Social Media "Growth Hacking" - The No Bullshit Guide

So recently there's been a buzz word referred to as "Growth Hacking" that's been circulating the Social troposphere for the past few weeks and months.

When I heard about it (purely as a term of course) my bullshit radar went off the charts and I'm pretty sure several pixies died too.

Anyway, after recovering from what seemed to be a smell worse than a newborns freshly soiled nappy, I decided I'd put my cynicism and skepticism aside and try it out for myself.

But What Is "Growth Hacking"? And Why in Seven Hell's Should I Care?

Excellent question - I'm glad you asked....

After scouring the Internet for various posts spouting all manner of promises about Social Media "Growth Hacking" (including one that claimed you could experience growth hacking by paying money into a Western Union bank account of a Nigerian prince, quintupling your investment, thereby affording you to buy as much growth as you could ever need) - whilst also saying a few Hail Mary's to cleanse my now dirty soul - I found out that it's actually all about tricking users into following you on social media platforms by following them first.

Your unsuspecting victims (apologies to the victims of you happen to be one) follow you back because of an email that Twitter (or your social media weapon of choice) sends to them notifying them they're now being followed.

But, wait, isn't email dead already? Now, if you haven't been under a rock for the past few years you'll have noticed emails are very much alive and kicking.

My own mail account is so full to the brim week on week I audibly groan when time comes to clean house. Here's to another half hour wasted....

Always Always Align With Your Goals

So I set myself to task with a little experiment. I'd been determined to set up and increase my Twitter followers after setting myself a number of goals earlier in the year, one in particular to increase my Twitter followers to 500 by the end of 2015, with the ultimate aim of driving more social traffic to the blog and meeting the goal of 400/sessions per day by the end of 2015. Probably a massively overreaching goal but what do I have to lose? As the SAS say 'He who dares wins.'

First things first, and yes I feel very sordid doing this, like I've just dredged my hands through a Leeds/Reading Festival trough (if you've been to that particular music festival you'll understand that delight), but my aim was to just start adding people I'm interested in following in the hope they will follow me back.

The reason I did this first, before say, increasing my tweet frequency, was because literally I was tweeting very little at the time so it gave me a baseline to prove whether this bullshit bingo "Growth Hacking" stuff actually worked in principle and A/B test it on it's own - I hate to admit it but it does!

And here's my proof....

It's Alive!

I aimed to add, using a handy tool called Tweepi, anywhere between 50-100 people per day. I also planned to organise everyone I added into lists like so:

  • Entrepreneurs - founders, investors or all round guru's of the web;
  • Best-practices - People tweeting about DevOps, Continuous Delivery, Clean Code etc. etc.
  • Engineers - Software Engineers, Tech Leads, world-renowned engineers;
  • Customers - anyone who has bought a product of mine or people in particular I need to engage with regularly;
  • Apps - Websites, Apps and general corporate accounts;
  • Trend - people or news sites that are particularly good at spotting, noticing or reporting trends;
  • Bloggers - anyone who is a prominent blogger;
  • Timeline - this is my ideal timeline;

You Cannot Improve What You Do Not Track

I then signed up for a TwitterCounter account so I could track who adds me, who unfollows me and what my anticipated growth projections are. Since what you don't track you can't improve right? I needed some hard facts to put my bullshit radar under sedation.

After 4-5 days of doing this religiously I saw the following alarming results -- the bullshit actually worked:

Percent Followers / Following

Same Scale Followers / Following

Dual Axis - Separate Scale Followers / Following

As you can see, there is absolutely a direct correlation between how many people I follow and how many people follow me. Sure, you won't get an exact match of followers to following ratio, but you'll definitely increase your followers for a brief time.

Holy Shit! Can't I Just Keep Following People Forever?

Now the smart guys over at Twitter have noticed this. Their bullshit radars are off the charts too. So they brought in a nice ceiling cap or 2,000 followers, where your following to followers ratio is capped. If you don't have a high enough followers : following ratio you'll be capped at the number of people you can add. Smart idea Twitter.

Personally, I see no reason to proceed with the experiment much longer in it's current capacity as it's pretty clear of the results of adding people alone.

Don't Be A Sheep

Instead, I'm planning to not be a sheep and follow all the other so-called "Growth Hackers". I'm going to pump out original content on my twitter feed and keep adding people at a rate of 60-100 per day (maintaining them on lists as well) until I can understand what the effect is of engagement plus following people and whether that will achieve a better goal.

Hopefully what should happen is that adding 60-100 people per day in combination with engaging content will level out the ratio of followers : following such that, I can break through the 2,000 following restriction.

Stay Tuned

Without have the power of clairvoyance, I suspect I'm going to see results but I'll keep you all posted.

In the meantime, I'm off to have a deep-cleansing radiation shower - I stink!

If you enjoyed this post please comment below or join the experiment and follow my Twitter account @developerangst.


So, I've had a few days to reflect after this post and I've come to the conclusion that mass following actually isn't going to cut it as a growth strategy. At least it doesn't cut it unless you have an established brand or are a well known figure in the industry.

In my case I witnessed after 5 days of aggressive following, my follower count stagnated around just under the 300 mark. This is despite increasing my tweet frequency from 1 tweet to 6-7 tweets a day with a mixture of quote, shared articles and original content.

The image below shows my follow vs following rates alongside each other. As you can clearly see following the progressive increase followers after the agressive following trend when I gradually stopped following and relied on natural traffic from an increase in tweet frequency I noticed a slowdown in follow rates.

Follow versus Following

This puzzled me. I would have expected still to slightly increase followers or at least remain stagnant, but I dropped -4 then -7 followers in just 2 days. It wasn't like I wasn't accumulating followers either, because I could see I was. So what was going on?

I decided to analyse who was unfollowing me and what the reason might be, that's when I realised what was going on:


As you can see from the graph I was being heavily unfollowed after my initial experiment. The kinds of people unfollowing? Aggressive followers, just like myself.

So, to me it feels like this strategy is mainly self-defeating to some extent. It's much better to concentrate on increasing your followers by creating great content, following people you care about and not caring too much about how many followers you have. It's much more important what your engagement per tweet is e.g. how many favourites / retweets you get.

UPDATE II: Case-Study of Real Twitter Profiles

Okay, so I decided to take a look at someone I follow who I know for a fact has significantly increased their twitter follower account over the last 6 months. Increasing their followers by around 10,000+ so definite results...

Popular Account Follows/Unfollowers Ratio

As you can see, definite results. It looks though, that they appear to be adding hundreds of new followers every single day. At some point I suspect this will reach critical mass and they'll no longer be able to follow their timelines because they'll move by so quickly they won't know what's happening.

All I'm wondering now is what Twitter will do next to curb this strategy. It's a legitimate strategy don't get me wrong, I'm just concerned at the value of it, and also how much damage it's doing to the Twitter community in the long term.

James Murphy

Java dev by day, entrepreneur by night. James has 10+ years experience working with some of the largest UK businesses ranging from the BBC, to The Hut Group finally finding a home at Rentalcars.

Manchester, UK
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