Go to most websites and you’ll be hit with a cluster of icons with “Follow Me” alongside.

The problem is that these buttons are totally ineffective. We’ve come to accept this row of icons as standard on most websites — and it doesn’t hurt to include them — but there’s a more effective way to build a following.

Two types of social buttons

Let’s back up a second: there are two types of social promotion buttons — share buttons and follow buttons.

Share buttons prompt visitors to share the current piece of content. These end up showing their faces on blog articles (and sometimes even on every page on a website — yikes).

Share Icons

Share buttons. “Can we put these on every page?” No.

Follow buttons prompt visitors to visit and follow you. These are typically the icons everybody drops in the footer of their website on every single page.

Follow Buttons

Typical Follow buttons in their natural habitat.

Share buttons and follow buttons are not interchangeable; however, they’ve got something in common: they both ask something of visitors.

Share buttons have their merits, but they’re prone to banner blindness and add to visual page clutter. They’ve become so misused over the years that their effectiveness is questionable except in rare circumstances (like at the bottom of blog posts).

Right now, I’m talking about Follow buttons. Follow buttons pose as a bigger commitment and ultimately create a bigger impact on both the follower and followee.

Why people aren’t following you

“We’re an interesting brand! We have follow buttons at the bottom of our site — why aren’t people following us by the dozens?”

That may be true — I bet you’ve got something really interesting to say and value to share. The simple problem is you’re not asking at the right time.

A line of follow buttons at the bottom of your homepage isn’t enough to woo people to your social properties. It’s not a bad thing to offer those, since true enthusiasts will look for those buttons, but you also need to ask sometimes.

But what most people miss is that you have to give first.

Give first, then ask for a follow

In accordance with the Rule of Reciprocity, you need to give something of value before you ask for something in return.

Ask for a follow after you’ve captured someone’s attention, gained their trust, provided them with value — and when they need a next step.

Identify the point at which you’ve created the most value.

Did you solve someone’s problem? Ask for a follow.
Give someone value in the form of a lead magnet? Ask for a follow.
Someone completed a task on your app or service? Ask for a follow.
That awkward ending of a workshop or webinar? Ask for a follow.

Notice all these things happen after a visitor gets what they need. Once you offer value and solve a problem, you can ask for something without guilt or fear. Don’t bombard people with a pop-up asking for a follow as soon as they land on your site. That’s an unspeakable turn-off.

When you have attention and you can add something relevant for a visitor, you can ask for a follow. On one of my personal side projects, Trading Paints, we suggest for a member to follow our Twitter account after they report a problem so we can provide service status updates. Not the ideal circumstance or at the peak of providing delight, but we have attention and can provide follow-up value that relates to the person’s current task.

Ask for a follow

It’s appropriate to ask for a follow when it’s relevant to someone.

Ever notice that an effective mobile app will ask for an App Store review after you’ve used it for a while? And surely you’ve felt the sting of annoyance when you’re trying out a new app for the first time and the author asks for an App Store review 10 seconds in.

Ask after you give — and be specific when you do ask.

Be specific in your request

You only get once chance to make your request, so make it as specific, pointed, and valuable as possible. I know you’ve got an account on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat, Myspace, Peach (you early adopter, you), and a hundred more platforms — but tailor it down to one or two buttons. Choose the platforms where you’re most active and provide the most value.

Your audience grows where you provide the most unique value. Don’t place a Snapchat (or whatever) button when you’re making your request because it’s new and experimental and you want to grow that audience this week — ask for a Facebook (or whatever) Like in that space since you’ve got an editorial calendar and content plan for that platform.

In other words, ask for a follow on the platform where you give away the most, not where you need to boost follower counts (hint: follower counts don’t matter). Don’t overwhelm people in giving them a dozen networks to follow. Remember, you only get to ask once for right now, not a dozen times.

Explain what else they’re getting

You’re not done giving yet. When you do finally ask for that follow, explain to your visitor what they’re going to get when they press the follow button.

Generally, people are hesitant to give a follow or like. They know the impact it will have on their feeds and streams. Take away that fear and mystery — explain what kind of content you share. Maybe show a few examples of your best stuff. Explain how your cool, awesome content will make them look smart to their friends.

Set clear expectations. Remove questions and doubt from your visitor’s mind. Do you share more insider info and tips on Twitter? Say that. Do you run promotions on Facebook? Mention it!

People, unsurprisingly, are in it for themselves; tell them how you’ll continue to help them solve their problems if they follow you. Do it when you’ve got their attention because you’ve proved you’re capable of solving their problem — that’s it.

If you feel like you have nothing to give, you’ve got a content strategy problem.

Got it?

  • It’s OK to actively ask someone for a follow.
  • Ask for a follow at the peak of value you provided.
  • Be specific in your request.
  • Explain how you’ll continue to give more good stuff.

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(See what I did there?)

Steve Luvender

About Steve Luvender

Steve Luvender is a Senior User Experience Designer at Liquid Interactive, where he works with organizations to design and implement solutions that delight people and create business results.