I can’t count the number of times I’ve overheard brand representatives bragging about reaching the milestone of “ten thousands followers on Twitter!” Or a hundred thousand. Or even a million. Of course, these numbers are big, and at first glance they’re impressive. But counting followers is like counting beans: the real value comes from what you do with them.

There are plenty of recognizable brands on Twitter with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers a piece. But if you look closely at what they’re doing with these followers, you can see that there’s something missing. They’re not replying, retweeting or interacting with their followers in any meaningful way. And so, they’re not building a community -- they’re just sitting on a pile of beans.

Clearly then, having more followers on Twitter does not automatically translate to having an engaged community.

On the other hand, brands like @Notebook, @CNN, @NASA and @FunnyorDie are also in the million+ followers club; the key difference is they've mastered the art and science of cultivating ongoing conversations with their Twitter fans and connecting with them on an emotional level. That engagement, and engagement on other social channels, can measurably impact brands’ marketing and monetization strategies.

How do they do it?

Listen and Respond to Followers

Twitter has opened new, two-way communication channels between brands and consumers that simply didn’t exist before. People can now reach out to brands directly, voicing their comments, asking questions and offering suggestions. The most engaged brands are the ones listening and responding to every single one of these comments, questions and suggestions.

Of course, focus groups have been used by brands for years before Twitter came onto the scene. But these tended to be skewed: participants felt motivated to “please” the company with their feedback, and in any case delivered feedback that was little more than a snapshot in time as opposed to the product of an ongoing conversation.

Fast-forward to today, and you have brands like @WWE actively listening to their community members and using feedback in realtime to adjust their programming and content strategy. Brands engaged in a two-way conversation with their communities encourage the co-creation of content -- and what better way to truly engage people than to invite them to participate?

Master the Art of Storytelling

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alsoThe most engaged brands are expert storytellers who regularly publish highly resonant content that their communities want to see. For instance, @ESPN tweets live updates from events around the world. @NASA shows behind-the-scenes pictures of its astronauts hard at work.

In the same vein, a tech company might retweet pictures taken by its followers of its gadgets being used creatively or in unusual places. Each of these activities tells a story: one that helps close the gap between brands and their followers, and fosters an emotional connection between the two.

You’ll notice that “product” wasn’t one of the key topics of any of these brands’ stories -- and that’s a deliberate omission. The most successful communities are cultivated through a focus on what matters to fans, rather than what matters to the company.

Take @FunnyOrDie for example. On Twitter, they regularly give their followers an insider’s view of the content they produce, and even publish in-office April Fool's jokes. Of course, they’re a pretty funny brand, so these activities are all meant to reinforce that image. But they do much more than that: they tell the story of their employees and culture that resonates emotionally with their followers.

Telling a story doesn’t mean you ignore your products and services. However, discussing how your latest product fits in with the story you’re telling is different from simply discussing your latest product --and your followers know it.

As much as it’s used to share information, Twitter is an emotional platform. Your brand’s passion should be present in the stories you tell. The sincerity of your story will come through to your followers, and they’ll be compelled to engage.

Building Engagement Using Experts

Using experts is a fantastic way to bridge the gap between your brand and your community. Say, for instance, @BestBuy wanted to cultivate a community of passionate photographers. @BestBuy is a large brand with many different stories, and the general social media manager behind the account might not have the knowledge or passion to tell a story that would appeal to photographers.

Now, @BestBuy knows that the best brand stories are those that are specific and resonate with its target community, so it asks a photographer to come on board to answer questions and make recommendations on Twitter. This photographer is himself a member of the @BestBuy community already, so the brand is shining the spotlight on one of its influencers. And because he’s already established a relationship with the brand, the photographer is likely to weave in some genuine product recommendations, and points out that many of the cameras he uses can be found at Best Buy.

Experts can add credibility to your storytelling, and encourage participation from those followers who share their interests. The photographers who follow @BestBuy get to participate in a conversation -- and help build a community -- that matters to them, while @BestBuy strengthens its relationship with a core group of its customers.

Use Data Analytics to Hone Your Message and Delivery

The most engaged brands hone their craft using data analytics. They monitor Twitter engagement in order to tune messaging, optimize content length and type as well as determine the timing and frequency to generate the greatest levels of resonance.

Data will help you understand the “how” question of your brand’s story, namely, how to tell it effectively. For instance, Dan Zarella took a look at tweets that got the most clicks, and found that the highest clickthrough rates were on those between 120 and 130 characters, used action words, and were tweeted on the weekend or later in the day.

Now, your audience might prefer shorter tweets than 120 characters, and they might interact more during the weekday as opposed to the weekends. But in order to tell your story to an audience that will listen, you must use data analytics to understand your followers’ habits and preferences.

Conclusion

Engagement isn't as simple as asking a question and retweeting some of the answers. It involves listening and responding to your followers on an ongoing basis. It involves dynamic brand storytelling to connect with followers on an emotional level. It involves harnessing the power of the experts already connected to your brand, in an effort to bring together the multiple communities your brand serves. And it involves the use of big data analytics to hone and deliver the right stories at the right time.

Notice that the tactics that work best for fostering engagement do not require millions of followers to be effective. The brand managers that brag about their sky-high follower numbers are missing the mark completely. Ten or ten million followers, they all want the same thing: to be invited to participate in your brand’s story, and to feel that your brand speaks to them.

Image courtesy of iurii (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on customer communities here