Twitter has been initiating a crackdown of sorts on sites that offer “automated unfollow” services such as my own SocialToo.com. Since we announced we were removing it on SocialToo, at least 3 other services have also been asked to remove the functionality, which enables people to automatically unfollow others that unfollow them on Twitter. I have also noticed Twitter is now cracking down on Twitter accounts that perform this practice. When chatting with Twitter, their reasoning is that auto-unfollow “perpetuates the idea that Twitter is about follower counts”. Assuming that this is the real reasoning behind the request, I’d like to suggest a more effective means of killing that idea: kill services that allow proactive follow in the first place and follower churn will go away.
Let me first explain what proactive follow is. There are many services out there right now that enable you to find new followers based on keywords. You specify search terms, perhaps based on your brand, and these services then go out and find people Tweeting with these keywords, and the service follows those people. Some will even send a public @mention or DM if they meet your search criteria. The entire hope is that those people will follow back (note that not everyone does this automatically), increasing your follower count and potential reach.
The problem with this method is that Twitter has limits in place. As people unfollow you as you are increasing your numbers in this way, soon you will be following way more people than are following you back. Twitter has a limit right now, in which if you’re following around 10% more of the people that are following you on Twitter, you will not be able to follow any more. So what happens is these people using these “get more follower” services then use legit services like my SocialToo to unfollow all of the people that have stopped following them, bringing their ratio back in check. It’s a direct rebellion against Twitter’s rules and regulations, and I don’t blame Twitter for being concerned about it. In fact, I refuse to allow proactive follow on SocialToo just for this reason – we are not a “get more followers fast” site. We’re a utility that enables you to manage your Twitter stream better and easier.
So Twitter has come up with the best solution they can come up with – “let’s kill the sites that are providing automatic unfollow and the follower churn will go away”. The idea being if users can’t unfollow those users that have unfollowed them after they proactively went out and followed everyone, it’s a lot harder to game the system and break Twitter’s rules. Based on my experience with what users are telling me on SocialToo, this breaks Twitter for many big brands using the service in a legit manner though. Let me share a few use-cases people are telling me about after we removed it on SocialToo:
Legit Use-Cases for Auto-Unfollow
Some Brands Just Have Big Numbers — On SocialToo we service some really big brands. Let’s face it: these brands have a lot of followers. Following those followers back gives their followers a sense that the brand is listening to them. It’s a PR move, as well as a customer service move because their followers can now DM them. For instance, I followed @PCSki the other day, hoping to be able to get a spot in for my wife’s and my Ski Vacation to Park City Utah. Because they followed me back, I was able to keep our conversation private. This reciprocal follow is an important piece for Brands looking to communicate better with their followers and customers. @PCSki got a sale (and future blog post) out of me because of that relationship.
Now, assuming we’re dealing with millions of followers, or hundreds of thousands of followers, or even thousands of followers it is absolutely impossible to continue following back the people that follow you based on Twitter’s 10% ratio limit. If I want to follow everyone back, the fact is about 1/3 to 1/2 of those people I follow back will unfollow me at some point, and my ratio breaks. I’m then stuck waiting until more people follow me before I can follow back more. This is bad for brands, especially those with bigger numbers. If you think numbers aren’t important for a brand, you’re flat out wrong.
Auto Unfollow Kills the Churners — The main reason I created automatic unfollow on SocialToo was because it’s another effective technique at combating spammers if you do auto follow (see above for some good reasons to auto follow as a brand ). For a good auto follow service to occur, it’s the natural thing to do to offer auto unfollow services as well in order to keep out the spammers you might follow unintentionally. This is also the reason we offer DM filters and other filtering services on SocialToo. For those gaming the system, the minute they unfollow me to hope their numbers stay up, I immediately unfollow them as well, and their numbers don’t increase at all.
Auto Unfollow Enables Steady Growth, Despite Friends Unfollowing — if auto unfollow were not available, a typical brand or person wanting to enable auto follow on their account would go as follows: Number of friends increase. Number of friends stay stagnant until ratio is met. Number of friends increase again. Steady growth is not attainable with Twitter’s current ratio limit and the lack of auto unfollow.
So what can Twitter do? I understand they’re between a rock and a hard place here. They could remove the ratio limits, but then the churners (or gamers) would take over again. They could kill automated unfollow services, but other services will still take over – I can already think of a good way to create a browser extension that does it on a user-by-user basis if we wanted to. Also, killing automated unfollow removes the ability for users to defend themselves against the churners. Twitter could just let the churning happen, but then jealousy happens and people complain (not sure that’s a bad thing as I think people can see through the fakes, but I understand their viewpoint). Twitter could remove the numbers, only enabling them in private for each individual, but that would remove some of the fun and competition of Twitter.
The only decent solution is to kill the services that are enabling proactive follow. Disable those enabling the ability to search by keyword and follow based on that keyword. This is a pure API-based service that Twitter can shut off at the source pretty easily. Once these are gone, churning, and the “Twitter Game” will be over for those abusing the system.
The Fact is Twitter is About Numbers
While I don’t think Twitter wants people gaming the system to create more numbers, I think Twitter knows that the only way to grow the service is to enable people to increase their number of followers and grow an audience. If you don’t think that, you’re lying to yourself. Everyone wants more followers, especially if you’re a brand or business.
Twitter prominently displays follower counts on each user’s page, along with a list of who’s following them, the number of lists they’re on, the number of lists they’ve created, and the list goes on. Twitter has a Suggested User List – the entire goal being to give people a larger number of people those people can follow and find interesting things from. Users get higher prominence in Google if their numbers are higher on Twitter. Numbers are everything to Twitter, let’s not kid ourselves.
Twitter Needs to Kill the Proactive Follow
The only way Twitter is going to fix the problem they see at hand is to kill services enabling users and brands to go out and proactively find new followers. Killing the unfollow isn’t going to fix this. Killing the proactive follow will. My hope is that, assuming this is the real reason Twitter wants to kill it, Twitter will realize this and give freedom back to their users to continue maintaining their accounts.
As I said on the SocialToo blog – in the meantime, we’re in Twitter’s world and we’re subject to their rules, so until then I’ll do what they tell me. Let’s hope they’re listening though. SocialToo provides many more services than just this though, so I’m not worried – I am worried about our users however.
Are there use-cases I’m missing? How were you using auto-unfollow?