Admit it: deep down, you’ve always known that the world works differently for The Important People.
You just hate it when the world proves you right.
Take Conan O’Brien, for example. The guy sends out a single tweet and he changes this girl’s life. Meanwhile, you desperately retweet your own blog posts 14 times a day in the empty hope that Chris Brogan will accidentally click the retweet button while his cursor is hovering over your name, thereby unintentionally beaming your essay about hashtag etiquette to his thousands of rabid followers.
And sure, you have a few close friends who seem to listen when you talk, but some of these people on the Internet — people who are just like you — are listened to (and trusted by) by tens of thousands!
How much cooler are their lives than yours?
Well, as it turns out… not that much cooler at all. But possibly more productive. And that might be the real dividing line between you and Them:
While you’re just trying to get people to notice you, they’re trying to get you to notice other people.
So… How Do the Cool Kids Use Twitter?
In order to learn a bit more about this perceived difference between the social media “influencers” and those of us being influenced by them, I contacted 40 Twitter users with followings over 10,000. Of those 40, fifteen responded, and thirteen of them had the time to take my six question survey.
[DISCLOSURE: Of the 15 respondents, I've met 6 personally. Of the 25 non-respondents, I've met 7 personally. Conclusion: knowing me is irrelevant.]
The respondents (in alphabetical order):
- C. C. Chapman (@cc_chapman) / Podcaster and Campfire Creative Director
- Mack Collier (@MackCollier) / Social media consultant and strategist
- L. P. “NEENZ” Faleafine (@NEENZ) / Chief Evangelist for Alltop
- Jason Falls (@jasonfalls) / Social Media Explorer
- Steve Garfield (@stevegarfield) / The godfather of videoblogging
- Beth Harte (@BethHarte) / Serengeti Communications
- Doug Haslam (@DougH) / Social media gadabout
- Mitch Joel (@mitchjoel) / Six Pixels of Separation
- Beth Kanter (@kanter) / Social media advisor specializing in non-profits
- Calvin Lee (@mayhemstudios) / Mayhem Studios
- Jim Long (@newmediajim) / Web content creator & NBC news cameraman
- Amber Naslund (@ambercadabra) / Blogger & Dir. of Community @ Radian6
- and one marketer who preferred to remain anonymous
What follows are the most pertinent responses to my 6 questions, along with my own summaries based on their composite experiences.
Q1: “Did you make a conscious effort to grow your Twitter account?”
Since so many people do invest time in growing their Twitter following, whether organically or by nefarious means, I was curious about the degree to which my respondents had “worked” for their authority. The results ranged from the conscious…
I joined Twitter in July 2007 with the goal of marketing and networking. Initially, it was important for me to grow my following, especially since there were very few people from my home state of Hawaii and zero from my existing network on Twitter at the time. I watched the conversations on Twitter, and I followed those [whom] I was following on their blogs, in forums, webinars, livestreams, etc. I engaged in conversations as often as I could, outside of Twitter.
A few months after joining, I had my first tweetup (before they were called tweetups) with Guy Kawasaki. It was very brief, but it led to a lifetime opportunity to work with him on Truemors, and I continue to do so on Alltop.
… to the incidental…
God no. I’ve always had the same approach to Twitter: I say whatever comes to mind, share links that I find interesting and RT anything that catches my eye that I think others will like.
I’ve never paid attention to the numbers, and when they started going up, it was very strange. A couple of times, I asked why people followed me and I always got a variety of answers. Most of them come from listening, reading or watching a piece of content I produced somewhere else, and they want to stay up to date on what I’m doing.
… to the accidental.
No. I had 30,000 followers built one relationship at a time and [through] word of mouth. In Oct 2009, I got on Twitter’s SUL [Suggested User List] and grew.
Conclusion? There’s no “guaranteed” way to grow a massive following, but most respondents do share two common traits: providing information that others consider valuable, and being authentically interested in meeting new people.
