Some Thoughts on Making Twitter Work For You

I’ve read through a number of recent threads about social media – Twitter, in particular – and how a lot of authors are continuing to struggle in making it work for them. Like everything else these days, things they are a-changing, and on top of that, as more people join the fray it becomes harder to stand out in the crowd.

That’s one theory, at least. But I think if you have a good foundational strategy, you’ll do well over time. You’ll stand out because you have a clue about what you’re doing, rather than just firing off promotional tweets every fifteen minutes, then wondering why you’re not making any traction.

Before we dive in, let me remind you that Twitter is just one of many tools available to you. It may not be the right tool for you, and that’s okay. You should learn about and experiment with all kinds of tools to see which ones fit your hand.

Twitter Is Clamping Down

Because there are so many idiots (and I don’t mean just ignorant authors, but lots of other morons beyond our little publishing community) abusing the system, Twitter has become a lot more restrictive (as of late 2012). A number of my author friends have had their accounts suspended for “overly aggressive” following practices and spam, even though they were following far fewer people per day than I do, and I probably put out more promo tweets than most.

I suspect the reason why I haven’t been hammered (and I hope this continues to be the case, knock on wood!) is that my follower-to-following ratio is very close to 1-to-1, meaning I’m not following tons more people than are following me, which is an immediate red flag. It’s also because I interact so much with people, and don’t just send out promo tweets. If all people see from you is promos, some are going to report you as a spammer. I’m sure some people have done that to me, but I suspect that Twitter has some sort of algorithm to compare the spam reports to the activity on your account, and if you don’t pop above that threshold, you’re okay.

This will be especially important for accounts with fewer followers. If you have 500 people following you, the abuse tolerance threshold is going to be a lot lower than if you have 50,000. So when you’re just starting out, don’t go in with guns blazing. Just like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the Twitter race. Here are a few suggestions to try and stay out of trouble:

  • Keep your follower-following ratio close to 1-to-1 (read: don’t follow a lot more people than are already following you). When you’re below 2,000 or so followers, it makes sense to spend time weeding out junk followers (spammers, inactive accounts, bots, etc.). Once you get above that, it starts becoming more effort than it’s worth, but you’ll have to determine where that threshold is for yourself.
  • Don’t follow more than 100 people a day, at least until you have a pretty big following, say 5,000 or so. Then you can try to gradually increase it, but don’t go overboard!
  • Don’t “churn” too fast. One of the big red flags on Twitter is when you follow someone, they follow back, then you dump them. Spammers do this to keep their follower-following ratio out of the red zone. If someone follows you, follow them back and keep it that way unless they unfollow you or they’re someone you find offensive (in which case, don’t just unfollow them, but block them). And you should unfollow anyone who unfollowed you first.
  • We’ll hit on this shortly, but carefully manage your promo tweets – you don’t want to be reported as a spammer. Your promos should be well in the minority of your overall Twitter activity. If not, you’re likely headed for trouble.
  • Twitter Success Takes Work

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: making the most of Twitter takes a lot of work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Most people think they can spew promo tweets all day or check in on Twitter once a month and it’s going to get them sales. It won’t. You have to engage people. Yes, you need to put out some promo tweets. But MOST of your tweets should be non-promotional, informative, entertaining, or in some way thought provoking to generate responses from your followers. Asking questions (“Hey, what did you think of the Jack Reacher movie?”) is a great example, just don’t overdo it.

    Then you do your very best to respond to every response you get. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time. I’ve made a number of genuine friends through this process, and have put my books in the hands of a lot of people. I don’t look through my home stream anymore, because with over 58,000 followers (as of the end of 2012) it’s become a torrent, but the level of engagement by existing and new Twitter followers on my @mentions and DM streams tells me that I’m still reaching – and engaging – a lot of people. Not all of them stay engaged every day, but after you’ve formed a relationship they generally hang around and periodically pop back into conversation. Think of Twitter as a huge cocktail party, and you’re circulating among the tables chatting.

    It’s A Numbers Game

    You may be doing eyerolls at the number of followers I have for any number of reasons. The fact is that while direct engagement on Twitter is essential, it’s also a numbers game. Of the people who follow you, subtracting out the spam and bot accounts, some are going to see your promo tweets (with or without you engaging them first). Some of them will respond to those tweets in a positive manner. Others will get annoyed at some point and unfollow. Some will just follow you and ignore you after that (and yes, I follow everyone back, although right now I’m catching up on a backlog).

    But the point is that as long as you consistently build your following, hopefully using search strategies that focus on finding people who might be interested in your genre, you’re getting your books/brand in front of new people every day. I’ll keep building my following until the day I die or something better than Twitter comes along, because every new follower represents an opportunity to gain a new reader and, in some cases, new friends.

    How Often Is Too Often?

    The frequency of promo tweets has always been hotly debated, and even now I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I’ve experimented a lot, and continue to do so. In the past, I’ve typically put out promo tweets at intervals of 60 to 120 minutes (give or take), although recently I’ve taken advantage of more advanced tools to match focused tweets (e.g., for folks in the UK, vs. here in the US) to the time of day during the week when most users are active. Hootsuite has an automated scheduler that is interesting, although it often tends to post tweets either too close together or too far apart for my tastes.

    There is also an interesting infographic on the best times to post on Facebook or send tweets on Twitter that bears some study. Keep in mind, however, that you should be thinking about emerging global markets, so the times are going to be offset for Europe (your main market will, of course, be the UK for English language titles, but don’t forget the Scandanavian countries and South Africa), as well as Australia and New Zealand. So if you’re putting out tailored tweets for those markets, make sure to hit their corresponding prime times.

