How I'd build a Twitter network from scratch

Last week, I wrote about the difference between networks, audiences, and communities. In it, I suggested that when starting from scratch, you probably want to go in that order (first network, then audience, etc.).

The main place I interact with people online is Twitter. As much as I hate the product (why is it so hard to see an entire conversation at once?), I think it's the best way to connect with like-minded people. I've made a number of close connections on Twitter, and I've even met a handful of my Twitter friends in real life.

In this post, I want to share a way for Twitter newbies to get started building a network. This is based on what's worked for me, as well as things I've seen other people do when they want to connect with me.

Note: If you want to connect with me, I'm @TylerMKing. Also, I'm about to use the word "tweet" about a thousand times too many, so please forgive me.

Where to start: Actually use it like a human

Twitter is a flywheel: It's hard to get started, but once it's working for you, it becomes easier and easier to keep it going. When you first sign up and you're staring at a blank screen, it can be pretty daunting.

I'll give specific tips below, but there's one key to all of it: You should use Twitter authentically.

If you're just using it with the goal of getting followers, it won't work. You won't enjoy spending time in the app which will limit your ability to engage with people, and everyone will be able to see through you as just another failed marketer trying to extract value from a community that they aren't actually a part of.

Be a follower

The easiest way to authentically use Twitter is to follow people and read what they have to say. Don't worry about getting them to follow you back. Just find interesting people and read what they have to say. This will help you understand Twitter's culture (every social media app has different norms and etiquette) and identify who the people are that you actually want to connect with.

Some tips on following people:

  • Follow people, not brands. You're trying to build a network, and that means connecting with real people. Brands just tweet boring PR-friendly nonsense. Stay away from it.
  • Focus on interests, not social connections. Facebook is the place to connect with your family and friends. Twitter is for your "interest graph". In my case, this means following people who are professionally similar to me (I use Twitter the way LinkedIn wishes people used it).
  • Look at who other people follow. You can go to any public profile on Twitter and see who that person follows, and consider following some of the same people. For example, here are the people I follow.
  • Pay attention to retweets. If someone you follow retweets someone else and you find the content interesting, click through and see if you should follow that person. This is a great way to gradually expand your awareness of interesting people on Twitter.
  • Follow different types of people. This might sound forced, but I periodically do an audit of who I follow on Twitter to make sure the group is diverse in any number of dimensions (gender, race, nationality, perspectives, etc.). It's easy to get into an echo chamber, but if you're deliberate about it, Twitter can expose you to views you'd otherwise be missing out on.
  • Prune your list. You'll see people who follow thousands of others. That's a sure sign that they don't really read their timeline. I try to keep my follow list below 150 people. More than that, and I struggle to keep up with everything. The goal here is to build a network, and that means fewer high-quality relationships.
  • Show the latest tweets on your timeline. This is more of a personal preference, but I hate Twitter's default view (the "algorithmic" timeline). They decide what you see, and I don't think they're particularly good at choosing. I use the "latest tweets" view instead where you see everything in chronological order. This is one of the reasons why it's important for me to keep my follow list below 150 people.

Build your profile and start tweeting

In the following steps, you're going to do things that get other people to look at your profile. Ideally, you want them to be impressed so that they follow you. There are two things you can do to make your profile impressive:

Think about your image, banner, and description

You don't have to spend a ton of time on this, but imagine someone just saw something you tweeted, and they want to understand who you are. What would they want to see?

If you want to put in a bit more work, here are some tips on picking a photo and banner and here are some tips on how to write a great bio.

Tweet somewhat regularly

Let's be clear here: If you don't have followers yet, no one will see your tweets. This isn't a "tweet it and they will come" type of thing.

But your tweets still matter. That's because when someone considers following you, they'll probably go to your profile and read through some of your recent tweets. If you haven't tweeted recently or your tweets aren't interesting to them, they won't follow you.

Like tweets

I said above that the "tweet it and they will come" approach doesn't work because no one will see those tweets. So how do you get other people to know you exist? All you have to do is engage with their tweets.

The lowest-friction way for you to do this is to like other peoples' tweets. I have just under 2,000 followers, and I still get a push notification to my phone every single time someone likes one of my tweets. Our lizard brains just love that validation, even if it's from a random stranger.

So if there's someone you want to get to know but they've never heard of you, just start liking some of their posts. If they have notifications turned on, they'll see your name each time you do this, and over time they might start to recognize you as someone who genuinely likes what they're up to.

In case it's not clear, this will only work for people with relatively low follower counts. As people get more followers (I'd guess a few thousand is normally the cutoff) it's overwhelming to get notifications from likes, so they turn them off.

Reply to their tweets

If you post a normal tweet to your followers, no one will see it (because you don't have followers yet, right?). But if you reply to someone else's tweet, at least that one person will see it. And that's all you need.

Remember, we're not trying to build an audience yet. We're just building a network of people who you want to know. It doesn't matter that no one else will see your tweet as long as the person you care about sees it.

You might be nervous to tweet at random strangers. Listen, I get it. I'm the same way. But the reality is, most people on Twitter love when others engage with their content. It's like paying them a compliment. Who doesn't like receiving a compliment?

The person might reply to you. They might like your posts. They might ignore you completely. Either way, they almost certainly saw your tweet, and they now they know who you are. Keep engaging with them, and eventually you'll have a real relationship.

If you're not sure what to say to them, I suggest asking questions. Everyone in the world is at least a bit self-obsessed, and if other people show curiosity in something they're doing, they can't help but engage. Find a tweet you genuinely find interesting, like it, and ask a question. Hopefully, the other person will engage with you, and now you've got a conversation going.

Continue the relationship

Not everyone you do this to will engage with you, but some will. They'll know who you are, and you'll know who they are. That's a relationship! Mission accomplished.

Don't expect people to follow you back. Like I said above, I try to stay below a 150 follows or else my timeline becomes unmanageable. But I still know a lot of people on Twitter who I don't necessarily follow.

Or maybe they will follow you. This is where it's good to have interesting content on your timeline. Even if no one is seeing it, when your newfound friends go to check out your profile, if they like what they see, they're more likely to follow you. And remember that like all marketing, it often takes multiple touches before someone will "convert" so just keep authentically connecting with them, and maybe eventually they'll follow you.

You can also consider using DMs (direct messages). Maybe you've been tweeting back and forth and you want to ask them something more private. Maybe you're in their town and want to grab a coffee. Most people have their DMs open so you can try reaching out that way.

The point is, once they know who you are and have engaged with you, this is just like any other relationship. If you do this consistently and authentically, over time you'll build up an entire network of Twitter buddies.

Maybe you want to build an audience

This post is all about building a network of personal relationships rather than an audience following you. But if you do want to build an audience, it helps to start with a network. Once you have some mutual connections, they might like or retweet some of your tweets which is generally how new people will find out about you.

Last thing: I just want to re-emphasize the importance of using Twitter authentically. As soon as you stop speaking from your true voice and become overly concerned with engagement metrics, you'll stop being a real person, and therefore you'll no longer be able to have real relationships. Stay real, have fun, and eventually I think you'll get a lot of value and joy out of Twitter. I know I have.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.