Every day I get people adding me to circles on Google+, liking or following or friending on Facebook and following me on Twitter. I also see lots of people asking (and sometimes demanding or pleading) for likes, follow-backs, retweets and other kinds of similar actions. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t.

I still try to check every new follower on the various services to see if they’re someone I want to follow myself. That’s given me some ideas on what NOT to do on my own social feeds, and I thought it might be interesting to discuss them a bit both to give people some ideas of how to improve their own feeds and to hopefully get some ideas back on how to improve mine.

Here are the key things I look for when trying to decide if I want to follow someone on one of the social networks:

  • Do you have an avatar image? If your account is using the system default avatar image, it’s all over. If you haven’t bothered to “move in” to the account to the bare level of some basic setup and personalization, why should I bother?
  • Have you filled out your profile? Does your profile actually tell me who you are and why I should care? It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it does have to describe you enough for me to get a sense of who you are and what you’re up to. If the profile is abusive, snotty, snarky or nothing but an advertisment for something, that usually ends it, because I rarely care enough to add marketing robots to my social streams. Show some personality and be a person.
  • Are you following a zillion people? If I look at your account and it tells me you’re following a thousand people, or ten thousand, or fifty thousand, what it’s really telling me is that you’re following none of them because you’re not really looking at what those ‘followers’ are sending to you. That’s a sign to me of someone mostly interested in pushing content AT me and most likely a marketing type (or robot) and very likely someone I don’t need to waste time on. When you follow too many people, it says you’re not really being social, you’ve turned this into a lecture. Or a commercial. I don’t really need either.
  • Are you following people as fast at a high rate? Especially if you’re a brand new account? With a bogus profile and no avatar (or one with cleavage showing?) — Sorry, these are clear signs of spammers at work. When I see an account that’s less than a month old and following thousands of people with few tweets, I assume there are spammers behind it, and so far, I seem to be almost always right.
  • Have you created social content? I know it may seem silly tweeting to your account before you actually have followers, but I think it’s important there be something there for me (and others) to get a sense of who you are and how you’re using the account, because otherwise, we don’t have a way to judge whether we want that kind of content in the feed.
  • Do you auto-DM new followers? Is that auto-DM a plea for me to also follow you no these twelve other sites or a blatant push for some product? Well, that’s an almost guaranteed unfollow. You know that guy you walk up to at a christmas party and introduce yourself to who immediately goes into a ten minute sales pitch for his special vitamins he sells out of his trunk? Don’t be that guy. Really. Don’t be that guy.
  • This one’s mostly for Google+: Are you a brand new account who’s picture is a cute korean girl with some cleavage showing? I’ve already figured out you’re either a spambot or a porn spambot. Bye. (and I’m seeing a lot more of these as Google seems to be letting the G+ social stuff slowly decay itself into Orkut).
  • Is your feed nothing but retweeted or re-shared stuff that other people have already retweeted or reshared? Unless you’re doing something special in terms of curation of content from a topic area I’m not already watching (and care about), why should I follow you? I already get all that stuff. In the case of cat pictures, probably a dozen times. If all you’re doing is the same stuff everyone else is doing, what value do you have for me? Where are you original? Be original, be unique, be yourself.
  • Are you actually found in your social stream? Or is it all hootsuite-generated automated bot postings and retweets and other people’s content? Look, I use hootsuite, too. it’s a great tool when used wisely. But when all I see in a feed is generic bot stuff or content pushed from other sources, where’s the interest to me? Especially on twitter, I think most accounts need to be at least somewhat conversational, which means you need to be there and be talking and be interacting on the feed. Oh, you say you don’t have time to do that? then you have too many social streams and you need to nuke some until you can actually manage them yourself. Automation is useful when used well — but not if it replaces you in the social stream. Hint: I keep using the word social. If that’s missing in what you’re doing….
  • Are you interesting? The last two items tie up into one big package and this is the pretty bow. Is your stuff interesting to me? Do I learn from it? Do I see stuff I haven’t seen from others already (in the case of cat pictures, twelve times)? if not, your content needs an upgrade and probably a big injection of yourself, and it needs less generic, re-shared, retweeted automated robotic content.
  • Are you real? Can I find you somewhere in that account? Does it feel like there’s a person behind it and not an organization or robot? Can I look at your account and get a sense of who you are and what you care about? If not, I’m not interested and nobody else should be.

I obviously have a very strong sense of what interests me enough to warrant me spending time consuming it online in the social spaces. Time is a finite resource. I’m always struggling to find time for the things I want to accomplish. What are you doing to earn some of mine? If I can’t answer that, I won’t follow. If you can’t answer that, you need to think about why you’re doing the social dance more. I’ve occasionally contacted the owner ask them about their streams and why they’re doing them and it’s surprising how many can’t really answer that question coherently. Can you? What’s your elevator pitch?

All of the above are things I use to judge my own social streams on a regular basis — I’m always worrying if I’m posting too often, not enough, the right mix of things, or simply crap because I’m lazy and pushing the retweet button out of habit. I try to be sensitive to the time commitments others make my content by following me and reading it, and more than anything else, I try to both teach and be interesting.

I don’t claim to always get it right (I don’t), I don’t claim that what I do is going to be interesting to everyone, but I believe there’s an audience that does find it interesting, and I try to understand them and I try to curate for them. Do you? Could you explain who your audience is? (hint: this is complicated and I struggle at it, but it’s worth trying to formalize at least basic aspects of the ‘ideal reader/listener’)

I would much rather have (and I try to create content for) a smaller audience that cares and interacts and gets involved in the content than have a large audience that kinda skims over it and moves on to the next thing to skim over. If you’re tracking your success with the number of followers or total pageviews, you’re doing it wrong. 20,000 20 second pageviews does basically nothing for you, but 100 people who look at your page for five minutes is gold. Make sure the numbers you track help you succeed at the right goals (and lots of pageviews isn’t it)

Have you even set goals? Do you know if you’re getting closer to them? I find so many people are “doing social media” because somewhere someone told them they had to or they read some web page by some SEO consultant who’s mostly trying to sell you his secret services, or who have found out that doing social stuff is both hard and time consuming, and have gone into robotic mode and just pushing buttons out of habit.

If that defines you, maybe you should just stop, or stop for a while and figure ot how to do social media that helps you, rather than do it just because you’ve been doing it. There’s a reason I’ve dropped off some social sites over time, and there are reasons why my social feeds go quiet when I get busy or I feel like I’m just going through the motions. The SEO consultants will tell you this is death, in practice, this is real life, and your readers will appreciate a bit of quiet over a wave of careless meaningless retweets.

Let me close with a couple of questions you should be asking yourself. For each social service you’re on, answer these questions:

  • Why are you on it?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Are you succeeding and moving closer to that goal?

If you can’t answer those questions, you have homework to do. And if the answer to that last one isn’t “yes”, then you better change what you’re doing, or stop until you figure it out. If your social media time and activity isn’t solving that last problem, then it’s wasting your time that could be more productively spent on some higher priority.

Is that really what you want? It shouldn’t be.