Should Community Managers Follow Back On Twitter?

Facebook may have its friends, Google Plus its circles, but Twitter has always used the ambiguous term “follower.” Odd, only because a follower could bring to mind one of those unfortunate people that drank the grape Flavor Aid with Jim Jones.

But pool-side in Cancun, you might catch your significant other following an attractive person with their eyes, a meaning that seems to fit the Twitterverse.

When Twitter first came on to the scene, many marketers jumped on and played what I call the Twitter Follower Game or Follower Churning, wherein you follow a fair amount of people.

In a few days, you unfollow anyone who hasn’t followed you back, and repeat the process. And while it’s contrary to Twitter’s terms of service, there’s even software that will automate the process for you.

The thinking goes, though, that in this way, you can build up your follower count to a shameless number in no time. Of course, it doesn’t help too much for using Twitter effectively, as that mob of followers probably isn’t noticing anything you say, and you’re very likely not noticing anything they have to say.  It’s just a numbers game.

What Should Community Managers Do?

Of course, as individuals, when many of us get followed by someone, we quickly look at their profile, and if they are not spamming their list and seem like a real person, we’ll follow back. The question is, as community managers of brands, what should we do?

In reviewing some of the largest brands on Twitter, you’ll often see brands that have a significant following, but don’t reciprocate:

Brand Following Followers















Every so often, you’ll see brands that do follow a significant number of people back:

@Pepsi 636,218 43,604
@CocaCola 528,733 67,474
@Ford 124,024 33,392

(note: these were the numbers as of 30 April 2012)

Scott Monty of Ford wrote that, “at one time, we followed everyone back who followed us, but relied on a third-party service which was not always reliable. Now we simply follow people back who we find interesting, or when we need someone to DM us some information.”

The reality is that when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of followers, having a person sit somewhere in a cubicle clicking on each new follower, seeing if they’re “real,” and deciding to follow back could be a full-time job. It just isn’t practical. It would be less troublesome to follow the examples of @Google and @Twitter and just ignore the hoi polloi.

Using software tools to programmatically follow back individuals using some criteria is against Twitter’s terms of service. You are allowed to follow everyone back with automation, but not selectively. And following everyone back would mean that you’d be following the spambots, too. Even using software, the task would require some human touch.

In a recent #atomicChat, Community manager Brandie McCallum (@lttlewys) suggested that if someone is attempting to join your community and engage with you, you should engage them back — and thus follow them. This is actually a fairly simple rule to follow and not at all labor instensive.

Influence Scores

Influence tools like Klout and Kred have brought an emphasis to your ratio of followers to followees, with the notion that it demonstrates some sort of influence if you’re following fewer people back than are following you. If you’re followed by ten thousand individuals, and you only follow a hundred back, you must really be a big cheese, right?

While a high follower to followee ration does seem to have an element of social proof, there really isn’t any basis for the idea that a high ratio signifies a higher influence. Back in high school, I remember that one popular kid who, unlike others in their clique, did not shy away from saying hello to the math and chess club membership. If anything, they were perhaps even more influential.

It’s been suggested that someone who has a perfectly reciprocal follower ratio isn’t applying any criteria to their following, and thus a higher ratio indicates someone who is being selective. Does that, though, mean more influence?

Why Should We Care If We’re Following Back?

Of course, when you are following more than a few thousand individuals, you’re not likely to be reading all of the tweets that stream by.  The gesture of following someone back at that point is symbolic.

But little symbolic gestures can be pretty powerful. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that a follow-back is a sort of gift — a microgift. Follow-backs on Twitter have value to many people. We know this, as there are people who will help you get followers in exchange for payment. Brands want followers, as they provide both an audience and social proof.

Countless studies show that in gifting, there is something called the rule of reciprocity, which states that we all feel bound to some extent to reciprocate when we feel that we’ve received a gift.

Certainly, many of the people you follow on Twitter won’t even notice you’ve followed them — which means that they aren’t going to feel that they’ve received a gift. Those that are aware, however, might feel that very tiny feeling that they’ve received a little something.

Some marketers fear that by following someone back, they’re tacitly approving that person. But as social media becomes more and more a part of the fabric of our society, it is becoming better understood that just because we follow, friend, or plus someone, that we are not approving of that person. If a journalist discovers that a major brand has been following an arsonist, it simply wouldn’t be newsworthy enough for even a mention in an article.

At the end of the day, brands that are being parsimonious in their Twitter following are missing out on the opportunity for creating a community, and being part of a small exchange of gifts.

Feature image and accompanying images from iStockPhoto used under license.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Twitter | Twitter Marketing Column | Twitter: Marketing


About The Author: is the author of the DragonSearch Online Marketing Manual and Social Marketology (McGraw Hill 2012) and the ceo/co-founder of DragonSearch. He is a regular speaker for Google at their Get Your Business Online seminars. Dragon frequently speaks about the convergence of social media, process, information architecture, and sociology.


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  • Julia Serafina

    Thank you for
    addressing this topic.  I only joined the ranks of Twitter in August 2011,
    so I am still growing my community. However, I support the premise for an
    engagement strategy and follow the majority of people who connect with me.
     I also segment and add my followers to Lists as a way of quietly thanking
    them for their patronage.  And I notify my community of any #newfollowers,
    just as a person would introduce a new friend to an existing circle of friends.
    In my experience on Twitter, it is the little things – “micro-gifting
    “as you have mentioned  -  (e.g. those
    quiet behaviors or gestures of goodwill) that make a difference
    in building loyalty within a follower base. 