    The bottom line of the entire promo tweet gig is to generate as many clickthroughs on links as possible while creating the least amount of irritation among followers (which leads to a higher rate of unfollows). It’s also important to create as many unique tweets as possible, so followers don’t see the same thing too often, and to promote more heavily the market(s) you want to develop more (for me right now, that’s Nook, Kobo, and iTunes). And before you shout “SPAMMER!”, keep in mind that in between those tweets I’m busy putting out totally non-book related things (cat pics are great!) and responding to followers. The promo tweets are the minority – by far – of what’s in my overall timeline. I talk a lot, but it’s not all about my books.

    As an interesting aside on the above point, I’ve also had a number of followers on Twitter say things like, “You know, after seeing your promo tweets for the last six months, I finally took the plunge and got one (or more) of your books”. These folks are obviously exceptions, but their sentiment also speaks to the reality that you have to send out promo tweets frequently enough for them to actually hit your followers’ eyeballs. People who have more than a handful of followers do NOT look at or see every tweet that comes through. Most don’t back up through their home stream when they’ve been on line as they might on Facebook – they just rejoin the cocktail party in progress. And like many other marketing strategies, it often takes some number of impressions for the follower to a) see it, b) lower their resistance to trying it out, and c) finally click on the darn link to go check out the goodies. Yes, they may also unfollow you, but that’s a natural consequence of the game.

    Free Sells

    Twitter isn’t a very good place to sell your book(s), but it’s a great place to give books away free. The lead novel of each of my trilogies is free in ebook format, and the freebie tweets generate lots of clickthroughs and downloads…and readers. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me on Twitter or via email that they never would have found my books had they not seen one of those “free book tweets.” Some I tailor for specific platforms to click through to a retailer’s book landing page; others I send to my “free novels” page on my site, where they can get whatever format they want (note: I also monetize every link that I can through affiliate programs – if you’re not doing that, particularly with Amazon, you’re losing out on “free” money). Other folks present opportunities during interaction to send them a link (not pushed at them, but when they ask about my books). And the people who click through these links and download also actually tend to read the books, as opposed to the free book gatherers on Amazon, for example, who already have five bazillion freebies on their Kindle that they’ll never read.

    If you only have one book and don’t give it away for free, that’s okay: give away the first few chapters, hopefully enough to get the reader hooked. What you’re trying to do here is reduce the risk the buyer feels so they’ll be willing to try it. If all they’re investing is a bit of time, they’re much more likely to try something. And bigger samples – including entire books – are always better, because at a certain point, if they like the book they feel invested in it and want to buy it. That’s when you make the sale.

    It Can Take A Lot Of Time

    So, those are some of the things that have come to mind while reading a lot of the talk out there about Twitter. Let me reiterate that using it like I do takes a LOT of time. I’m a full-time author now, and I’d say that Twitter takes up three to four hours, spread throughout the day: I work on setting up tweets and evaluating the previous day’s activity for an hour or so in the morning, and then I’m on periodically all day tweeting. Not everyone can or wants to make that level of investment, but you can still see great results without investing as much time. They key is consistency and engagement.

    Facebook (On The Side)

    Since we’re here, I also wanted to make a comment or two about Facebook. I’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook isn’t a very good environment to find new readers. You can find some, but it’s becoming increasingly restrictive and I think people on there are even less responsive to “buy my book” (or even free) stuff than on Twitter. And the follow rate for Facebook pages tends to be much lower than on Twitter, so you run a higher risk of inundating folks with promotions. If nothing else, heed this: you can’t post on Facebook the same way you do on Twitter. Remember, Twitter is a cocktail party (as Chalene Johnson once said), whereas Facebook is your living room where you’ve invited people into your home. They’re totally different environments.

    Instead, Facebook is a great place to develop deeper relationships with fans you’ve picked up on Twitter. Most of what I put on my Facebook author page has nothing to do with my writing, although I’ll periodically post blurbs from upcoming books, announcements of releases or platform updates, etc. What gets the most response are things like kitty pics, comments on movies I’ve seen, etc. – things that let you connect on a personal level. And the majority of those fans will be among the first to buy my next book.

    But I don’t get many new readers there. Most of the people following me on Facebook are folks I picked up on Twitter by saying, “Hey, come by and join me on my Facebook page…” Then on Facebook you can build a stronger relationship with them beyond 140 character exchanges.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Making Twitter Work For You

  1. Duane Urban

    A lot of social media’s charm is that marketers and advertising companies look at it as another channel to extract money from their clients. There is a lot of buzz yet is it really valuable? Most companies haven’t been able to figure out if they are actually getting a return on their investment. I suspect when they figures come in they will find that they aren’t. Of course if you want to be taken seriously these days when you have a product or service to sell you have to have a professional website or you are looked at as a joke. You’ll also have to have a social media presence.

    However… if you are an artist as in author, musician, etc., you have to ask yourself just how far can you go? Shall you spend all your time on Facebook or being a twit on twitter? I suppose to yes if you have to promote your work. Yet if promotion takes up so much time you have none left over to create maybe it’s best you get a job flipping burghers or something.

    Reply
    • Michael Hicks Post author

      I think you hit it on the head with “asking yourself how far can you go”. In my case, I spend a lot of time during the day in the social media ring, particularly on Twitter. For me, I know that’s paid off very handsomely over the long term, and I’m convinced I wouldn’t be where I am now (writing full-time and earning more than I was as a GG-15 executive grade working for the federal government) if it wasn’t for Twitter.

      On the other hand, I was willing to commit time to working Twitter that many people aren’t willing or aren’t able to do. Before I left my day job, I spent the previous three years working 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, between my regular job and writing (including writing new material and promotional activities, mainly Twitter). You have to find a balance, and Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets aren’t for everybody. You have to tailor your toolbox to your own unique set of skills and interests.

      Reply

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