Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

How to Build a Twitter Following — and Why You Should

Full blue birds copy

Image: Birds of America/John James Audubon

Corey Robin, in his recent thought-provoking article, "How Intellectuals Create a Public," argues that "the public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books." Instead, "she sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world."

Robin is probably right about that. I don’t claim to be a public intellectual. I am, however, an academic interested in attracting a wider audience of readers, and perhaps even selling more books. That’s because I believe I have things to say that are worth saying, I’d like to communicate with people both in and out of academe, and I have no moral objection to being paid for my time and effort. This — being a professor, a writer, a speaker — is how I make my living, after all.

If you share those same goals, then you need to be using social media, particularly Twitter, probably more than you are now. I’ve got some advice — based on my own recent efforts to use Twitter to broaden my audience — for those who are either new to Twitter or who have only dipped a toe into that particular pool. But before I proceed, a few disclaimers are in order.

First, I am not a social-media expert. But my oldest son is. As social-media director for a large company in the West, he has given me some helpful tips. Mostly, though, I’ve learned by playing around on Twitter, trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t. Some readers may know tricks and shortcuts that I don’t. If you do, I hope you’ll share those ideas in the comments section below.

Second, this column is not for young hipster professors sipping lattes in coffee shops while tapping on their Macbook Pros. Nor is it for those annoying middle-aged early adopters, regaling the rest of us with their technological savvy and gushing over the latest gadget with missionary zeal.

Rather, it’s for people like me: midcareer faculty members who are not digital natives and who are naturally a bit intimidated by — and perhaps even suspicious of — technology. (I finally caved and bought a smartphone last month.) If you’re in that category, and you’ve been wondering lately if maybe you should try using social-media sites like Twitter to increase your impact on your field, not to mention the wider world, the answer is that you should, and you can. Here’s how.

Have something to say. Before you start tweeting, you need a good reason to tweet — something to tweet about. Obviously you can, and should, share links to articles that interest you, pithy quotes you run across, and brief statements of your opinion on various topics. (Remember: You only get 140 characters, and that includes spaces.) But ultimately, if you hope to expand your influence, you should be tweeting periodically about your own work.

That means you also need a blog, assuming you don’t already have one. If you don’t blog, but you do have a personal website for posting syllabi and so forth, it’s a simple enough matter to add a blog page. Otherwise, you can create a blog easily and inexpensively using WordPress or a similar product. You might also look into contributing to other blogs, such as those run by well-known organizations or people with whom you have some connection. You can use your blog posts not only to share ideas but also to promote your books, articles, and lectures.

Once you’ve written a blog post, you can then tweet the link — in hopes that somebody, somewhere might actually read it. Note that you shouldn’t tweet exclusively about your blog or your own work in general. I recommend at least four or five tweets a day, with no more than one or two of them being self-promotional.

A tale of two Twitters. I actually have two professional Twitter accounts. (I used to have a personal account, too, but I quit using it because it was, quite frankly, too politically fraught.) I started the one listed at the end (@HigherEdSpeak) about three years ago and have allowed it to grow organically. That is, I haven’t made any sort of concerted effort to attract followers. People follow me after reading one of my columns in The Chronicle, or else they come across my "handle" in some other way. That account now has roughly 950 followers.

My second Twitter account (@AAL_ELI), which I just created about four months ago, already has over 1,700 followers. I use that one — shameless plug alert — to promote my latest book, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, jointly written with Karl Haden of the Academy for Academic Leadership, where I am a fellow. We have a blog, on which we post something new each week, and we tweet daily about both the blog and the book, intermingled with quotes, links, and pearls of wisdom. In following the steps I’m about to outline, we’ve been moderately successful in attracting followers, driving people to our blog, and selling a few books.

Give some thought to your profile. As I’ve worked to build a following, I’ve looked at a lot of Twitter profiles. Some attracted me, some repulsed me, and many were merely annoying.

