Breaking All Of Twitter's Rules

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Is there a sure-fire way to be successful using Twitter?

Business books, Blog posts, magazine articles, tumblr feeds, newspaper articles, TV news segments and yes, even tweets, have been written about what it takes for both individuals and brands to be successful on Twitter. Allow me to sum up some of the more commonly-held recommendations for Twitter success:

  1. Get in early. Evan Williams (co-founder of Twitter) joined in March of 2006. Chris Brogan (Human Business Works and co-author with Julien Smith of the best-selling business book, Trust Agents) joined in October of 2006. Personally, I was a little late to the game (joining in February of 2007). I can’t imagine what it would be like to join Twitter today in an attempt to grow an audience. With so many people using the service (and yes, this includes those who are simply stalking celebrities), it is hard to gain traction and maintain it.
  2. Follow a lot of people. It makes sense. The more people that you follow, the more likelihood there will be for people to not only follow you back, but to acknowledge you and connect. While it’s not about "how many" people you connect with (I’d argue that it’s about "who" you connect with), it’s obvious that this tactic should be applied.
  3. Follow-back those who follow you. This is a contentious point that depends on who you ask. For many people, this is both a common courtesy and the smart move to make. If you follow back everyone that follows you, you wind up meeting lots of new and interesting people. The major debate around this point is based on the quantity versus quality argument: if you follow back everyone, it makes your Twitter stream somewhat noisy. If you only follow back those who are truly interesting to you, it’s a better way to curate content and dive deeper into some of the meatier conversations. Both sides to this argument have valid stances.
  4. Tweet frequently and consistently. Twitter (like much of the new Internet) is a live, real-time environment. If you don’t tweet often, there is a likelihood that you (and your content) will get lost in the river of tweets. If you tweet only once a day, and the majority of people who follow you are not online then, your tweet is rarely seen or acted on. Adding on to the complexity of this is our globally connected world where both timezones and work lifestyles also factor into the equation. Think about this way: if you tweet from New York City, odds are your European audience interaction will be less than if you were based in Paris and tweeting when everyone else was equally active. Remember, real-time Web makes the amount of followers not as important as when individuals are actually online, connected, following and reading you.
  5. Tweet very original things (not just links). If all that’s being tweeted is links and your not spending the time to think of anything original to say, you won’t find much traction either. The brands and individuals who are the most successful on Twitter are those who create content in a very original way.
  6. Make it personal and respond back to as many people as possible. If you don’t respond, acknowledge and discuss things with people following you on Twitter, it will be a useless and terrible experience. Those who truly have massive audiences and attention are the ones who respond back to anyone and everyone. The people that you respond back to will then feel special and this make them more likely to retweet your content and ask their followers to follow you too. This is online social networking… not a broadcasting channel.
  7. Become a celebrity. Scott Stratten (@unmarketing) often tells the story of the hours, weeks and months he spent head down in Twitter as his platform of choice (and to build an audience). He has been wildly successful at it! (along with a best-selling book, speaking gigs and nearly 110,000 Twitter followers). As Scott likes to say, he’s kind of a big deal on Twitter. If you play your cards right, focus and follow the steps above, you too can make a name for yourself. For some (and this includes many brands), having the attention of hundreds of thousand of followers is not only a big deal, but it does make them celebrities.

You can also do the exact opposite.

Avinash Kaushik is not only a personal friend, he’s the Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google and author of two-best selling business books (Web Analytics – An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0). When you compare what Avinash does on Twitter to the commonly-held beliefs above, you may be surprised to learn:

  1. He started tweeting on July 30th, 2008.
  2. He only follows 88 people. He also jokes that if he finds someone else he would like to follow, someone on his list of 88 has to get booted off. 88 is his maximum amount of followers and he says he’s sticking to it.
  3. With close to 65,000 followers, it’s also obvious that he refuses to follow back everyone just because they’re following him.
  4. He only tweets a couple of times a day. That’s it.
  5. He prefers to tweet out things that have caught his attention. This makes the majority of his content link to other places and not his original thinking (you can get that on his Blog, Occam’s Razor).
  6. While he does respond to people using the @ sign, it seems to be secondary to his sharing of what’s interesting to him.
  7. He is a celebrity and there’s no doubt that Twitter has propelled his status within the Digital Marketing and Web analytics world.

This is not about Avinash Kaushik.

