There have been a few academic studies of social media in the past few years, but all of them were "snapshots"--one-time views of people's social media status, not long-term studies that test what works over time. Recently, a team at Georgia Tech set out to fill that gap by studying 500,000 tweets fired off by 500 Twitter users over 15 months. "We looked at how they built their network over time and what was important to building that network," says C.J. Hutto, (@CJHutto) research scientist at Georgia Tech.
The team recently announced its findings, which offer a blueprint of scientifically proven methods for increasing your Twitter following and preventing people from unfollowing you. Here are their recommendations, in descending order of importance:
1. Don't just talk about yourself.
Non-tweeters often disparage Twitter by saying they're not interested in what others had for breakfast. Turns out, Twitter users aren't either. You're better off tweeting links to interesting pages or articles, or at least information about something other than yourself.
2. Engage with others.
Tweets that contain @ symbols--that is, retweets, shout-outs, and even the dreaded #FF list--engage other members of the Twitter community, and are likelier to bring your followers than simply broadcasting whatever you have to say.
3. Stay positive.
Tweets with negative words and emotions in them are much less likely to build a following than upbeat, positive tweets, the researchers found. This may be because most Twitter users don't know each other, so when they see griping they are easily turned off. "It's like your mother told you: If you don't have something nice to say, you shouldn't say anything," Hutto notes.
4. Tell the world exactly who you are.
"You get a boost in followers from filling out all aspects of your user profile, with a longer description, a profile picture, and a location," Hutto says. "It shows you're a real person."
5. Tweet often, but not in bursts.
"Burstiness," which one user described as spamming people's Twitter feeds, will lose you followers, but tweeting often is a good thing, since "it's all about being visible," Hutto says. In real terms, that translates to an optimum frequency of eight tweets per hour, the research showed.
6. Use hashtags, but sparingly.
"They're a good way to put what you're saying into context," Hutto says. "But if you use more than one in a tweet, hashtags become annoying." He adds that multiple-word hashtags become annoying more quickly because they're harder to read. "If your tweet looks like a jumbled mess, people are less likely to stay followers."
7. Show off your vocabulary.
It turns out that more sophisticated writing with longer words helps build Twitter followers. Because most Twitter users are virtual strangers to each other, "People rely on linguistic cues like spelling and vocabulary for credibility," Hutto says. "If you write like a third grader you won't get as many followers. And you'll get penalized if you use too many Twitterspeak terms or acronyms."
8. Follow your followers.
The more people you follow, the more will follow you. And if you return the favor by following people who follow you, they're less likely to unfollow you in the future. Though it's supported by the research, I have mixed feelings about this one because I myself won't follow any Twitter account unless I really want to read the tweets. On the other hand, there are many tools, such as TweetDeck, that will filter your Twitter stream. So perhaps this is good advice after all.
9. Stay on topic.
Though not completely proven by the study, the research data suggests that sticking to tweets within a particular topic area will help you build followers more quickly than if you tweet about a broad range of subjects, Hutto says. That makes sense to me: I tend to follow people who tweet about the topics I'm interested in (small business, technology, the writing game). And harking back to tip No. 4, putting your topic or topics into your profile is likely to help as well.