Following the follower debate

By now you’ve heard that David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, thinks publishing the number of followers or friends a profile has is “really gross”. And constantly pointing out the number of followers a profile has does sort of smack of high school, particularly on Twitter which tends to feel like a big popularity contest anyway. At the same time, success is largely driven and measured by numbers including how many people visit a web site, follow a blog, like a Facebook Page or are otherwise connected with a person online. So how important are follower numbers to bloggers are why?

The answer is: it depends.

Following and social networkingIf you are blogging solely for yourself (for instance I have a private blog that I use as a journal, putting it online just makes it easier for me to update and share the occasional snippet or recipe) the number of followers is pretty superfluous, because it’s basically just one: you. Similarly, if you are engaged in some collaborative storytelling (ie role play) or blogging your way through a book, project or life event, you may not want many followers. Both of these can be intensely private and personal blogging experiences that aren’t really meant to be shared with the world at large so a limited number of followers is not only to be expected, it’s to be desired.

On the other hand if you’re blogging to sell something, promote a business or yourself, or provide news, advice or expertise to an audience, even if it’s a niche audience, followers are crucial. Think about it: the more people who see your content, receive your updates and interact with you online, whether it’s through you blog or social media, the more opportunities you have to sell them on yourself, your business, your products or anything else you’re offering. The more opportunities you have to sell something, the more likely you are to actually make sales and the more you sell the more income you generate which is what most of us are here for, after all.

So the numbers of followers you or your blog have is important. Even Tumblr admits that or the platform wouldn’t show you how many followers your tumblog has or include all those notes at the bottom of a post showing who had “hearted” or reblogged it. What’s the difference between that and displaying the number of followers you have?

One significant difference is that it is the popularity of the content not the creator that tumblr emphasizes. Other services, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIN emphasize individual popularity. Sure the popularity of the content you post is part of that but followers follow you or your company, not the content.

Popularity can be a double edged sword. It means you have more opportunities to sell but at the same time it takes more time and effort to keep up with what your followers are doing. Policing your online reputation, making sure your customers are satisfied and that potential customers know that and keeping an eye on the competition and possible troublemakers can quickly become a full time job that takes you away from the work you want to do and that pays the bills.

Some people will tell you that it is better to have fewer followers if they are higher quality followers. Some even contend that you should only accept followers or invitations to connect from people you know personally and in real life. This is akin to putting up a virtual velvet rope around your blog or profile. It implies that it is an exclusive club that not everyone gets into. That aura of mystery and coolness often results in more people wanting to connect with you. Think of it this way: there are two restaurants across the street from each other, one has a line outside the other doesn’t. Which one do you want to eat at? Probably the one with the line since the very existence of the line is an indicator that the restaurant is so good people will wait in line to eat there. Of course, this also presumes you have some control over who follows you on a given platform and have the time to approve follow and connection requests on a daily basis if not several times a day. In other words, you’ll be spending even more time not doing the things that earn you money.

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that allowing anyone in somehow devalues individual followers particularly if you have more than 1,000 followers. You won’t know all their names, or recognize them when they reach out to you in a venue other than the one where you commonly interact with them. Chances are, you won’t follow all of them back, either. In fact, some platforms, including Twitter, restrict the number of people you can follow based upon the number of people following you. This can lead to some embarrassing moments. It also means you can, and eventually will, miss some fairly important details.

So what can you do to balance these competing interests? Start by being clear on why you want followers, how you will interact with them and how both of those add value to your goals as a blogger and for your blog. Decide early on whether you will follow everyone back (a great way to build up your own follower numbers but also a practice that requires regular if not daily maintenance) and how often you will try to visit the blogs or websites of you followers. You might want to work interacting with followers into your daily blogging deadlines right from the beginning. Then stick to that decision and schedule unless there is a compelling business reason for you to change it. Your followers need to know what to expect from you, when. Sure, tossing in the occasional change up can keep things lively and interesting, but too much chaos is a turn off. Also it is much harder to change behavior after it has become ingrained. Do yourself and your followers a favor, start off the way you intend to continue. Be practical, too. You may be able to follow everyone back at first but if you wouldn’t follow another blog if they weren’t already following yours, you probably should think twice about following back unless you intend to follow everyone back. Even then recognize that you will not be spending much time visiting their blog.

That’s right, following is always a popularity contest whether the number of people you follow or follow you is displayed or not. It’s what you do with it that counts.

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