I've learned a lot about social media since I started being more intentional about my activities. Way back in 2011, I had only 400 followers on Twitter, a small handful on Facebook, and a paltry 200 contacts or so who followed my posts on LinkedIn. I felt like I was speaking into a void; I could hear the social media echo.

In all of this time, I've learned a few important techniques to help gain followers on social media. It is not a science. If you head over to some botnet service and purchase followers or use a technique like following those who automatically follow back, it won't work. The problem with these "fake followers" is that they tend to make quick exits. Those who really want to follow what you say on social media will stick around. They will also retweet your posts, share your links on Facebook, and actively promote your LinkedIn feed.

Over the past few years, I've tried to follow these guidelines quite religiously. It's a daily regimen for me. I'm about to cross the threshold of about 8,000 followers on social media (including 7,000 on Twitter), an important number for me because it is 20 times the number I had back in 2011. And the people who are following me are not robots; they are actually interested in what I have to say. (I know this because they share my posts, answer my questions, and tend to interact with me frequently.)

While there isn't science involved, it also doesn't have to be tedious or robotic. It can be fun. To gain followers (and therefore reach a bigger audience), follow these techniques. You'll be surprised how you can make social media much more valuable.

1. Get personal.

This might be the only way to gain followers in a legitimate way, and it takes time. When anyone posts a personal message about me or something I've posted, I'm incredibly diligent about replying. I see so many folks on Twitter and other networks who believe they're involved in an impersonal exercise, something they do to complete a checklist item. View the followers you have now as real people and you will gain followers simply because you are setting a good example. When people visit your feed, they will see you are interacting in a real way. Go ahead and thank people often for sharing your posts; send personal messages and try to find out more about each individual follower and what he or she brings to the table.

2. Ask questions.

Second only to my advice about getting personal, remember to ask questions. Maybe it's human nature, but we all like to be the one who saves the day. There's also something about asking a question that engages people differently. Frame something as a question and you will suddenly see more people engaging, even if they are not following you. There's power in posting questions because the answers can come from anywhere.

3. Post often.

I've learned to post frequently throughout the day, at least two or three times. I tend to avoid the automated post scheduling tools because I think people can see through that. I'd rather post once about something with a link, then go back to it later when it seems like the right time to do so, than have a whole series of formulaic posts hitting my stream at regular intervals. Automated posting tends to make you look too much like a bot. Go random; it works.

4. Say something profound.

Maybe it's a little obvious, and I will admit my jokes and quips don't always live up to this high ideal (some might say they never do), but those who have the most followers tend to be the ones who post quality content. I'm not talking about Justin Bieber here. For those of us who are just doing our jobs and don't have a team of social media gurus driving eyeballs to our feeds, it's important to see your stream as your 15 microseconds of fame. Take the stage only when you have something useful to add to the online discussion. When you do, more people will notice, share the content, and encourage others to follow your stream.

5. Avoid controversy.

I've heard social media experts insist that it is a good idea to add some controversy. When you do, the theory is that more people will come looking. I've seen the opposite effect. When I've posted things that are highly opinionated, people tend to move on to other feeds. I tend to post helpful advice and steer clear of conflict. We have enough of it in our daily lives. Having someone post a bunch of controversial stuff just feels a bit too toxic.

What would you add? What has worked for you on social networks?

Published on: Feb 9, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.