When it comes to growing your audience, the practice of “follow for follow” is a grey area for me. On the one hand, you build your network, foster connections, and make your social media channels work for you. However, it can also take you down the path of being inauthentic.
At face value, follow for follow is just mutually subscribing to one another’s content. Pretty self-explanatory. No harm or foul, right? I like your stuff and you like mine, and it’s so great we connected!
Well, it’s great when that’s why it happens. It’s wonderful when you set out with the intention to make that kind of connection. An authentic connection.
Every now and then, I get a message from a new follower. Completely out of the blue. No previous interaction. “Follow me and I’ll give you a follow back.”
Often it really is that blunt. Other times, it’s couched in a more friendly invitation. But the meaning is the same. “I don’t know/care who you are, but I’ll add to your numbers if you add to mine.”
Demanding Follow-for-Follow is Just Rude
Have you ever had someone randomly come up to you, business card in hand? They ask rapid-fire questions, seemingly interested in getting to know you. What’s your name? What do you do? But there’s no genuine response to your answers. They wait for you to finish talking before getting to what they really want to talk about: them.
I’ve had it happen at journalism conferences, book conventions, New York Comic Con, at the grocery store, and even while walking to my car after work. While I can appreciate the need to hustle for clients when you’re in business for yourself, I’ve never had a good feeling about anyone who approached me this way. It always makes me want to channel my inner Wednesday Addams.
When you do this over social media, there’s another element to be concerned about. This bargain requires trust between complete strangers. I follow you, you follow me, and we both assume neither will welch once we decide to be honest about our lack of interest in the other.
Of course, there’s always the option to mute these people. But if you follow someone just so they’ll reciprocate, then mute all of their content, what is the actual point? You’re not getting anything out of this connection!
Asking for Follows
To be clear, asking people to subscribe to your blog, channel, or social media isn’t a problem. It may come with normal icky feelings of self-promotion, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad. It’s no different than asking people to share your content if they like it. People are more likely to share and follow when you ask them nicely.
By nicely, I mean without being obnoxious. You make it easy for people to follow you. A link on the sidebar and/or footer of your website, or in the description on your YouTube uploads, or your bio on Instagram. A gentle reminder in your posts.
The point is to invite people to be part of your community. A good invitation uses good manners. A bad invitation comes in the form of the people at kiosks in the mall who chase after you with their questions and free samples. Don’t be like that.
If you have no problem being that rude, then at least think about your brand. Do you want people to associate your brand with this kind of behavior?
Forging Authentic Connections
When you’re starting out on building your social audience, you want to look for people who talk about things you want to talk about. We’re not talking about sniffing out the competition, though. You want to look for a conversation to join.
On Twitter, I like to cruise through what’s new under #writingcommunity posts, but also #writerslife. I want to sympathize with people who forgot to save their changes, or who had one of those conversations that’s totally normal for a writer to have but otherwise would be very concerning to outsiders (such as several recent chats with my Brazilian jujitsu-doing partner about proper non-lethal choking techniques for a fight scene I was stuck on).
I see and listen to others. Maybe I comment or retweet. If I like what they say, I follow them because I want to see more of them in my feed. (But I rarely get push notifications about anyone; that’s way too overwhelming.)
Or I see one of the many tweets about writers giving other writers a lift. You introduce yourself in the thread, mention what you write about, maybe drop a link. And you talk to some others and find some people to follow. Some follow you back.
But that is more of a digital social networking event. There are no requirements to follow everyone in the thread. Absolutely zero pressure to follow people you’re not interested in.
Choosing to subscribe to someone’s content should be a personal expression of interest and an investment of time and attention. Yes, there is networking value in following others. But if the only way you’re able to gain new followers is by trading follows for follows, maybe you need to take a step back from social networking and spend more time on your content. If your content isn’t of good quality and value, no one will engage with it. And without engagement, your followers are just a number of people not listening to you.
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