Science reveals what really increases Twitter followers

The world of science has some new advice for people who want to increase their Twitter following, and it may sound something your mother used to say: If you don’t have anything nice to tweet, don’t tweet at all.

“Expressing negative sentiments in tweets is the second most harmful factor to growing a Twitter audience,” say researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology. They speculate about why: “This might be because Twitter is a medium dominated by very weak social ties, and negative sentiment from strangers may be unpleasant or uncomfortable for a potential new follower to see.”

C.J. Hutto, Eric Gilbert and Sarita Yardi tracked data from over 500 active Twitter users as they tweeted more than 500,000 times in the course of 15 months. The Twitter users were randomly selected from the public timeline over a two-week period, and then screened for requirements like English language, an active account that was at least 30 days old, with at least 15 friends and 5 followers. Hutto elaborated by email:

Although we did nothing to specifically exclude institutional/brand accounts, a quick investigation of a subset of the ~500 users that passed all filters every 3 months indicates these are mostly “everyday” typical non-celebrity users… Very few (if any) are brand or institutional accounts.

About every three months the researchers recorded each user’s follower growth, and analyzed what it was about their tweets and behavior that seemed to lead to growth.

They say this is pretty groundbreaking work — “the first longitudinal study of audience growth on Twitter to combine such a diverse set of theory inspired variables” — and it seems so.

Another bit of advice based on the findings: Stop tweeting so much about yourself.

Informational content attracts followers with an effect that is roughly thirty times higher than the effect of [personal] ‘meformer’ content, which deters growth,” the researchers wrote. “We think this is due to the prevalence of weak ties on Twitter.”

In other words, your Twitter followers don’t know you that well and thus don’t care about what you’re eating. Feed them information instead. Among the accounts studied, users talked about themselves in 41 percent of their tweets while informational content accounted for only 24 percent.

Overall, the study tracks and compares three types of factors — the content of your tweets, the dynamics of your social behavior and the structure of your follower network. Or more simply: What you tweet, how you interact and who you know.

This chart illustrates the statistically significant factors with the biggest impact on follower growth (translated into lay terms in the list below):

Factors affecting Twitter follower growth

  1. Number of connections in-common with potential new followers (good)
  2. High frequency of others retweeting your tweets (good)
  3. High frequency of informational tweets (good)
  4. Too many “broadcast” tweets not directed at anyone in particular (bad)
  5. Too much negative sentiment in your tweets (bad)
  6. A detailed profile description or “bio” (good)
  7. Profile has a URL listed (good)
  8. “Burstiness” of your tweets, or the peak rate of tweets-per-hour (more is good; Twitter agrees)
  9. High ratio of followers to following (good)
  10. Lots of tweets with positive sentiment (good)
  11. Cramming too many useless hashtags into your tweets (bad)
  12. Use of long, fancy words (good)
  13. Your tendency to follow-back those who follow you (good)
  14. Profile lists your location (good)

As always with research like this, consider it a helpful framework but not a step-by-step rulebook. Twitter users in general seem to want you to be positive, informative and interactive — all good advice — just remember you also need to be yourself.

Earlier: What Twitter’s own research says about how to boost engagement | Research into how information is verified on Twitter | Best times to post links to Twitter.

Related: 5 reasons people like to share news & how to get them to share yours

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  • http://www.alexanderaranda.com/ Alexander Aranda

    Really interesting article, some people have mentioned the value of a favourite, to me this is an indication that a user has found a tweet of value and interest. All the points mentioned are so true and much of these scientific results I have written about in a 60 tips to increase twitter followers http://www.alexanderaranda.com/increase-twitter-followers

  • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com/ Claude Nougat

    I’d love to know what “favorite” means…is it something you do to express “niceness” without going all the way to retweet? And coming to that, what’s the best RT policy? I try to RT my friends and RT something I find either useful or very funny…

  • http://twitter.com/mer_creative Meredith Pruden

    I love that much of my SoCon13 presentation on Twitter has just been validated! You can check out my slides on SlideShare at http://www.slideshare.net/mere13/m-pruden-socon

  • http://twitter.com/paulmwatson Paul Watson

    While this study is useful it should be used specifically and wisely.

    If you want to be the equivalent of the TV news anchor then by all means follow it and pump up those numbers with your coiffed hair. But that news anchor needs the rest of us being petulant, banal and unhappy to have something to talk about.

    One must be wary of gatekeepers but at the same time understanding of their usefulness. I’d much rather continue my ego-centric ways with a low follow count and the occasional 15 seconds of retweet fame than turn off the ego, up the followers and pump out an SEO inspired, generic, Disneyfied world view.

  • http://twitter.com/cjhutto CJ Hutto

    You make an excellent point! But the kinds of connections that would be receptive to negative news (death of a loved one, lost job, or just bad day) are typically stronger social “ties” (i.e., closer friends). Twitter is mostly characterized by very weak social ties…and as a general rule, these kinds of connections are more uncomfortable with bad/sad news. As with most things… there are exceptions. For example, negativity also doesn’t hurt when it engages audience (RTs, mentions, replies), or is humorous or inspirational. (This makes comedians an exception to the
    general rule).

    Take away=don’t whine online.

    - C.J. Hutto (one of the authors of the scientific study referenced in this article… @cjhutto on Twitter)

  • http://twitter.com/cjhutto CJ Hutto

    So right! Lots of people get value from Twitter without necessarily having ANY followers. It is a great “information” network as well as a “social” network.

    - C.J. Hutto (one of the authors of the scientific study referenced in this article… @cjhutto on Twitter)

  • http://www.obsessedwithconformity.com Jim Mitchem

    And yet it doesn’t really matter does it? I mean, life isn’t ALL positive. So if you’re coming into Twitter tweeting nothing but positive things 100% of the time, that’s inauthentic. And in that medium authenticity = real dialogue and real connections. Sincerity still matters. Not just number of followers.

  • http://twitter.com/ILikeBigLipz Jack Nick Olsen

    That’ll be ‘informative’, genius-pants. Also, nice bonus hyphen in ‘in common’.

  • http://twitter.com/GrandjeanMartin Martin Grandjean

    Well, in fact it just shows what everyone already knows…

  • Christian

    Interesting. However, getting as much followers as possible does not have to be ‘the ultimate goal’. My favorite predictor for more followers: tweeting about one subject, rather than 4 subjects.

  • http://twitter.com/ItisSG Shashank

    top suggestions ..just wondering the impact of favourite , and add to list on follower ship?