The key to a good professional Twitter profile is to let people know who you are and what you do in just a few words (you get 160 characters for a profile) without sounding too braggy, enigmatic, or just plain weird. You needn’t write in complete sentences. Instead, strive for conciseness. Verbs are optional. Don’t litter your profile with hashtags (more about those later) or mention your cats, hobbies, or politics.

Also, don’t say things about yourself that sound ridiculous or are completely subjective. Somewhere there must be a Twitter guru advising people to describe themselves as "passionate" about whatever because that is perhaps the single most common word I’ve seen used. So you’re passionate about medieval literature or string theory? Really? I’m passionate about my family. Maybe honey chipotle wings. My job I merely like a lot.

By the same token, be careful about describing yourself as an "expert," an "authority," or an "artist." Those are labels that others should apply to you, not that you should claim for yourself. Be content, for now, with being a "scholar," a "researcher," or a "painter."

Finally, as an employee of a college or university, you might want to save a few characters at the end for a brief disclaimer — of the "tweets are my own" variety.

You want followers, but not just any followers. You want people who follow you because they might have some interest in what you do and the things you write about. Don’t be tempted by offers (and you will receive plenty) to buy followers. You’re better off with 10 followers who care about your work than 10,000 who don’t.

To create your readership, start by following other people in the hope that they will follow you back. Once you do, Twitter will make recommendations based on the preferences it detects — some sort of algorithm at work, no doubt. But I’ve found that its suggestions are only moderately useful. If you follow a sociologist who happens to love dogs, Twitter is just as likely to recommend a bunch of dog lovers as it is to recommend other sociologists.

A more productive approach is to search for people or organizations on Twitter with whom you have something in common — prominent names in your field, perhaps, or professional associations. See who’s following them, and then follow those people. Typically, about 20 percent of them will follow you back.

A couple of caveats: First, don’t follow too many people at once, or else Twitter will identify you as some sort of stalker and shut down your account. (Yes, that happened to me once.) I recommend following no more than 50 people at a time. If you do that every day, you can easily add 75 to 100 targeted followers a week.

Second, take care not to let your following-to-followers ratio get too high, or, again, you might get shut down. The number of people you follow should never exceed 150 percent of those following you. Periodically go onto your following page and "unfollow" people who haven’t followed you back, unless you have some good reason for following them. (Please note that "people" also refers to organizations and sites, and also that I used some form of the word "follow" four times in that one sentence.)

Interaction is key. As you begin to attract followers, two things become extremely important. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is giving them a reason to stay — that is, offering content that will interest them. The second is the reason they call it social media: You need to interact (productively) with people — to make connections and even form relationships. Those contacts can become extremely valuable. I’ve gotten speaking engagements based on Twitter exchanges.

One way to interact is to retweet. Everyone likes to be retweeted, and you will know you are beginning to have an impact when people start to retweet you. You can also respond to other people’s tweets, creating a conversation that others can follow and even join. I highly recommend civility and restraint. Twitter also has a function that allows you to "quote," or embed someone else’s tweet in your own, so you benefit from the impact of the original tweet while at the same time creating a relationship with the tweeter.

Another way to interact is via hashtags. Using a hashtag — by putting that pound sign on your keyboard before a common word or phrase — means that anyone searching for that word or phrase on Twitter can come across your tweet. For example, in tweeting about my book, I often use the hashtag #leadership. People who are searching Twitter for information on leadership might well find my tweet and thereby my page.

A final caveat. The point of using Twitter is to attract followers, not drive them away. I assume you want people to read your blog and buy your books whether or not they agree with you on every issue. You want to build bridges, not walls. Being provocative can enhance your appeal, but there’s a fine line between that and offending large numbers of people. I strongly recommend you come down on the bridge-building side of that line.

I know all of this may sound unseemly for someone living the life of the mind. Maybe you’d prefer Robin’s more cerebral advice on being a public intellectual to my nuts-and-bolts approach. No hard feelings if you do, and best of luck with those thought-deeds.

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