I was chatting with PepsiCo.’s Bonin (@boughb) and Josh (@jkarpf) about engagement last week when it occurred to me that the term “follower” may have sent a lot of people (and a few companies) astray when it comes to looking at depth vs. breadth of engagement. (I love these kinds of conversations. I always walk away with tons of ideas and insights. Great stuff.)

We will actually cover depth and breadth of engagement tomorrow, so hang tight, but first things first. Today, let’s focus on redefining what a “follower” actually is (and watch the video for a deeper perspective into today’s topic):

A follower is NOT a little duckling who actually follows you around like you’re his mama duck. A follower is not an impressionable outcast looking for a cult leader on Twitter. A follower is not a faceless, mindless joiner who just happened to accidentally click “follow” when your last comment popped upon their screen. In other words, followers are not zero-value dry little seashells you can collect to show how cool you have. Followers are not points and this isn’t a game.

Followers are people (for the most part), and these people tend to follow you for a reason. If you aren’t trying to game the system to build followers for the sake of having as many of them as possible, chances are that you are creating genuine value through your activities on Twitter. Earning followers is a measure of the success of that engagement, particularly as it pertains to the value that you offer to these specific people. If you are relevant (important, even) to their world, to their experience on Twitter, they will opt-in to your “feed,” to your content by following you. If they don’t find you relevant or important, they won’t follow you. It’s that simple.

What people (and especially companies) need to understand immediately if they don’t already is that everyone on Twitter is a community manager: People on Twitter aren’t just individuals, they are at the center of a specific community that they shape every day by opting to follow or unfollow accounts that matter or don’t matter to them.

When someone opts-in to your content, to your specific voice, feed and opinions, they are bringing you into their community. They are endorsing you. They are vouching for you. And they are sharing you with everyone else in that community. Whether that community is 5-strong or 500,000 strong is inconsequential to today’s discussion. (We’ll get into it more tomorrow.) What matters to our discussion today is this: Followers are not “followers.” Followers, as  community managers, are potentially promoters, advocates, ambassadors and advisers. Followers are tremendously valuable to companies looking to foster real engagement on Twitter or in Social Media as a whole. Followers are the lifeblood of engagement in Social Media because they ARE your community. Not just that, they are the individual managers of hundreds, thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of interconnected communities that transcend the digital/real world barrier: Relevance, importance and recommendations online do impact relevance, importance recommendations and ultimately transactions offline. (If you’re a business, that last one is pretty important, whether or not you are comfortable admitting.)

So when it comes to followers, and particularly numbers associated with followers, don’t get sucked into depth vs. breadth arguments: There is no winner in the ‘less is more‘ vs. ‘more is more’ debate. It isn’t about less or more or too many or too few. The discussion you really want to have centers around whom, why, how and what: Who are our followers? Who are they really? Why do we matter to them? Why do they want to engage with us here? How do we fit into their world? How can we fit into their world even better. What are their expectations? What can we do to improve their lives or experience in some way? What can we do to engage an connect with them better?

If you can start looking at your community of followers as more than a number, as more than a gaggle of “consumers” waiting for your next campaign pitch or discount code, you will be on the path to true engagement in the Social Media space, particularly on Twitter.

If you start treating your followers like the community managers they truly are, your understanding of “engagement” in social media will already be years ahead of most of your competitors still scratching their heads about the “value” of being on Twitter. If you don’t yet glimpse how that will impact your overall success (and traction) in Socal Media and in reaching your “engagement” objectives, you’re still way behind the 8-ball. No worries though: Tomorrow we chat about engagement in terms of breadth (volume) vs. depth (connection), which will bring some clarity to this whole thing if it’s still a bit fuzzy.

Have a great day, everyone. 🙂