In other words, they caught their flies with honey, not with endless claims about how wonderful their own work is. On Twitter, finding the right mix of humility and hubris is key.
Q2: “How has your experience as a Twitter user changed due to the growth of your followers?”
If you’ve never had 10,000 people on speed dial, you might have a romantic idea of what that experience would be like.
Alas, my respondents claim you’d be disappointed…
It is MUCH harder to have conversations and track what is going on in the marketing, communications and PR communities. I miss a lot of news, updates, blog posts, etc.
… and aggravated:
I’ve also had to accept that I just can’t respond to everything, and deal with the sometimes snarky fallout that ensues, like folks claiming I’m a “twitter snob” or “not engaging”.
… or even nostalgic:
I’ve lost track of my original crew, but I’ve met very interesting, cool people along the way. That, coupled with working harder than ever at my job, means [I have] much less time for longer discussions on Twitter.
… except for those times when it’s freaking wonderful.
b/c I have so many followers and [so much] influence, I get invited to events, freebies, projects, etc. It’s a lot of fun being treated like a celeb, but also weird.
As expected, the volume of incoming information makes meaningful conversations harder to come by. But there are solutions.
It’s made me focus on the people that actually interact with me. They stand out from the crowd, and I try to follow anyone that interacts with me.
Conclusion? Sean Combs was right: mo’ money (or mo’ followers) creates mo’ problems… but also mo’ opportunities.
Q3: “Do you receive more meaningful feedback as a result of having your tweets circulated to more people?“
All but two of the respondents said “yes” to this question, including:
I am very grateful for my Twittersphere. They’ve often been able to provide me with solutions during times when I’m traveling [or] different tools to use to improve my business. One time someone from MN sent me the number to a locksmith in Hawaii when I locked myself out of my home!
For sure. I’ve had a lot of doors open for conference, clients and opportunities from more people retweeting or sharing my tweets with other people.
… although not everyone is convinced that increased reach is a good thing.
I get a lot more criticism now than I ever did when I say something off-color. Is that meaningful feedback? Maybe. I do see a lot of re-tweets of my posts and shares these days, but that’s just a matter of scale, I think. It’s nice, but I pay as much attention to flowery compliments as I do the haters.
I suspected this answer might be self-evident, and I was (mostly) correct. Therefore, I owe myself a Coke.
Q4: “How has a larger Twitter following changed other people’s perception of you?“
Refreshingly, nearly everyone reported a healthy dose of skepticism associated with their own public perception:
I’m not sure. Perhaps some people think I’m some sort of social media “whatever” because of a larger following, but it took over three years to get here.
People think I’m more important than I am. I’m still just a dumb guy with a blog. Sort of.
I have no idea if it has, and it really shouldn’t since anyone can have a larger Twitter following; just follow more people!
Some were even skeptical of the “influence” metrics themselves:
To the plus (and not necessarily accurate), I’m looked at as some kind of a “model” for what to do, and how to use Twitter well — and therefore one of those dreaded social media experts… I also think it tends to falsely inflate my “influence”, with things like Twitter lists, rankings, and the like.
Jim Long may have summed up our misplaced Twitter valuations best:
It’s funny. More and more people that I meet, whether online or in real life, will say things like: “Oh, newmediajim, you’re great!” I find myself pretty unremarkable. [But] I think what I do for a living allows me to share pretty remarkable experiences.
… unless you happen to be in the business of managing other people’s perceptions, like our anonymous respondent, who may have offered the shrewdest response:
My clients see it as a selling point. The more followers I have, the more important I am to them. Why? Because they don’t know any better, yet.
Q5: “What are you able to accomplish today that you could not have accomplished with a significantly smaller Twitter following?“
And here’s where the answers get really interesting. (NOTE: I’ve emphasized the elements of their responses that I find most compelling.)
Hmmmm…..informal research is the only thing that comes to mind specifically for Twitter.
