If I asked you which social network is best for advancing your own personal career, you might say LinkedIn. But while LinkedIn is certainly a great platform for updating your résumé and interacting with colleagues, the richest and most in-depth discussions in your field are likely occurring on Twitter. The tool is incredibly invaluable for not only keeping up with news in your industry, but also networking with the leading influencers who can aid your career development.
Amy Vernon has experienced the power of Twitter as a personal branding tool firsthand. A former metro editor in the newspaper industry, Vernon went on to consult with top publishers and brands on their social media strategies. She’s amassed over 24,000 Twitter followers and is a highly-regarded voice in her field. We discussed how she gained so many Twitter followers and why you shouldn’t use the platform to just talk about yourself.
You have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter. Before we talk about how you got those followers, tell me about the growth trajectory. When did you start on Twitter and what was the growth rate of followers?
I started my account in 2008, and at the very beginning I wasn’t using it all that much. When I started really using it, it was slow at first, and I was having conversations with people and joining in on other people’s conversations. The first Twitter chats started happening, like #Journchat. We were really having those conversations that were much easier back then because there were a lot fewer people using Twitter. So I would say my first 5,000 followers or so came over a year, and it was very slow. Then I started using a tool called Tweet Spinner. It was a company that was later purchased by Moz, which also owned a similar tool called Followerwonk. So I just dropped Tweet Spinner and kept Followerwonk. It helped you find people to follow. I’ve always checked out the profiles of all the people I follow. I know a lot of people are using the tool and set it as automated so that any person who tweets a certain word then the tool automatically follows that person for you. And I never did that because it doesn’t do you any good, and it ends up just flooding your timeline and making it impossible to follow the people you actually want to follow. But I did use it to automate the following, because I’d just go through large groups at a time and look at them and determine which ones to follow. But after awhile I felt I was following too many people and it became untenable. And Twitter Lists came a little too late to the game, and trying to sort everyone I was following into lists at that point was very difficult. So I took six months to really pare down who I was following and make that manageable. And I knew that a lot of people would unfollow me, and that was fine because they were only following me because I was following them. My following continued to grow though, because I was getting involved in a lot of Twitter chats and started being put on “best of” lists and I was also speaking at events.
Sometimes people follow me and I look at their profile and they have like 50,000 followers, but they’re following 50,000 people. And whenever they tweet links to my articles they send almost zero hits. And so I wonder about this quantity to quality ratio. It’s not that hard to get a lot of followers if you just follow people who follow you back, but I don’t think those people are actually following you. Would you agree?
I totally agree. I knew that if someone was following me only because I was following them, then they didn’t care what I was tweeting about anyway. I know some people who follow a lot of people and yet they still get a lot of engagement. That’s fine and I’m glad it works for them. I know some people who follow tons of people and they have tons of followers and I have no idea if they get much engagement at all. I think sometimes people fall into the vanity metrics. It’s very natural. People tend to be very competitive and they want to have the most followers. But it becomes this treadmill where at some point Twitter isn’t useful anymore. Even if you have lists, how many lists are you going to really look at? If you’re following people and you’re not paying attention to what they’re tweeting about, why are you even following them? I also don’t fool myself into believing every person who follows me is hanging on my every word. There are people who I’m sure pay no attention to anything I say.
Where does Twitter stand in the hierarchy of social media platforms when it comes to enhancing your professional brand? If you’re advising an executive who wants to engage in thought leadership online, and you have this pie chart in front of him showing how much time he should be spending on different networks, where does Twitter fit in?
I think that in terms of thought leadership, your own blog, LinkedIn, perhaps Medium, are the most important. I would say Twitter is more important than Facebook. Facebook isn’t really a thought leadership platform. Twitter is, and it’s something I’ve always recommended to clients, that it’s the place where you can show your knowledge and your authority on a subject. If there’s an article that is really important to your topic, even if it mentions someone, or is written by someone that happens to be a competitor, then you’re still better off sharing that because people are going to remember that you shared that and they heard about it from you, and you’re concerned with sharing the most important information even if you’re mentioning a competitor.
That’s something that a lot of marketers talk about, that you shouldn’t use Twitter to just talk about yourself.
Right. You can look at it as a place where you can exhibit your thought leadership. It’s probably the key platform after your blogs and LinkedIn. I think now with the LinkedIn publishing platform, that rises pretty much to the top, but Twitter has always been a place where you can show your thought leadership and show that you’re an authority on a topic.
When you have a client and they’re new to Twitter and looking for the right people to follow in their industry, what kind of strategies do you suggest they use to find the people they should be following?
