4 Tips to Build An Engaged B2B Twitter Following

Twitter B2BAt nearly 6 months into our B2B Twitter experience, we’ve been more successful at developing a following and engaging our target audience of B2B marketers than I initially expected. These gains have come through a combination of focus – rather than trying to tackle the entire world of B2B social media opportunities all at once, we tackled two blogs and two Twitter accounts with two FTEs  – consistent measurement and a healthy willingness to test a wide range of Twitter tactics rather than just following existing “best practices”.

A Look at the “Pro Business Tweeters”

One of our goals when starting on Twitter was to learn the fastest route to a large, engaged group of Twitter followers. We had some advantages in building our @B2BOnlineMktg account, like thousands of subscribers to our B2B search marketing newsletter that we could make aware of our Twitter presence, but we intentionally didn’t use all our promotional power to drive followers. As I’ve said before, we also didn’t use the “spam-and-cull” approach – following hundreds or thousands of Twitter users, seeing which ones automatically follow back, culling out those who do not, following another set of users, and so on – because we want a large and ENGAGED following. What good are 10,000 Twitter followers if none of them pay any attention to what you’re tweeting?

To start getting a handle on how to build a large, engaged group of Twitter followers, we followed a number of more experienced B2B Twitter accounts with 5,000+ followers and started watching for patterns. The follower-friend ratio caught my eye because, after researching many of the existing B2B social media “best practices,” it was clear that there were two very different, and often conflicting, perspectives on the right way to engage in social media.

The first is a view of social media as an interpersonal medium governed by interpersonal rules. For example, if someone wants to be your friend, the polite thing is to shake hands, say “hi”, and try to be friends – most people would consider it just plain rude to walk away. Those pro business tweeters with a follower-friend ratio around 1 seem to be following this norm and with automatically following someone back. Since there’s no obvious, objective benefit to blocking a follower if you decide not to be their friend, follower and following counts grow together.

The other group with a follower-friend ratio on the 5+ range seems to be viewing social media as a mass communication medium governed by mass communication rules, and the pro business tweeters in this group are often larger companies, business media and/or experienced execs at mid- to large-sized companies. From a mass communication perspective, it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected for the relationship to be one-sided or interactive only on demand (such as when a customer has a question). After all, its utterly impossible for someone to follow 5,000+ other Twitter users, let alone 500, and pay attention to all their tweets. If you think reading and processing 100 emails a day is a challenge, try 5,000 tweets.

You see these same styles with newer and much smaller Twitter for business accounts as well – some follow hundreds of others to kick start their own follower base (and then worry about how unfollowing may hurt their reputation) while others follow very few but seem to attract a lot of followers themselves.

How to Build An Engaged Business Twitter Following

If you’ve thought of using Twitter for business and/or find your existing business Twitter presence stalled out with little follower engagement, here are some thoughts to get you on the right track:

1. Twitter is a viable business communication channel, end of story – From what I’ve seen in the past six months, Twitter has a role as a business communication channel for most B2B companies. Whether Twitter figures out a way to monetize its business or not is irrelevant because, if Twitter fails, some other micro-blogging platform will take its place. If you’ve already tried Twitter for your business and struggled to make it work, it’s most likely because the B2B social media rules are still being written. Don’t give up, and keep your eye on this list of B2B social media resources for the straight scoop.

2. Twitter for business is mass communication – I’m sure I’ll get hate mail for this one but if you plan to use Twitter for business, and you have more than a few hundred prospects/customers/influencers combined, you’re kidding yourself if you think interpersonal norms can govern how you use Twitter or other social media for your business. Why? Because Twitter is incredibly inefficient for forming interpersonal relationships. 140 character tweets are efficient for finding interesting people/content, maintaining contact with existing “friends” (as was the original purpose of Twitter) and asking/addressing simple questions. Establishing more meaningful business relationships through Twitter, though, is highly inefficient – people connect on Twitter, then want to take the conversation elsewhere because going back-and-forth through 140 character bursts is a quick road to carpal tunnel syndrome. For the vast majority of businesses out there, “mass communication” is the model you should follow as you plan your Twitter strategy.

