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How I built a Twitter network from scratch

I went from 0 to 20,000+ Twitter followers from scratch – never knowing any of them in real life first, living in an isolated city, and without cold-contacting any of them. Perhaps more importantly, my followers include some of the smartest and wisest people on the planet: Nassim Taleb (the author), Naval Ravikant (the founder), Garry Tan (the Y Combinator CEO), Jim O’Shaughnessy (the investor), Rory Sutherland (the advertising legend), Zuby (the musician), and many more.

Here is how I did it and the principles I followed.

My first 1,000 followers

Building a following from scratch is hard because no one sees the content you post.

Therefore, it’s critical to leverage the platform-specific features that get you seen when you don’t have followers.

For Twitter, it’s replies. You build your first 1,000 followers by writing value-adding replies to users with a wide following. For Instagram, it’s hashtags. For YouTube, search relevance. Each platform has its own feature to leverage, and some work better than others. But what’s critical is that writing great content isn’t sufficient when you don’t have followers – you must get it in front of eyeballs too, and simply posting to your feed is not enough.

In fact, a common mistake of novice creators is to focus on creating content for their existing following before they have enough followers for it to be a sufficient growth engine. Until then, your focus should be on acquiring new followers by posting not on your feed but where these potential followers are.

Twitter is a particularly good choice to build a network from scratch because users can easily retweet replies – whereas in other social media, users cannot share them or are unlikely to do so.

From 1,000 to 5,000

If replies were the dominant way I gained followers from 0 to 1k, retweets were how I got from 1,000 to 5,000. Post great content, and your followers will show it to theirs.

This is where Twitter really shines. Retweets are so frictionless and central to the user experience that going viral is easy. Other platforms have repost features too, but they are less frequently used.

How do you write great content? A great way is to answer the most difficult questions your audience has. Why the difficult ones? Because they are the ones that wow people into following and recommending you.

From 5,000 to 10,000

The growth from 5k to 10k followers happened in just a couple of weeks in February 2020, thanks to a few tweets I wrote about the pandemic as a risk management expert.

Writing about current events is a good way to gain followers, but beware of how you do it. Simply covering the facts like any news outlet would make you a commodity – you will gain followers, but for the wrong reason, and they won’t be relevant to you. They will grow your follower number but won’t retweet your tweets (unless on the specific topic you wrote about when they followed you) and won’t become your customers.

Instead, if you do write about current events, do it from your angle of expertise and only write about events to which your expertise is relevant. You will gain fewer followers, but they will be valuable ones, and you won’t alienate your current ones with irrelevant content.

From 10,000 to 20,000

After my first 10k followers, the dominant way I gained followers was through shows. An account with a large following would invite me to a conference or podcast and share the recording. Each time it happened, I would gain hundreds of followers overnight.

I am particularly proud of never having asked any host to get invited to their show. Instead, I published tons of expert content that demonstrated I was someone worth inviting. However, if there’s something I would have done differently, it would be to have been more proactive in contacting podcast hosts and conference organizers to get more invites.

That said, I wouldn’t have been invited on shows without a track record of publishing great content. For me, it was a mix of books and tweets. For you, it can also include videos and articles. But publish first and use that to get invites – the other way around won’t work unless you’re already a celebrity.

Beyond 20,000

As I keep growing my follower count beyond 20k, I try to observe the following principles:

  • C users follow B users, and A users follow A users. Writing beginner tips, news, and lists (“The top 10…”) will appeal to a large audience but not to extraordinary people. To get followed by exceptional people, produce content that they would find valuable, such as advanced tips and expert commentary. Since extraordinary people are extraordinarily busy, conciseness is a must.
  • Reward attention, don’t waste it. My followers’ attention is my most precious asset. I shouldn’t waste it by posting something low-quality, reposting old content too often, or sharing promotions too frequently.
  • Do not follow a fixed schedule. Writing a daily post or weekly newsletter might force you to post sub-par content just to “fill the slot.” Don’t. Only post when you have something valuable to say.
  • Build trust, don’t destroy it. Don’t exaggerate claims. Don’t follow fads. Don’t compromise your principles. Be the immovable rock people can trust when the sea around it is in turmoil.
  • Do not imitate accounts that don’t follow the four points above. They might be faster to build a large following, but it’s going to be made of low-quality accounts. It won’t contain paying customers or large accounts that can put your content in front of the eyes of thousands.
  • Write content for the top nodes of your network. A retweet from someone with 100k followers will get you more visibility than 100 likes from accounts with 100 followers. Ask yourself, “What kind of content would the top nodes in my network share with their followers?” Then, produce that.
  • Write clearly but don’t dumb it down. People value great communicators, but – unless you’re the world’s #1 communicator, you don’t want to compete on simplicity but usefulness; otherwise, you’ll lose to someone else.
  • Do not become a commodity. It’s easy to copy someone else’s style or content, but precisely because it’s easy, it puts you at risk of being copied. Even worse, it makes you a commodity, forcing you to compete on aspects you don’t want to compete in, such as who’s cheaper or who works the hardest. Instead, compete on expertise. Answer better questions. Answer more difficult questions. Provide more solid answers. Be more reliable. More trustworthy. More sincere. You will attract more valuable followers.
  • Never measure yourself against people playing a different game. If you position yourself as the expert, do not measure yourself against people positioning themselves as the beginner’s help – if you do, you will stop writing expert content. Similarly, if you look for customers, do not measure yourself against people looking for likes – if you do, you will get more likes but fewer customers. And finally, if you’re here for the long term, do not measure yourself against people here for the short term – if you do, you will take actions that destroy long-term trust in search of a quick boost.

My mailing list

In addition to my Twitter network, I also have a mailing list.

I suggest you do the same, for two reasons. First, social media platforms and users come and go, whereas emails stay. Second, emails are personal and guaranteed to get on your readers’ reading list. (Whether they read it depends on whether your previous emails were worth reading.)

When writing to my subscribers, I follow the nine principles above. In particular, I always ask myself the following question when writing an email: “Is this email going to make my reader more or less likely to open my future emails?” For this reason, I rarely write promotional emails. If I have to tell my readers about a new product or promotion, I write it at the bottom of an email with value-adding content (not just commodity content).

I milk my current subscribers less but retain them more and – crucially – increase the chances that they recommend my newsletter to their friends and colleagues (no one recommends something too salesy).

Conclusions

To build a following from scratch, identify your network’s largest nodes, write content they would share, and get it in front of them. Differentiate yourself on reliability and expertise. Build trust more than you trade it in. 

 

Note: you might also be interested in this interview where Wenlin Tan asks me about how I use Twitter and my advice for others looking to build an inspiring virtual network of interesting people.

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