How Insider Perks’ Brian Searl Got 9,000 Twitter Followers

Do you tweet?

Odds are, your answer to this question is yes. The real question is “do you tweet well“? Do you engage your followers, find new leads and clients using Twitter, and have a solid reputation on the medium?

That second question is harder to say yes to. But Brian Searl, who won the Fairfield Small Business Challenge’s Twitter contest by earning the most Twitter followers in three weeks, has figured out how to harness Twitter like a champ. Searl gained about 4,000 Twitter followers during the Small Business Challenge, for a grand total of 9,000 followers. That gives his company, Insider Perks, a handy leg up on the competition. I caught up with Searl to find out how he did it.

What strategy did you use to win the Twitter challenge?

A lot of people in the contest assumed we used some kind of automated software tool, and we actually didn’t. When the Twitter challenge started, I only followed 300-400 people on my Twitter account, people I wanted to see headlines from and retweeted constantly. I didn’t have a large base that I followed to begin with. I had about 4,000-5,000 when it was all finished.

I had created about 8-10 lists extensive Twitter lists attached to my own account for the public to use. For example, a hotel list that had 500 hotel twitter handles in it. Those lists are still active on my account. They cover hotels, restaurants, cruise lines, travel bloggers, etc. For the contest, I just went through those lists and followed everybody that I didn’t follow already. That amounted to probably about 5,000 people.

Doing that is actually where most of my followers came from. The ones that weren’t following me followed me back. It’s a lot more simple than most people think it is.

Beyond that, I took the approach of following people outside of my industry. For example, I followed some people related to small business, some people related to the finance industry who may end up writing about budget travel. I normally wouldn’t have followed those people, but I guess I was lucky and they followed me back.

I tend to have a good reputation on Twitter, so I think they’ll help me out with what I’m doing, plus that fact that I have about 9,000 followers. Many people base their follow decisions off the number of followers you already have, as an indication of trust. Already having 5,000 followers before the contest started helped me win, in my estimation.

How powerful do you think Twitter has been in growing your business?

Honestly, that’s a toss-up, because I’m a small business, so I don’t have access to all those huge metric analyzers that a lot of big businesses use. Some of those services are upwards of $1,000 per month, and we don’t do that kind of tracking for budgetary reasons.

The main results I’ve seen from Twitter have come on an individual, case-by-case basis. Sure, if I tweet out a link, I’m going to get 100-200 hits on my website. But the biggest benefits for me have been the connections and relationships I’ve made. For example, we’re going to expand into cruise coverage in 2011. That’s something that never would have happened without Twitter, because the partner I’m doing that with, I met through Twitter. That’s just one example. I could name 10-15 of those specific examples that have happened because of Twitter, because of social media in general.

What advice can you give other entrepreneurs who want to expand their small businesses through Twitter?

Just be engaging. Especially in the travel industry, you see so many hotels that decide to just have a brand presence on Twitter, and then they never tweet anything. Or all they do is set up a bot to announce their latest deals, and they don’t engage their customers, they don’t talk.

The other end of the spectrum are those who engage, but only talk about problems or customer service. There are brands that set up Twitter accounts, and you never realize who’s tweeting. They don’t tell you the names of the people who are tweeting in their bios, so they come across as just a faceless brand that is trying to sell something. Some big brands like that have a lot of followers because everyone knows who they are, but you just can’t tell who’s tweeting, and they don’t engage or anything.

My biggest point is just engage. Talk to your people, jump into a conversation about your business. In my industry, for example, if you see that somebody is planning a vacation somewhere, ask them how you can help. I know that sounds oversimplified, but really, it’s social. If you can’t be social, there’s no point in being there.