news updates, I noticed this tweet.
Happy #FollowFriday !
Reply to this tweet in the next hour and we'll follow you back! pic.twitter.com/7uJTSItB6c— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) August 5, 2016
My first thought was that this was an out-dated tactic – surely we’re over the whole ‘number of followers as a marketing metric’ thing and we’re moving into the new age of quantified data and genuine engagement. Surely following back is largely a thing of times past, right?
And while building a following is definitely important - and as such, you can’t really fault the endeavor - auto follow back seems cheap. It’s building numbers as opposed to community.
But actually, this tactic may actually be more effective than ever on Twitter – here’s why.
Back in February, Twitter sent the social media doomsdayers intooverdrive when they announced that they’d be switching to an algorithm-defined timeline .
You may take my chronological timeline, but you will never take my freedom Twitter. pic.twitter.com/nx086U0PTY— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) March 17, 2016
'Surely not', many exclaimed, surely a social network that bills itself as the ‘ global town square ’, as the key platform for real-time news and information couldn’t be switching to an algorithm. I mean, it makes no sense - how can they be showing you the best news in real-time if the timeline itself is not coming through in real-time?
In practical application, Twitter’s algorithm is not as all-encompassing as many had feared – in fact, it’s actually pretty good. When you first log-in to Twitter after being away for a while, you’re shown the " best tweets " first in the listing, along with the sign-posted the ‘While you were away…’ selection like this in the top of your Home stream.
And while Twitter still has a way to go before it fully works out how to utilize its data resources to refine and personalize the user experience, the highlighted tweets it presents here are actually pretty accurate – they’re not just matched on popularity (i.e. which tweets from people you follow got the most re-tweets and favorites), it’s also based on affinity, how often you’ve interacted with each user/profile.
But popularity does still play a part.
For example, this was one of the tweets I saw in my ‘While you were away…’ list today.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never interacted directly with Jeremy or his tweets, or at least I haven’t for some time, so it’s likely that I’ve been shown this because it’s sort of related to my core areas of interest (tech) and because it’s got a bit of engagement.
And here’s where that follow-back tactic might actually be beneficial in the new, algorithm-defined Twitter world.
You see, an account like the Ottawa Redblacks generates a heap of engagement – at a quick look, they’re getting around 15 re-tweets and 20 favorites per tweet, on average. And while Twitter’s algorithm does, absolutely, favor engagement, the new process actually makes the follow-back tactic more beneficial in that once you do start following someone new, Twitter takes that, in itself, as a signal that you want to see more of their stuff.
The Redblacks have actually taken this a step further in their promotion – you’ll notice that the wording of the tweet is ‘reply to this tweet in the next hour and we’ll follow you back’. Not ‘follow, and we’ll follow back’, but 'reply' – so you don’t even need to necessarily follow them to gain a new follower yourself (though it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people who saw this tweet were already following the Redblacks account). Through this, the Redblacks are boosting their engagement signals, and because of that engagement, the chances of the Redblacks’ next tweet showing up in your ‘While you were away…’ listing are now a lot higher, because you’re following them and you’re interacting with them, and their tweets are generating significant engagement, underlining their general popularity and newsworthiness.
In this sense, it’s perfectly logical why the Redblacks would undertake such a campaign – it may seem a little false – the Redblacks probably aren’t really following those fans and listening to what they have to say. But people love followers, and high-profile followers in particular. And even if such a a process results in the Redblacks not being able to use their home timeline because they’re following too many accounts for it to be practical, it is more than just vanity stats their boosting. Through those engagement prompts and follows, they’re actually boosting the chances of their messages being presented to more of their audience - in a way they couldn't have done previously when the algorithm feed didn't exist. And worth noting too, only around2% of Twitter users have opted out of the algorithm-defined timeline.
As noted, Twitter’s algorithm is actually pretty good, it’s picking up on various direct engagement signals in order to deliver more personalized recommendations. But the addition of the prominent ‘While you were away…’ box is also now prime Twitter real estate, and the key to getting on there is generating engagement. Whether that engagement is organic or incentivized is largely irrelevant to the end goal.
This somewhat speaks to the aim of Twitter’s latest ad units – last week, Twitter unveiled their new ‘Instant Unlock’ ads which incentivize users to share branded messages in order to access exclusive content.
That goes in counter to the stance taken by Facebook, which advises brands against incentivizing on-platform actions as they can skew the accuracy of their data, which ultimately impacts on user experience. Through Instant Unlock ads, Twitter’s doing the opposite, and those actions – re-tweeting a brand message or using a brand hashtag – no doubt also contribute to what Twitter’s algorithm defines as relevant to you, and what you want to see more of.
It’s an interesting dynamic to consider – that ‘While you were away…’ box is actually a valuable and important area of exposure, and one which more brands might be taking aim for in future.