3. You have a business contact list, so use it – As a business on Twitter, you don’t need to build a following like an individual would. This is a key advantage for business Twitter users that’s either forgotten or, more likely, ignored out of some combination of a misplaced desire to not disrupt existing communication channels and the sheer revulsion many B2B marketers feel when considering how a P2P or B2C trend may apply to their business. Get over it.  Establish a basic Twitter presence, make your prospects and customers aware of this new channel, and let them use it.

4. Focus on tweet quality over tweet quantity – I covered this finding in my interview with Mark Schaefer about Twitter for business, but we’ve found that tweeting interesting things (e.g., tweets with links that more people click on) has a much bigger, positive influence on follower growth rate than does tweet volume (e.g., making sure you tweet very frequently to keep your tweets in front of your followers). In other words, the best practice for getting people’s attention and interest on Twitter is the same as it is across other business communication channels – talk when you have something important to say. Blanketing your followers with tweets doesn’t work any better than does blanketing the media with press releases about non-issues or hammering a direct mail list with irrelevant offers. One more reason to look at Twitter as a mass communication channel for business rather than a medium ruled by strict adherence to norms of interpersonal interaction.

The next step in our social media experiment: finding out how you use social networking sites.  Are you using Facebook to promote your business?  Are you finding information and resources on Twitter to help you do your job more effectively? We’ve put together a business social media benchmarking survey to uncover the most important social media metrics, what’s working in business social media (and what is not), and how use varies by company size, industry, customer focus. Everyone who completes the survey by September 4, 2009 will receive a free summary of the results in mid- to late-September, just in time for those graphs and charts to be useful for planning your 2010 marketing strategy and social media initiatives. We’re also holding a drawing for a $2,000 American Express® Gift Card among all eligible respondents who complete the survey. Click here to take the survey.

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About the Author: Ben Hanna is VP, Marketing for Business.com. Business.com shares insights about B2B online marketing through @B2BOnlineMktg — and, in the process, builds awareness of Business.com as a key online resource for solutions to business challenges.

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Ben Hanna Ben Hanna is the Vice President of Marketing for Business.com. Ben has been connecting business buyers and sellers online in one form or another over the last 12 years.

31 Reactions
  1. Nice article Ben. I totally agree with number 4. It’s ok to share a minimal amount of personal tweets as long as you use them sparingly. The best tweets are the ones that share useful info that you think your followers will like. Too much about yourself can be a real turnoff.

    Oh, and thanks for the opportunity to win the Amex gift card. 🙂

  2. millionaires of genesis

    Great advice Ben. I concur with the quality over quantity thing. I keep my stream humming with frequent updates but I try to pack each one with short, sweet AND unique content. With only 140 characters at your disposal you are forced to focus on impact words and statements.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Ryan Biddulph

  3. I love point #4. I hate getting tons and tons of tweets that aren’t helpful or relevant (and often times I will unfollow someone who sends too many tweets).

  4. Great post. We’ve been playing with Twitter for our business for about 2 months now and am just starting figure it out. I agree with the other comments that your 5th point is so true – instead of raking up Tweets to make yourself look important, I find that quality information is much more valuable.

  5. Overall, I agree with many of the suggestions listed; however, understand that Twitter is just an application not a strategy. I would honestly venture to ask anyone who is B2B on Twitter to seriously think about why they are there and to constantly live their ideals everyday.

    Follower ratios are unimportant unless you’re only seeking sheer volume. But volume doesn’t matter if no one genuinely cares about what you have to share.

    A very simple — often overlooked suggestion — is for anyone who takes their Twitter strategy to heart and wishes to build an organic following to add it to their signature. In addition, don’t marginalize Twitter as this beast that can’t be tamed — work it into your day to day conversations like “Hey, did you catch that Tweet their CTO made?” Bam. Value and strategy. 😉


  6. Glad you liked the post, Amanda, Robert, Ari and Joseph.

    As consumers of “business tweets” yourselves, your comments offer clear guidance to businesses using Twitter – keep tweets focused on a well-defined topic area, provide quality information and feel free to add a little personal character or information as long as the focus remains on business.

    Joseph – I completely agree that Twitter is an application (a communication channel) and not a strategy. Great point calling that out more clearly.

  7. Nice information Ben. you really wrote a great topic here because i have not been seeing tweeter as a communication channel until i read this post.
    I must say a big thanks and implement immediately.