The point is that everyone has an opinion about why something is successful and why other things fail. Brands (and individuals) are constantly looking for both best practices and ROI in Social Media (and Twitter is no exception). What we learn by looking at the commonly-held beliefs and then comparing them to people like Avinash Kaushik (and he’s not the only one), is that Twitter is simply an open publishing platform. It’s a place for people to put content (short, 140 characters worth of text-based content) and that success can often come from not following the rules, but by breaking them. Why? Twitter (like Blogs, Podcasts and YouTube) is simply a publishing platform. Twitter (and many of the other Social Media channels) allow individuals and brands to highlight, share and connect on the things that can’t be explained in a traditional advertising campaign or through press releases. As with everything in life, people like real interactions between real human beings, and these channels are most effective when brands and individuals start doing the things that they think are interesting in the hopes that other’s feel that way too.

Often, breaking all of the rules is what it takes to develop your own best case studies, ROI and metrics. 

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. With regard to your third point on following back everyone who follows you: it may make for a noisy twitter stream, but this can easily be circumvented by curating lists. I have lists of Internet marketers, musicians, actors and comedians all separated, which makes for a different experience when I view the stream of each of the lists. If you’ve already got a lot of people you follow, the uptake on lists can be a little daunting. But if you keep a good process and split people up as you follow them, your main twitter stream will become secondary to lists.
    This method has worked for me and I think is a good illustration of how open a platform Twitter really is.

  2. Nice comparison, Mitch. Seems to me that the key difference here is that Scott created a Twitter platform to leverage his image whereas Avinash had a Google platform already and uses Twitter mainly to reinforce his image. Another key to Twitter style: where does it fit in your overall strategy.

  3. My twitter stream is about me, not you.
    I follow only those that add value to my stream. That said, I also follow relevant hashtags to the topics I tweet about so that I can discover new people and conversations.
    Following everyone who follows you is ineffective, imo, one cannot drink from a firehose. Even if you want to curate your follow list via lists all you’re doing is adding work to your day to sort out spam bots from tweens in love with Bieber to those adding value.

  4. I certainly break some of the rules but I would put it slightly differently Mitch. I think there is only one true rule for twitter and other media. Be authentic. The rest tends to take care of itself and looking for rules and best practices is often a way to hide.

  5. Great list and nice to see many recommendations grouped together. I struggle with following back everyone who follows me. I’m trying to cultivate a list of followers/people I follow who share my industry, passions, hobbies and if not, who are very interesting in their own right. When I’m followed by a dry cleaning business in Poland, I’m curious about their motivation for following a Toronto PR specialist. There might be a fascinating person behind the Twitter account but it’s hard to tell if they’re tweeting about folding shirts on the other side of the world. I also don’t feel comfortable following back people who haven’t taken the time to include a profile picture or even to write a profile. I guess I want to know a little bit more about them if I’m going to follow them.

  6. What it means to be “successful” on Twitter is wildly variable, I think, which is why the “rules” always strike me as short-sighted. I wish people would give “recommendations” in context — as in, if A is what you want from Twitter, then B is a best practice. If you don’t want A, then you don’t need to worry about B, even if everyone says you must do B.
    Take two examples: for Ashton Kutcher, Twitter success was getting a million followers — and there were a set of tasks and behaviors that would get him there. For my dad, it was when he found some people to follow who would point him to stuff he was interested in — and he has no idea how he found them, so there wasn’t a particular strategy at work.
    I tend not to see social communications through a success / failure lens, anyway. It is what it is, and it changes daily.

  7. Great article, but the issue with point #3 is that Twitter has imposed Follow limits to prevent auto-follow bots or users who Follow to build a quick audience and straining the system. I see many “early-adopters” who have for example, 40,000 Followers, Following 42,000 with only 400 tweets. (Most likely not quality content or conversations). Once you’ve followed 2,000 users, there are limits to the number of additional users you can follow, but I agree with points 4-7! (Quality, frequency, originality and personal – not sure if you’ll become a celebrity, but you gain a larger Twitter audience over time!)

  8. Since the web is in a constant state of evolution, what worked last year (or last month or sometimes, even last week) will suddenly stop working. It’s by breaking “rules” that people “stumble” onto new successful strategies, even on platforms that have been around a while. Thanks for the reminder that rules are really just guidelines and that we should feel free to follow our own way.

  9. Great post! I really enjoyed reading and learning what I need to start/stop doing! Very well done. I met Scott at a conference, he’s the real deal.

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