Ghost followers might be destroying your social media accounts right now.

Many are trying to outsmart social media algorithms by acquiring tons of inactive followers. Others just don’t have the time to weed out and block bot followers. Turns out that allowing anyone to follow you has a detrimental effect.

A few years ago, I destroyed one of my very own Twitter accounts this way.

I followed-back accounts with high follow-back ratios to get them to stay on as followers — as opposed to following people I genuinely wanted to interact with, no matter if they followed me or not.

That account now has 16K+ followers, but recovering it back to health has proven to be almost impossible.

We find ourselves in a situation where thousands and thousands of influencer wannabes and other types of social media fakers are buying ghost followers and deploying follow-back softwares to boost their numbers. Most people understand that the followers you get won’t engage with their content, as I surely did, but the real situation is actually worse than that.

Much worse.

I didn’t buy my followers, sure, but I did use a stupid technique1 — and destroyed my Twitter account as a result.

Social algorithms as prediction engines

While the mathematical aspects of a social media algorithm might be complex, the basic function isn’t. Algorithms simply do their best to figure out what users want by trying to predict their behaviours.

While the actual algorithmic formula is complex, the basic social signals are easy to understand for anyone — it’s all about engagement (what your potential audience does on the platform) and authority (your track record on the platform).

On a social platform, you’re first and foremost competing with yourself.

Let’s do a thought experiment:

Imagine having exactly 100K followers, but for some reason, 90K of them are ghost followers, like bot account, fake accounts, spam accounts and the like. There might even be some real people, but who followed you for the wrong reasons and therefore, they will never ever engage with your content.

Okay, so still you have 10K real followers. That’s not too bad, considering. If you could publish some content and get 10K shares, what’s there to complain about?

But, of course, you don’t get 10K shares. You might not even get five shares.

The reason is devastatingly simple: Your algorithmic stats are now in the trash. Sure, as long as the social network shares your content with only those 10K followers, you can maintain some sort of account integrity. But it’s an uphill battle.

Great content alone will rarely make up for having a large portion of followers with low scores on engagement and authority. A huge following of ghosts could therefore be mathematical poison to your attempts to negotiate the algorithm.

Yes, the algorithm will collect performance data on everything you publish, but contrary to popular belief, this data is mainly used to error-correct the algorithm’s accuracy, not to determine your authority.

The social media algorithm has made most of its predictions before you publish your content.

Posting great content (meaning: content that performs better than “your” algorithm’s initial prediction) will only micro-adjust in your favour, but only ever so slightly. Such micro-adjustments can rarely make up for having 90% ghosts, not in the long-term at least.

What does this mean?

What to do with ghost followers?

If you end up with a high ratio of ghost followers, what can you do?

There’s no easy solution, unfortunately. There’s the hardcore approach, of course. You could go through your list of followers and block all those obvious ghost follower accounts. This will get rid of ghost followers quickly, but it comes at a cost:

Frequent blocking will tell the algorithm that you’re not interested in engaging with those who have chosen to follow you. Short- to mid-term, this is likely to impact your authority negatively.

The softer approach won’t strike back at you as hard: You simply make sure that you’re at least not following ghost followers back and then you hope that they will unfollow you, too, over time. This, of course, takes time.

There are two additional alternatives as well, but these aren’t viable options for most people: Either you close your account and start fresh or you attract so many real followers that their numbers will dwarf your existing number of ghost followers.

Here are a few rules-of-thumb for keeping clear of ghost followers:

  • Grow organically from the start. Having a small, but highly engaged, community is better than attracting huge bulks of ghost followers — especially if you share your authority with them by engaging with them back1.
  • Stay consistent in one niche. Attracting a homogenous audience (in terms of what exact content they typically will engage with) is key for long-term success in social media. For more insight, read The Follower Contract.
  • Use your authority score wisely. Who you engage with (follow, like, comment, share) will send important signals to the algorithm. Make sure to engage consistently with the very specific type of audience you want to attract.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash.

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  1. Following back with the sole purpose of keeping pointless followers.