  8. The Twitter debate (useful or not) for businesses is certainly interesting to follow. And I guess the other part of the debate is whether business should, or should not, be ‘allowed’ into the conversations. I agree with you Ben, Twitter is a viable business communications channel. Thanks for the good read!

  9. “Why? Because Twitter is incredibly inefficient for forming interpersonal relationships. 140 character tweets are efficient for finding interesting people/content, maintaining contact with existing “friends” (as was the original purpose of Twitter) and asking/addressing simple questions. Establishing more meaningful business relationships through Twitter, though, is highly inefficient…”

    People can and do take conversations started on Twitter offline — as they should — but I’d say after meeting (and conversing with) my boyfriend of a year and a half on Twitter, meeting (and conversing with) several friends on Twitter, starting a nonprofit initiative that has resulted in $35,000 raised primarily through connections made via Twitter, it’s really fairly awesomely efficient. Of course, you use the other tools in the toolbox, but if you work at it, you can put a fair amount of yourself into 140 characters.

  10. Hi Ben,

    Welcome to Small Business Trends. Glad to have you here.

    Let me play devil’s advocate on a few points, however.

    On interpersonal relationships: while Twitter may be an inefficient method to carry on a back-and-forth dialogue, I would say it is a GREAT place to make a first connection or get someone’s attention or learn more about them. I’ve made more new connections in the past six months on Twitter, than in the two previous years with this publication alone. I think Twitter is wonderful for interpersonal connections but you have to realize that it is not like talking on the phone or chatting in person.

    On tweet quantity: Twitter is about being top of mind. I think the businesses and individuals that tweet a lot have a huge advantage over those who tweet less — unless you happen to have a huge brand already or are a celebrity or have the luck to be placed by Twitter on their “suggested follow” list. Or said another way, the bigger your brand, the less frequently you need to tweet. If your brand is less well known to begin with, you have to tweet more just to stay top of mind.

    Just my thoughts …. 🙂

    — Anita

  11. Meg – I agree that Twitter can be incredibly efficient for connecting people with like interests, gaining a basic impression about the person on the other end of the tweets (like you might get about a blogger after reading a number of posts, or book author), very quickly spreading the word on a particular issue/topic and several other types of communications.

    In the B2B sense, though, there are a lot of situations where 140 characters impose a very significant limit on effective interaction and the instinct is (and should be) to take the conversation outside of Twitter. Examples include a good deal of business buying, particularly more expensive and/or higher risk purchases, or more complex customer support issues among others.

    My recommendation is to use (or consider using) Twitter for the types of communications where it can be the most efficient for your business. For most businesses, I think viewing Twitter as a mass communication vehicle is the best model. Doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be useful for other types of communications, as you demonstrate. However, as business communicators, we’re best served by finding and using the most efficient communication tool for a given situation versus picking a took we like best and using it as broadly as possible.

  12. Anita – definitely agree about Twitter being a great way to make an initial connection, as I mentioned in my reply to Meg (we must have been typing at the same time!) 🙂

    On the point about tweet volume, I think you’re a great (albeit very rare) example of being able to tweet a high volume of great info that’s spot-on for your audience. And you make a good point about the value of tweeting more as a lesser-known brand and/or when establishing your Twitter presence – you have to build up a tweet stream that demonstrates focus, relevance and frequency to be viewed as someone compelling to follow when people visit your Twitter profile.

    Related to this, we actually pulled together some stats about business tweet frequency in the 90 day update to the Business.com Twitter case study (http://blogs.business.com/b2b-online-marketing/2009/twitter-for-business-pt3/) and found the highest click rates when we spaced tweets at least 30-60 minutes apart.

    I think a simple rule of thumb for business Twitter users unites the different perspectives on tweet volume expressed in the comments: “Tweet whenever you have something new and interesting to share.”

  13. This is terrific. Thanks Ben. I got so caught up in this post that I spent most of the night tweaking Twitter…

  14. Ben,

    I like the practical aspects of this article. I would perhaps add to start slowly as it is not a 100m dash. See what works for your company as you become more involved and experienced with this channel.

  15. Ben Hanna,

    I will follow you on Twitter and I tweeted a short message about this post. As others already have pointed out, Twitter is only a channel and one of many microblog application out there. It could be that case that for example FriendFeed will take a steady grip on the market sometime in the future.

