January 14th, 2009

What makes you unfollow someone? Six things stand out.

in: Communicate

winescowl.pngSocial networking for business is a two-edged sword: You have to keep track of many followers, but automating the process thwarts efforts to remain genuine. And yet we don’t spend enough time analyzing unfollow behavior. Here are the results of some informal surveys over the past few weeks.

How many people can we really follow?

How many people can we follow? Take a look at this excellent study by Huberman, Romero, and Wu. It shows that there’s an underlying hidden network of friends, and that the remaining follower/followee relationships are really just social courtesy.

If humans can normally handle around 150 social relationships then, as JP Rangaswami observes, tools like Twitter help push this limit up to perhaps 600 people.

Of course, it depends a lot on your intensity and focus on the people you’re following. People like Chris Brogan say they handle Twitter at scale, but that’s a full-time job. The rest of us eventually have to resort to automation to handle a large community.

Automation of community interactions

Lots of new vendors are launching tools to collect information from various social networks and online communities, then consolidate the results. They’re doing search, tag clouds, and visualization to help a marketer or community manager grok the zeitgeist of the folks in their community.

Getting your mind around what thousands of people are thinking is no small trick. But responding to those results is another thing entirely–one that’s also starting to emerge from technology companies (though most of these firms are still in stealth.)

Unfortunately, by using these kinds of tools we invariably make our responses sound like form letters, which turns off our audience, encouraging them to stop paying attention to us.

What drives unfollowing?

In the web economy, we spend a lot of time on acquisition of attention. But we spend far less on avoiding departure. For users who reach the social network saturation point, unfollows, unsubscribes, and the occasional mailing list spring cleaning are inevitable.

Twitter’s a good lab for this kind of thing. It’s trivially easy to follow or unfollow someone, and they don’t know you’re doing it immediately. Since the follow/unfollow mechanism is virtually frictionless, it’s a decent proxy for other social sites like RSS subscriptions and Facebook groups.

Based on my (admittedly unscientific) study, there are six main things that make people unfollow you.

  1. A big-profile personality having others tweet for them. People are following you; do them the courtesy of actually being you when you have something to say. Even worse is people who use Twitter tools (updating locations automatically) to do their Tweeting for them.
  2. Overly frequent messages, particularly when the person suddenly sends many of them. Twitter is about ambient awareness, and when someone suddenly sends ten messages at once it’s a clue that they’re using it more like email than like a conversation — logging in, responding, and leaving.
  3. Replies that have more than 2 or 3 @names in them. This strikes followers as a mailing list, rather than a nugget of thought. With only 140 characters to engage and entertain, squandering half of that on names means the message isn’t very interesting.
  4. Marketing content or advertising. This was by far the biggest turnoff. Companies that have used Twitter to solicit information or provide support do well. If you’re a company with a presence on Twitter, don’t tell — ask. Some people noted that they’d unfollowed others when those people signed up for a Twitter service that automatically told their friends about it, as this was like forwarding spam.
  5. Tweets that are sad, personal, depressing, or involve bodily functions. Apparently if we wanted that much emo we’d watch goth angst on Myspace instead. On Twitter, nobody cares if you’re a dog.
  6. Constantly promoting one’s accomplishments. Twitter’s not just an RSS feed for humans, it’s a mixture of conversation, idea generation, and ambient updates. Followers expect a mix of behind-the-curtain candor, humor, observations, and responses to others that introduce them to others.

So — we need unfollow tracking, and we need to correlate it to the interactions we had before the unfollow. With that kind of analytics we can understand which behaviors undermine our social efforts.

In the real world, my wife kicks me under the table when I’m being a bore (and yes, I have heavily bruised shins.) Online, we don’t have the luxury of quick feedback.

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