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The Internet does much to level the playing field for sharing a message. Twitter flattens it. So much so, that it’s difficult to stand out, to reach the audience you’re interested in and gain their attention. How can you increase your following?

If you spend much time on Twitter, you’ve certainly run across a number of bots, serial followers, and otherwise spammy accounts. These accounts take strategies for growing a following on Twitter to an unethical, annoying extreme. And, at least by their follower counts, this approach seems to be working.

But, as with offline relationships, quantity rarely trumps quality. To ethically build a meaningful cadre of followers on Twitter, you’ll have to do more than create a few lines of code or click the ‘Follow’ button a couple thousand times. To build an audience and a presence, your Twitter strategy should focus on three broad categories: Content, Engagement, and Rewards.

Read on for nine actions you can take to optimize your Twitter presence in these three categories and gain valuable followers.


Content – stuff worth sharing


1. Create Valuable Content

sharing content repeatedly 520x289 9 ways to grow your Twitter following (ethically)

Strategy: Sharing content repeatedly, Buffer

If you want people to follow and share what you publish, you need to publish content worth sharing. No need to belabor that point, however, less widely-understood is the value of sharing this content multiple times.

Twitter is of-the-moment, but the majority of your followers will not be checking Twitter 24/7. Using a tweet-scheduling service like Buffer puts your content in front of your audience when they’re most likely to see it. Increase this likelihood by scheduling multiple posts for a particular piece of content.

2. Comment on relevant news/tweets

Strategy: Live-Tweeting

Commenting on relevant news, trending topics, and various other happenings on Twitter injects your voice into an ongoing conversation. Pick conversations that your followers – and your brand – would care about, and join in the discussion.

If you’re a social commentator, lifestyle brand or comedian, you might cultivate a following live-tweeting #downtonabbey. A more serious account may publish reasoned comments on #healthcare during a televised address. Whatever your focus, joining in on a tweetup, story or other hashtagged event is a great way to meet your ideal followers where they’re gathering.

3. Retweet relevant content

Strategy: Search/rank service to identify thought-leaders

Another way to capitalize on ongoing conversations is to retweet relevant content. Using a management dashboard for Twitter like TweetDeck, identify thought-leaders in your industry, and retweet meaningful content they’re sharing. Their voice is amplified, and yours legitimized. Your brand stands to benefit from associating with reputable commentators, and you’re laying groundwork for potential collaboration and reciprocal sharing.


Engagement – Ask. Listen. Respond.


Brands on Twitter 520x267 9 ways to grow your Twitter following (ethically)

Why people follow brands on Twitter (multiple responses allowed) | twitter.com

4. Events to Engage

 

Strategy: Promoted Tweets

Twitter capitalizes on the immediacy of events and can exponentially amplify the buzz of contests. Barack Obama’s 2012 Presidential re-election campaign set a new standard for the use of social media to build consensus and drive action. Throughout the campaign, well-timed tweets captured a key moment and made it easy to share messages and emotions.

By paying to promote the most important messages, Obama’s campaign owned the conversation at crucial points in the election. Twitter is the medium of choice for discussing ongoing events. Steering and leading an event conversation in real-time is exceedingly valuable – and worth paying for.

5. Ask for Retweets

Strategy: ‘Flock to Unlock’ Campaigns

Now you have content worth sharing, and you’ve begun connecting with people whom you’d like to share it. It’s important to activate your follower base and enlist their help in growing your presence. How? Simply ask for their participation.

Spelling out the word “retweet” in your request makes your followers 12 to 23X more likely to re-share your message. The American Red Cross (@RedCross) saw this strategy drive rapid results with their #PerfectGift campaign, and easily met their fundraising goal.

A ‘Flock to Unlock’ promotion adds an element of urgency to your calls to action. A certain number of retweets or comments in a period of time unlock a discount or unique piece of content for your followers. Retweeting becomes even more purposeful and participatory.

6. Promote Responsibly

 

Strategy: Co-promotion

Following and retweeting content from thought leaders and companies with healthy followings certainly offers exposure.

Seeking out opportunities for co-promotion, merging offline and online worlds, offers your brand even greater upside. Endorsements from brands and celebrities that connect with your audience provide invaluable credibility in addition to increased reach. As long as endorsements stay on-message and conversational in tone, your followers will appreciate this promotional content.

In 2012, Ciroc Vodka partnered with artists and entertainers to include exclusive photos and videos from celebrities’ New Years Eve revelry under its #CirocTheNewYear promoted trend. Followers gladly retweeted and commented, helping Ciroc capture the conversation around keywords like “party” and “midnight” on the most celebratory night of the year.

7. Countdowns

 

Strategy: Teaser Tweets

Success on Twitter is largely a matter of capturing people’s attention. In a medium predicated on distraction, refreshed every microsecond, the ability to build anticipation is invaluable. Countdowns provide a reason to tweet frequent reminders and an opportunity to construct a narrative across a series of tweets.

Use countdowns leading up to a new product launch, feature unveiling, software update, behind the scenes access, or other content releases. Kick off your countdown with a couple of teaser tweets. Give your followers reason to check what you’re saying now, later today, and even further in the future.

8. Twitter-Exclusive content, contests and promotions

Strategy: #twixclusive(s)

While “twixclusive” may horribly bastardize the English language, Twitter-only deals are an effective tool that belong in your brand’s social media strategy. Twitter-exclusive content and promotions boost engagement with what you’re publishing on Twitter while also offering a tangible reward to your followers.

Show appreciation for your followers’ attention and make it worthwhile to revisit your page. Use your Twitter account to give a behind-the-scenes look at your brand and take exclusive access a step further. Twitter democratizes conversation and affords unprecedented connection with elite brands and personalities. Loyalty and interest increases when you share content accessible only on Twitter.

9. Two-sided Conversations

Strategy: treat your followers like people

Talk with your audience on Twitter in ways you can’t anywhere else. What often falls under the ‘engagement’ header is really one of Twitter’s greatest potential rewards. Your brand is on Twitter to join key conversations. Your followers are on Twitter to converse with you. People invariably appreciate hearing their own name and knowing that they’re being listened to. Responding to a follower on Twitter accomplishes both. Twitter allows your brand to offer an unprecedented reward: interaction.

Summary

Content, engagement, and rewards make your Twitter account a meaningful destination for potential followers. Give your audience what they want, and more followers will want to join that audience.

While I’ve managed social media for brands with 10 times my audience, my own following is admittedly underwhelming. Over the next few months, I’ll implementing the actions detailed above. Follow my experiment @jlukechitwood.

Image credit: Bethany Clarke / Getty Images

Read next: TargetPattern can get you thousands of real Twitter followers in weeks. Here’s why I switched it off // Who are your most valuable Twitter followers?