The Unintended Consequences of a Twitter Contest

The other day, we woke up to realize that we were about hit our 400,000th follower on Twitter. So we put out the following tweet, offering some swag:


Innocent enough, no?

But we had walked right into an incentive trap.

We monitored our Twitter status in order to identify the 400,000th follower. It happened very fast, as new followers were signing up at what seemed to be a rate of five or six per second. So we counted carefully and, voila, found our winner:

But then, when we went back to our main Twitter page, we found that we were below the 400,000 mark, by quite a bit. In fact, we had fewer followers than when we’d tweeted the contest.

So what happened?

If you’re a Twitter pro, you’ve probably already figured it out. Our swag offer in fact created an incentive to unfollow and then refollow our feed. Appropriately enough, our followers informed us, and promptly:


I wish I could say this was a clever experiment but in fact all it was simply a good lesson in Twitter incentives. So the person we thought was our 400,000th follower, @emeganboggs, wasn’t. We’ll still send her some swag, but we’ll also send some to a couple other people who actually were around the 400,000 mark. Even if they did unfollow us to get there :-).

By the way, our podcast about Twitter has just been updated and released as part of a new hour-long radio program called “Eating and Tweeting.” (And yes, all these hour-long programs will hit our podcast stream before too long.)

Thanks to all for a fun morning on Twitter and yet another good lesson in unintended consequences.

Jeremiah Stanghini

As you've noted, this is an excellent example of unintended consequences. While it's a bit of a stretch to tie-in, this reminds me a bit of "Operation Cat Drop," but that's probably the case because I often think of that example when there isn't an adequate consideration for the "whole" system.

I'm glad you saw fit to share this with all of us.

It just goes to show that even the 'simplest' of intentions can cause the most unanticipated consequences.

With Gratitude,


Bobby G

I dislike these "reward our latest follower when we hit a number" kind of Twitter contests. In reality, the people in your first 5-10 thousand followers are your most crucial, as they create critical mass to become a Twitter powerhouse. If those people hadn't been around, people are more hesitant to follow. Also, I know @freakonomics has been selected as some top accounts to follow on websites and such... that wouldn't happen if you had under 1000 followers, for example.

So in reality, these contests reward people who have not been a part of your Twitter success save for the very last moment, and doesn't reward people who have been in since the "beginning." Not saying I know of a way to reward them, but still :).

Woody Huffines

Uh. What about those of us that saw the incentive coming and didn't do the follow/unfollow etc. dance? Once again, those gainfully employed miss out on the free stuff. At least you didn't raise my marginal rate to fund the swag for the ~400,000th group unless you include the signal-to-noise ratio perturbation.

Scott H


Saw this one coming right away.


For future reference, the proper way to do this is to say "when we reach 400,000 followers, we'll pick one follower at random to award a prize." Then your followers have an incentive to get their friends to follow.

Peter Shankman

I said this EONS ago - You take care of the customers you HAVE - Not the customers you WANT. Customers who like you because of the content you provide will stick around. Customers who join you for a contest just want to win free shit, and add very little (if any) value.

robyn ann goldstein

I have said this before- things don't always turn out as you expected. sometimes, it is even better.