Why It Matters to Follow Back on Social Media — And How to Do It Right

Reciprocity is a beautiful thing

New Epolitics.com contributor Will Coley is the founder of AquiferMedia.com.

“Gentleman Antbirds Courting” by Mary Tremonte via Justseeds.org

To measure the online influence of your organization or campaign, it’s not enough to simply count your followers on social media. That’s part of the argument in a recent report by the Citizen Engagement Lab, “Moving Beyond Vanity Metrics.” Instead the ultimate goal should be active engagement (online and off) around your mission.

But it’s not just your followers who should be doing the engaging online. Your followers are not a faceless audience who simply receive your content. It’s important for your organization to follow back some of your followers. Of course, this isn’t the only way that your organization should interact with followers… but it’s a start. As digital strategist Beth Becker likes to say, “You can’t follow no one but you can’t follow everyone.”

Here’s why: (The “how” comes after):

  1. I see you; you exist. Of course we are much more than our digital personae in online spaces. But following someone relays that you’ve seen and acknowledged them. It’s a sign of respect. They may not follow you forever but for now they’ve selected you as someone to watch. If they have a public profile on certain social media platforms, you can communicate that you also think they’re important by following back.
  2. Make new connections/Expand your worldview. Following back also means that you’re making a new connection that could benefit you and your work. You’re expanding your network and sources of information; using social media to get your finger on the pulse. Beth Becker points out that following others gives context for social media conversations. Of course, this means that the new follower should be someone who’s sharing content that relates to what you’re also interested in. A quick survey of their bio or personal newsfeed will make this clear.
  3. Appreciate sharing. Social media followers often help disseminate your content (i.e retweeting). By following back this kind of follower, your organization demonstrates that you value their help in getting your content to a larger audience. You’re voting for them and their growing influence. Following back = thank you.
  4. Not all followers need to be followed back. If you don’t think a follower will add value to your news stream, you’re within your rights to not follow them or even unfollow them. I’m thinking mostly of marketers or spammers, those folks with more than 10,000 followers, who start following you even when there’s no common interest or obvious reason why they would want to follow you. Many of these folks follow you just in the hope that you’ll follow back. Once you do, they unfollow you. It’s best to avoid these users from the beginning. Over time, they become easier to spot (Profile pics with scantily-clad selfies are a clear sign).

Following others looks slightly different on each social media platform. Below are a few suggestions for some of the ones I have some experience with:

  • Twitter: Follow back people you personally know or people who retweet you and have similar interests. Beth Becker is a big fan of Twitter lists to organize and segment the people that you follow back (i.e. by geographic location, etc). Don’t follow strangers who simply follow you or “favorite” your tweets (retweets are more valuable). With all these followers, your Twitter newsfeed will see more traffic. So instead of relying on the main Twitter website, use tools like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to follow relevant hashtags or Twitter lists that you want to watch. If you want to unfollow users who aren’t following you back, you can use a free tool like Unfollowers.com or ManageFlitter.
  • Instagram: Follow back all public profiles that add value to your organization’s stream. This will help you better understand your audience on Instagram. Don’t request to follow people who have private profiles (that’s creepy if you don’t know them). “Like” all reposts of your images that are credited to you. If you want to unfollow users who aren’t following you back, you can use a free tool like Unfollowers.com or FriendorFollow.com.
  • Facebook: Don’t add people as “friends” to your personal profile if you’ve never met or communicated directly with them. You can “follow” profiles for people who have opted to let the public follow their posts (button appears next to Friend Request button). It’s not feasible to do this for everyone who’s ever liked your organization’s page. Instead, follow the profiles of influential people, like local journalists, that are interested in the issues that your organization works on. For organizational pages that you want to keep an eye on, you need to interact with their content (i.e. like/share) in order for Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm to continue to show it to you. Another option is to opt to “Get Notifications” from certain pages you want to keep an eye on, like the pages of other organizations. Notifications are an option in the drop down menu under the Like button on pages. Facebook will then alert you when the page posts something new (one of those little red notices next to the globe at the top of the webpage).
  • Blogs/Websites (including Tumblr). I’m a big fan of Feedly, an RSS reader tool that allows you to get notifications of new posts and articles on websites that you value. You can also direct Google Alerts to your Feedly account so they don’t clog your email inbox. I also use Feedly to follow certain Tumblrs, Youtube channels and Vimeo accounts so I’m sure to see new posts.
  • Tumblr: I’ve been experimenting with following back all new followers and influential “re-bloggers” (people who share your posts and get lots more people to see/share them). I then use Feedly to subscribe the RSS feeds of Tumblrs I want to closely watch and stay updated on. You can use FriendorFollow.com to see who you’re not following back and who’s not following you back. I’m looking for more advice on following back on Tumblr, so let me know what you think in the comments below.
  • Pinterest: I haven’t spent lots of time on Pinterest lately, but I’m curious if users often choose to follow back new followers. I imagine the rationale for following back is similar to Twitter (above). Let me know in the comments.
  • Youtube: I use Feedly to follow channels that I want to be updated on. I haven’t invested lots of time in subscribing back to many Youtube channels (although I know many Youtube creators ask us to). I’m curious if any of you have advice in this matter.

So those are my suggestions for following back others on social media. What did I miss? What do you disagree with? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Will Coley
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