  16. I don’t easily give out praise for an article unless I think it is earned.

    It is very apparent to me that Ben Hanna has significant Twitter experience. Take his advice. Don’t expect Twitter to work miracles for your company in the short run and maybe even in the long run. There is plenty to take away from Twitter if not immediate sales and valuable connections.

  17. Susan – great point about starting slowly with Twitter for business. Too many try to do too much, too quickly which almost surely leads to underperformance and burnout.

    Greg – thanks for the support. And you bring up another key point: Twitter (and micro-blogging more generally) is a new medium and we’re all trying to figure out where, when and how it can help us achieve our business goals. So, while it pays to jump in and start finding where the value may be for your business, don’t consider it a silver bullet.

  18. Great article!

    I agree with your points about Twitter being essentially a mass communication channel for businesses. However, even though it is impossible to develop really personal connections in 140 characters, it is still important to engage potential customers on Twitter as part of a lead nurturing process.

    The bottom line is you are not taking full advantage of this tool as a B2B business if you are only broadcasting relevant content. You have to be listening and engaging directly with your network through replies. This not only begins to develop a relationship and nurture a lead, it also is viral in spreading your brand to your follower’s followers. This is always easier than getting retweets.

    What do you think?

    Thanks, Carl

  19. Carl – you bring up an interesting point that’s not often explicitly addressed in discussions about social media for business: how the use/value of certain media/tactics can/should vary by stage in the buying process. Twitter seems to be most valuable for building awareness and facilitating initial conversions (registration for a webinar or whitepaper, initial online or offline discussion, etc.).

    eMarketer just released a new study “Marketing on Social Networks: Branding, Buying and Beyond” (http://www.emarketer.com/Report.aspx?code=emarketer_2000593) which you may find interesting. Isn’t a definitive study on social media use/effectiveness at each stage of the buying process, but at least describes opportunities at each stage.

  20. Thanks for the Insight. I agree with all of the suggestions listed. Time to put them into action!

  21. I think twitter is too hard to learn. I like facebook. However, you have to go where the people go. I didn’t get into twitter until this morning when I found someone who I really wanted to follow (a drummer from the roots). I was like wow, its interesting to hear from an artist/company that you like. I wonder if they had something like this when I was younger how much closer I would be to some of the bands I loved. It has a good purpose, but I think its hard to setup.

  22. Ben

    You make great points. Twitter is a huge opportunity for businesses to interact with clients. But it’s power is not without peril. Companies can’t just take a “let’s set up an ID” approach. Being effective there needs a strategy, commitment and some resources. Are businesses in their current mindset doing it that way? I don’t think so. But there is hope.



  23. I completely agree. I think Twitter certainly has it’s place amongst viable marketing strategies.

    Chris O.
    “Sales Focused Business Networking”

  24. Nice post Ben. I’d like to point out that I think you can use Twitter as a genuine interpersonal tool AND for business broadcast, mass-communication reasons. In fact, I do.

    I follow thousands of people, most of whom I know nothing about. But by constantly widening my stream, and following anyone who looks like they might be interesting, I increase my chances of making those connections that are really valuable to me. There are a lot of very clever, very knowledgeable people on Twitter and restricting my follower strategy would mean I would miss out on many.

    It’s true that it is more difficult to follow the activities of thousands of people. But Tweetdeck is a very good app for filtering and managing Twitter messages. Give it a try…

    All the best


  25. hmmm…good article…still trying to figure this b2b twitter thing out! thanks for helping me get a bit closer!

  26. Ben,

    I have a couple different twitter accounts that I maintain for different businesses. I look at twitter like a big cocktail party. It’s a great place to mingle, give out a few cards, and make some contacts.

    There is some merit to the spam and cull technique provided your spam is at least a little tartgeted utilizing one of the various twitter directories that are available. The reason I say this is proven by your own post.

    It may not be beneficial to have 10,000 followers where 8,000 are not listening, but everyone wants to be part of the popular crowd. You proved this with 5,000+ as your number. Even though they are not listening, they lend you credibility with the people who do.

    Great tips though. I just think sometimes people down play follower count forgeting about the credibility factor.