Interior Trumps NASA in Twitter Engagement, Despite 46X Fewer Followers

Interior posted a photo on Twitter of fall foliage at Shenandoah National Park to celebrate the changing of the seasons.

Interior posted a photo on Twitter of fall foliage at Shenandoah National Park to celebrate the changing of the seasons. Interior Department

What agencies post on Twitter is far more important than the number of followers they collect.

We’ve been gathering data on every Tweet sent by U.S. federal Twitter accounts over the past few months, and the data is starting to reveal some interesting insights. I’ll explain below how the data reveals why you should focus more on creating great content than you do on gaining followers. This is a preview of some findings I’ll be sharing in a free webinar with this coming Tuesday

What you see here is 11,382 tweets sent by 801 U.S. federal government Twitter accounts between Oct. 22 and Oct. 28 (here's an interactive version of this chart). Each dot corresponds to an individual tweet, plotted by its number of followers on the X axis and the number of retweets and favorites it received (we'll just call it engagement) on the Y axis. This graph shows us the relationship between followers and engagement.

So what does it tell us?

First, let’s zoom in on the black cluster in the bottom left. The tweets are packed pretty tightly in there because half of the accounts represented here have fewer than 8,000 followers and 30 percent of these tweets got no engagement at all.

Looking at the big picture again, if we calculate the line of best fit between all these dots, we learn that there's a relationship between how many followers you have and how much engagement your tweets get, but it might not be what you expect. It appears you need to get about 18,000 followers before you can expect each of your tweets to be retweeted or favorited just one time.

In short, trying to increase your follower count is a really inefficient way to get people to engage with your content.

Now, let's look at three clear outliers, which I've highlighted below.

The clearest outliers are on the right side of the chart. Those dots represent the tweets of the most followed government Twitter accounts in the U.S.: @whitehouse and @nasa. What's interesting about @whitehouse and @nasa is that all of their tweets get some engagement, which you can see in how their columns are lifted off the base of the graph. It's clear that once you reach a certain audience size, you're guaranteed some degree of engagement.

However, we crunched these numbers and found that something weird happens as your audience gets really large: you're bound to get fewer retweets and favorites per follower.

Here's why we think this happens. When someone creates a new Twitter account, Twitter's interface presents them with a few accounts for them to follow. Because Twitter doesn't know much about a new user, the recommendations they give are based simply upon popularity -- there's a good chance that people will want to follow an account already followed by millions of other people.

However, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 36 percent of people who sign up for Twitter do not use their accounts. If the White House and NASA are gaining followers based on Twitter's recommendation, there's a chance those followers will never interact with anything they post.

Meanwhile, less popular accounts that Twitter doesn't recommend are likely to be followed by people who actually seek them out. Therefore, they're more likely to have an engaged audience.

Anil Dash wrote a great piece explaining his experience being one of Twitter's recommended users back in 2009, which supports this idea.

Which brings us to @Interior, which is the column highlighted on the left. It had about 110,000 followers when we gathered this data, compared to more than 5.2 million followers of @NASA. You see those dots up around the 600 mark? Those are tweets that got much more engagement than is normal for an account with 110,000 followers.

Another way to think of Interior's astonishing engagement is that it can get as much engagement as NASA, even though NASA has 46 times more followers.

How do they do it? They post great content.

They follow a lot of our best practices for creating great social media content:

  • They’re personable. Every tweet they write is clearly written by a person. While they don’t write in first person, the tone of their messages is conversational and fits within the social context of Twitter.

  • They’re authentic. As the steward of America’s public lands, the Department of Interior is uniquely qualified to talk about something that people are clearly passionate about: the great outdoors. What’s important here is that they stick to what they know. They don’t arbitrarily post pictures of kittens or other content designed to simply draw attention. They post nothing but content that could only come from the Department of Interior, which is usually images, but often includes interesting facts about the value of our public lands and policy updates.

  • They’re timely. They appeal to their audience by sharing beautiful photos that coincide with the seasons and even time of day. Here’s a recent photo celebrating autumn leaves, and here’s a photo of a sunset posted around sunset (Eastern time).

  • They use images. They clearly understand the power of imagery on social media.

The lesson here is clear: if you want people to engage with your content, give them good content. The last thing you should be worried about is your follower count.

If you’d like to learn more about our analysis of this data, join me as I give a free webinar on social media analysis with this coming Tuesday. Find more information and register at

Jed Sundwall is president of Measured Voice, a social media management tool designed for government organizations.