There are a lot of great tools that can help with that. Followerwonk is one of them. You can search bios and use of hashtags. There are other platforms like Wefollow where people have self-selected categories that they’re interested in. It’s like a Yellow Pages for Twitter. People have put themselves in there for the topics they’re interested in. Those are places you can go to find the people who are talking about the topics you’re interested in. In addition, Twitter chats are a huge resource, and there are a couple of places you can go to find the many Twitter chats out there. Tweetchat.com has a Twitter chat calendar. There are Twitter chats on almost every topic out there and anyone can join in. So if you’re a company in the food industry, there’s #foodchat. Most of them are weekly, some are monthly. You can literally just join in on the conversation. Often they have a guest. Sometimes they’ll just have open questions to the group. For instance #flipboardchat on Wednesday nights, it’s a group of Flipboard enthusiasts, and the people who run it have open questions to the whole group, and people just kind of share their advice and ideas on how to better use Flipboard. There are a lot of chats where you can go just to learn more about different online tools. I really think that Twitter chats are the best platform out there to really find good people.
Do you find you get sharp increases in followers when you do Twitter chats?
Exactly. The thing is it goes back to what I was saying about when I’m having conversations on Twitter there’s so much more interaction than when I just tweet a link. And in those Twitter chats it’s understood that people are jumping in to answer the questions and respond to each other. You can really meet new people and have conversations with them. You’ll find interesting people to follow but other people will find what you say is interesting and follow you as well.
Other than Twitter chats are there any other strategies if you’re new to Twitter to get people to interact with you and follow you back?
Even if you create a list of the top 50 people who you want to interact with on Twitter, and you’re watching what they’re talking about, you can jump in and join their conversations. The nice thing about Twitter is it’s sort of like a cocktail party where someone is standing there and you walk up to them and start talking, it’s sort of that atmosphere where even if you’re not following someone it’s not considered weird or creepy to strike up a conversation with them as long as it’s a normal person conversation. You can just start talking to those people. Ask them a question. Comment on a link they shared. Answer a question they asked. Just say “Hi, I really admire your work.” You really can just reach out and speak to those people.
Would you recommend people purchase Twitter advertising for their own personal accounts?
I think if you do it should be done very sparingly. I know some people who have done it. I’ve experimented with it with my own account. It depends on the topic, what it’s relating to. It’s certainly something I would consider depending on who the person was and what the topic was. But if it was a new product or something and you’re talking about a CEO or someone in the C-suite, I might do that, because that would be an appropriate thing that you’re promoting.
How important is Twitter for driving traffic to blog content? Facebook has received so much press for being a major traffic driver to content, but it seems like on more niche topics Twitter is in some ways more important.
I think that it probably depends on the person and on the blog. It depends a lot on where you’ve built your audience. I know most publishers have never traditionally seen as much traffic from Twitter, but a lot of that was because many people access Twitter through third party tools that aren’t easy to track on anaytics platforms. They don’t show up properly because they’re not coming through Twitter.com.
What are some of the growing pains you experience once your following reaches a certain size? I imagine that keeping up and responding to all the replies gets more difficult.
If someone just retweets a tweet of mine I don’t feel obligated to thank them. Sometimes if someone retweets something with a comment, if I don’t have anything original to say about it, I’ll favorite it, which sends a signal to the person that I saw the comment and appreciated it. It’s saying thank you without wasting the space to say thank you. If someone asks me a question or congratulates me for something or adds something significant to what I’m tweeting, I try to respond in some way. Sometimes it’s as easy as tweeting “That’s a really good point.” Other times it ends up being a conversation. I think about how I would respond in real life and respond in a similar fashion. If someone asks me something, I will answer. When I get the spammy “Hey, take a look at this video” and they’ve tweeted at 50 people the same stuff, I often ignore it because it’s so unrelated to anything I’ve expressed interest in. The other day someone reached out to me about an app he created, but what he said made it so obvious that he was speaking to me because he even mentioned my dog. This person actually took the time to specifically comment on something I take a lot of photos of, so I actually took a look at his app. In those types of things it’s all in the approach.
Sometimes if I have an article that I want to promote, I’ll schedule three tweets out to the article over a period of hours, and I’ll find three to six people who are most likely to be interested in that content and then add their Twitter handles to the end of my scheduled tweets. So then it’s not spammy.
Yeah, I have done that. Sometimes if I mention a couple people in an article, I’ll say “with shoutouts to so-and-so” in my tweet.
So my last question is: What actually comes out of using Twitter? It’s nice to have a lot of followers, but in terms of advancing your career, what can it actually do?
The thing about Twitter that has been most useful to me has been connections I’ve made with people, and then when you meet them in real life you’re not going through all the small talk because you’re meeting as friends. Very early on Pete Cashmore, the founder of Mashable, used to respond to everyone on Twitter. And when I met him at an event and said who I was, he knew who I was because we’d spoken on Twitter. That’s very valuable to be able to go up to someone who you want to have a conversation with whether it’s for networking or someone who’s a friend and you don’t have to waste time explaining to them who you are because you’ve already engaged in that small talk.
This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.
Image via Andrew Kelly/Social Media Week