A Wired intern created a parody Twitter account for “Clippy,” the hapless but sorta cute cartoon assistant from Microsoft Office, earlier this week.
Within a day, the account had hundreds of followers and had prompted a Twitter @ reply from new Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella. The account, @ClippyTheClip, now has almost 1,000 followers.
The engine of that growth appears to have been Twitter’s “MagicRecs” feature, which recommends accounts you might want to follow, based on what your friends on Twitter are following. If enough of the people you follow suddenly start following the same account, Twitter will recommend you follow that account, too.
Currently MagicRecs works via push notifications on Twitter’s Android and iOS apps. I have these notifications turned off on my iPhone, but receive about half a dozen such recommendations each week on Android.
Apparently, all it takes to trigger a recommendation is a handful of friends. Based on my informal observations, it seems like five to 10 friends following an account is enough to make me get a recommendation. More experiments would probably help establish the exact number.
The MagicRecs snowball effect
But here’s where it gets interesting: There’s a snowball effect, because the more of your friends are following the same account, the more of their friends are going to get “follow” recommendations for that account. And the more of those people who act on that recommendation, the more they’re going to trigger recommendations for their friends.
In Wired’s account, a handful of Gadget Lab staffers followed ClippyTheClip and then recruited a handful of their fellow tech journalists in an attempt to see if they could get its follower account over 200. (Disclosure: I used to run Gadget Lab. It’s always been a fun-loving place.) Within an hour, its follower count was over 50, and the snowball effect was in full force.
ClippyTheClip hadn’t even posted a single tweet yet.
Eventually, Clippy started tweeting and interacting with his new followers, and the followers kept piling on, culminating in a response from Nadella.
How to increase your Twitter followers
While it started as an intern’s prank and evolved into an entertaining social experiment, it also illustrates one way that devious marketers might use Twitter’s recommendation engine to their advantage.
Could you build buzz for a brand account simply by recruiting a couple dozen influential Twitter users to follow that account? Maybe.
Could you build that buzz with “sock puppet” Twitter accounts? Less likely — but possible, if the sock puppets had followers.
Could a well-placed marketer, with a network of already-popular Twitter accounts, use those accounts to juice a new account with fresh followers? Almost certainly.
Granted, in the Wired experiment, the “seed” followers were unusually well-positioned to fan the flames of a viral outbreak: They’re a relatively tight-nit group of journalists who all follow one another, and many of them are very influential, with thousands or tens of thousands of followers. Also, who doesn’t enjoy making fun of Clippy?
Still, it shouldn’t be too hard for marketers to use a similar approach in building buzz for their own would-be viral accounts, simply by taking advantage of the simplicity of Twitter’s MagicRecs notifications.
One thing is for sure: If this isn’t already in the bag of tricks for social media mavens, it soon will be.
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