What I mean is that because of my large number of followers, I can throw out a question for a client, for curiosity, or any other reason and be sure that I’m going to get back a handful of really solid answers. That isn’t possible without such a big pool to fish in.
Driving a fair amount of traffic to other people’s great content. I had a spirits blogger email me one day in a stupor because he’d gotten the single largest traffic day in his blog’s history, all because I shared his post on Twitter and Facebook.
Today I can ask for the answer to a question, or a contact at a company, and have several answers within seconds. That obviously didn’t happen when I had a much smaller network.
It gives you much more influence. Makes it easier to help with charities, getting work, people / companies listening & reach out to you. I’ve even done some design work for Guy Kawasaki b/c of Twitter.
@MayhemStudios (and yes, if you’re counting, that’s 2 respondents who’ve obtained work with best-selling author Guy Kawasaki because of Twitter)
I have a larger base of intelligence and insight upon which to draw. I can get faster and broader exposure for an idea, [whether it's] mine or other people’s. I can help truly have an impact on other people’s work, and point more eyeballs to people doing significant things. And I can solicit broader and deeper input and feedback from broader audiences across many industries and disciplines that I couldn’t before.
See a pattern?
The people with large audiences are most interested in using their audiences to aid and empower other people. Twitter analysts like Dan Zarrella have noted that talking about yourself is a less-successful Twitter strategy than talking about others; now you see this truism remains ingrained in users’ behavior (and personalities) even after their popularity has been confirmed.
Conclusion? You can buy followers, but you can’t buy humanity.
Also, there can even be hidden benefits to having such a large following, like…
Support when I get attacked by a detractor. I’ve had folks defend me without me even asking them to, or knowing that they had. That can’t be bought or gamed…it needs to be earned.
I also think having a large follower count allows me to NOT be on Twitter as much as I was a year or two ago.
On the other hand, there were also respondents who reported no significant changes whatsoever, like:
I’m not sure that there is anything that I’ve been able to accomplish today that you could not have accomplished with a significantly smaller Twitter following.
… and Beth Kanter, who — despite being followed by over 300,000 people as I type this — simply answered: “Nothing. Except been offered some review copies of books.” (Admittedly, in Beth’s case, it’s entirely possible that her exposure via the Twitter Suggested Users List bloated her network with people who don’t demonstrably add value to her efforts in the non-profit world.)
Which brings us to the unasked question: is quantity more important than quality? Mitch Joel, for one, doubts it.
I’m not sure size/amount has anything to do with anything. It’s about “who” I’m connected to.
Ah, but who would Mitch Joel be connected to if he weren’t Mitch Joel? Chicken, meet egg…
Q6: “Any observations, insights or opinions about Twitter that weren’t appropriate for the questions above?”
Several respondents added some food for thought, including:
My only thoughts around Twitter are, what other plans do people or organizations have for the day when Twitter ceases to exist (if that day ever comes)? Meaning, I see a lot of eggs in one basket and Twitter being used as an end-all channel.
After the first 300-700 followers, it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that increases is the potential “touches” – which is great, but you get decent breadth for most uses from that number.
I just wish people would stop trying to set the “rules” for Twitter. It’s like trying to set the rules for the city park. People can use it however they like. If you don’t like the way they do, don’t follow them.
The way I use Twitter continues to evolve and change. It’s always been a state of constant flux, what works for me today could be completely wrong next week. So it’s a state of constant learning. Damn, so much for being a Twitter expert.
And, echoing his disbelief at his own popularity, Jim Long ends on a philosophical note:
Despite having as many followers as I do, I sometimes feel like I’m by myself out there.
And there you have it, folks — authoritative proof that at the end of the day, no matter how many people you have hanging on your every tweet, we all take our pants off one leg at a time.
Unless your legions of Twitter groupies have stalked your every move on FourSquare and are tearing them off for you. But that’s a popularity problem I can’t possibly help you solve.
And I doubt you’d want me to.
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