    Personally, I don’t
    place much weight on follower/following ratios or influence scores (Kred, Klout
    etc); and I think the notion of influence within the Twitterverse (or any
    social network for that matter) is rather superficial, if not a glorification
    of what is actually “perceived popularity” in many cases e.g.
    celebrities. It is only natural that Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber will attract
    huge followings without much effort on their part at all… so what?  I am also a huge Google fan but, they don’t
    follow me back.. sad.. but that is to be expected in a world where it is seen
    to be “cool”  if you are perceived as “somebody” or
    have something of interest e.g. expertise. 


    What really does it for me, the average
    everyday person, is when a big name brand does follow me back… and that’s
    when I become a true brand advocate…. arduously promoting that brand
    to my followers.  I think big brands should care about following back…it
    would certainly send a different message among the competition … and achieve
    a totally different result.


  • Syed Noman Ali

    Yea that’s great and now it will become easy to me to find out real persons on twitter to follow back, Thanks man

  • Nick Stamoulis

    “I’d go as far as to say that a follow-back is a sort of gift — a microgift.”

    I think that’s a great way of looking at it. Following someone back is a small gesture of appreciation and the first step in building a stronger relationship with that person.

  • AngelaW

    I have my own personal account and have got more involved with my work’s account recently, so rate myself as an enthusiastic newcomer. 

    Big brands following my personal account back, is a good “microgift”. I spot that they’ve done it and you can imagine my delight when (i) I tweet a comment about the brand, not expecting a response and I get a tweet back later that day, and (ii) my sheer joy when I ask a question or raise a concern and get it addressed. Twitter just makes it easier sometimes when I can’t make a ‘phone call or have time to trawl through a Q&A sheet.

    If in doubt at the very beginning of using Twitter, I’d probably follow everyone back and then check back after a couple of months and see who’s tweets I found myself sharing on or checking out, or who I’d added to a “must read” list. 

    I don’t think there’s a single right answer to this one, at least not yet :) 

  • Ric Dragon

    Thanks for the comment, Julia – and greetings to down under! Love the way you’re using Twitter. By the way; I tweeted out to all of the brands mentioned above – I didn’t hear from anyone, although @Pepsi did follow me :-)

  • Ric Dragon

    No, you’re right; no single right answer – and in the big picture, does it cause Google any harm if they aren’t following anyone?  But it’s in those infinitesimal flashes of good will that great brands can be built upon – and oof, if Google wants to “get” social, they might consider following!   Many thanks for weighing in, Angela – and not at all a ramble :-)

  • Sam T @ The Coffice™

    I’m always fascinated by this seemingly puzzling and recurring issue brought about by social media — in this context, how its community managers should operate within it.

    Maybe I’m just naive because I haven’t reached the same explosive Twitter numbers or Facebook fans as some big brands or so-called Twitterati; so I couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to manage a community of tens of thousands of followers (Aspirations abound!).

    But wait! Isn’t that part of what community managers are supposed to do? Manage? And aren’t the social media ninjas, gurus, superhumans and samurais dealing with these numbers because of their expertise in building these communities?

    I’m not so sure I agree with the notion of a big brand or popular personality “gifting” followers/fans by a mere follow back. Frankly, I think it should be the other way around. Where would big brands or the Twitterati be were it not for the customers, clients, fans or just plain old people who follow them?

    Is it really that difficult — regardless of your current following or fan base — to set aside some time during the week (the month?!) to check out who’s clicked the “follow” button and…reciprocate?

    I’ll agree that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here. For what it’s worth, I try not only to check Twitter bios of new followers as often as possible — I also do a quick scan of their main feeds to see if they’re human, and if they are there to have conversations (<~putting the "social" in social media!) instead of just padding their own numbers.

    Is that wrong? Pie in the sky 2.0? Not for me.

    I'm pretty approachable IRL. Just ask Brandie (quoted above). I'll try really hard to incorporate that essence into my online personality as well, whether it's me you're engaging with or The Coffice. I want to know who you are and why you've given ME the gift of wanting to follow/know me.

    If that's naiveté or Pie in the Sky 2.0 or the delusions of someone with a modest social media presence, I think I'm okay with that.

    Thanks, Ric, for writing about this. Before today I never really gave it a thought. (Long written rants don't scream "fixation" do they?)

    Sam Title
    Chief Executive Cofficer
    The Coffice

  • Brandon Egley

    As a community manager for a company called GO Outdoors, we try to follow back, it helps with conversation I find, and it gives the customer a sense of loyalty (most a surprised when you even tweet back to them, such is the environment brands currently ooze on twitter)

    These people’s tweets could be valuable, after all they’re your customers, not following just means you aren’t listening.

    Brands who don’t respond to fans are the worst, ive encountered a few personally. More than willing to retweet a compliment but won’t answer a question or respond to a complaint. 

  • Moin Shaikh

    Thanks Ric, enjoyed your guide. At the moment, i am working as a social media strategist and analyst and soon be promoting to community manager role. Your guide has provided me some insights on the roles of perfect and effective community manager. Thank you again

  • Kevin

    I go the route of searching twitter for keywords and looking for completely active users. If they tweet once a week I skip them. If you get a good couple hundred of active followers they will RT like crazy which helps grow your list of followers.

  • Imaginative Fusion

    We are a small publishing company, and we follow a lot of musicians and other “high profile” people and companies so we can keep in touch with what they are up to. It is unfortunate to think that potential followers would not follow us because our follower/following ratio looks off balance. We certainly don’t expect everyone we follow to reciprocate, but when they do, it is nice. Thanks for an interesting post!   @imagfusion:twitter 


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