Starting a new social media presence from scratch can feel like a big challenge.

As I launch my own side project right now, I’m poring over my Buffer analytics as I start at the very beginning to build a following everywhere. Things look very different in these early days as compared to what it must feel like for big, established names who have thousands or millions of fans.

Here on the Buffer blog, we’ve written about some great strategies to get your first 1,000 followers that I’ve been following closely. I also wondered if it might inspire me a bit to look at how Buffer itself built a social following back in the early days of the app, particularly on Twitter.

This would have been pretty tricky to do just a few months ago, but Twitter’s new full tweet index allows you to search through every public tweet since the social network’s launch in 2006. Another neat trick: Using the Discover tool, you can discover the first tweet of any Twitter account. For instance, Buffer’s first tweet was short and a bit mysterious:

discover your first tweet

Social media moves fast, so not all these tactics may be exactly what might help and work today, but there are some constants, and those ideas are what I tried to focus on most.

Maybe this reflection can help others just starting out to get a sneak preview of some ideas that have worked for others (and avoid those that don’t). Here’s what I learned from going back in time to see what we did right—and what we might have done differently—in those early days.

Buffer's First Tweets

What worked well

Reaching out to influencers to build awareness

When you’re just starting out and no one knows who you are yet, one strategy to build up your following is to reach out to people whom you respect and admire in your field who are better known than you.

Buffer took to this tactic of outreach to social media influencers right away, reaching out to people like Guy Kawasaki and Aaron Lee by writing about them in a very authentic way.

influencers

buffer tweets

Try it for yourself:  How to Build an Outreach Strategy to Earn More Social Shares

Involving the community

From the start, Buffer related to our audience much the same way we do now–as people we respect, enjoy and love to learn from. Early posts show the team reaching out for feedback, learning from those with experiences to share and working to get honest answers to early community members’ questions and requests.

buffer tweetsbuffer tweetsbuffer tweets

Try it for yourself: The Science of Building a Strong, Lasting Community on Social Media

Sharing inside details transparently

Long before we had a transparency dashboard full of openness goodies, we had a belief in sharing early and often what was going on at Buffer.

Tweets that share the latest news of Buffer challenges and features were easy to find, and Buffer’s CEO Joel more or less lays out the origin of Buffer in his post Idea to Paying Customers in 7 Weeks: How We Did It.

buffer transparent tweetstransparentpublic roadmap

Try it for yourself: The 4 Benefits of Transparency We’ve Seen at Our Startup

Celebrating milestones

Here is one that hadn’t occurred to me, but I’m excited to give it a try now! From the start, Buffer kept a close eye on both number of users and number of total posts sent through our social media management tools. Each new milestone was an opportunity to share transparently with the community and celebrate together.

5000 tweetsmilestone 10000 tweets

Try it for yourself: Share milestones like number of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, customers, or email list subscribers with your community to make them part of your growth and celebration.

Working for press coverage

Getting press coverage is a key element of any new business’ journey. Buffer’s first bit of coverage was this short piece on The Next Web, followed quickly thereafter by a few more lovely press mentions.

presspress

In this post, you can see Leo doing some great hustling to get the press awareness that would later begin to pay off in the form or articles about Buffer—and later, press syndication.

outreach

I asked Leo how he and Joel managed to get press coverage in the early days, and he tracked down the exact method that eventually led to Buffer’s own feature on The Next Web: some comments he posted on an article there about features Twitter should have.

Leo comment 1

Leo comments

Try it for yourself: The 12-Step Insider’s Guide To Getting Press Coverage via Forbes

Focusing on creating happy customers 

Taking great care of the customers who entrust part of their social media strategy to us is something we feel strongly about at Buffer, and the focus has been there since Day 1.

An early tweet shows the Zappos customer service model was an inspiration, and some chats with Buffer’s first few customers show lots of the personal attention that we still strive for today, even with 2 million plus customers.

Screen-Shot-2015-01-21-at-6.27.08-PMScreen-Shot-2015-01-21-at-6.27.08-PM-1sharing resourcessupport video

Try it for yourself: The Complete Guide to Using Social Media for Customer Service

Sharing useful resources through content curation

Passing along the best, most useful material to our patrons, customers, fans, or followers—aka content curation—is a tried-and-true way of gaining a strong and appreciative following. The Internet is a busy place, and trusted curators are worth their weight in gold.

Buffer discovered this early, regularly adding curation on social media topics into the overall mix of news, tool updates and miscellaneous other content.

buffer tweetsbuffer tweets

Try it for yourselfThe Busy Person’s Guide to Content Curation: A 3-Step Process for Your Blog, Newsletter, or Timeline

Admitting to mistakes

The last cool element that I noticed from Buffer’s first tweets was a willingness to admit to our mistakes—a trait that we have fallen back on time and time again. In this small example, Leo does an awesome job of delivering personal apologies to followers after an unexpected flood of tweets.

mistakes

I have a feeling that setting the precedent here of admitted to and apologizing for our own screw-ups laid a good bit of the groundwork we would come to rely on a bit later when Buffer faced a hack in 2013.

Good things tend to come out of this philosophy. In our case, we got a much more secure tool and a deeper connection with our community, among many other benefits.

Try it for yourselfThe Art of Admitting Failure via Harvard Business Review

What we might do differently today

Off-topic posts

The more we learn about social media (and we’re always learning!), the more important consistency seems to be. Consistency of social media voice and tone, consistency of social media frequency, and—perhaps most especially—consistency of content.

We didn’t always know these lessons, and the Buffer account’s early days show a brand still finding its voice. A few posts, like these two, stood out as a telltale sign that we had perhaps yet to find consistency:

off-topicoff topic 2

Try this instead: Achieve Perfect Social Media Volume, Quality, Voice, and Topics Every Time with the Consistency Pizza

“Selling” messages

So much of marketing—especially in the scrappy, early days—seems to be about the hustle.

And with good reason! When no one has heard of you and you feel you have something valuable to offer, it’s hard not to want to shout it from the rooftops and get your brand known by any means necessary.

It feels like that enthusiasm is what might have motivated the tweets below:selling Bufferselling posts
Messages like these may well have played a bit part in getting Buffer on people’s radar. I’m not sure that we would approach them the same way if we were starting out today.

In Reinventing Organizations, a book that’s become quite important to Buffer recently, Frederic Laloux writes that evolved marketing is less about metrics and conversions and more about putting out a product and message that feels useful and right and letting the rest fall into place naturally.

Essentially, marketing boils down to this statement: This is our offer. At this moment, we feel this is the best we can possibly do. We hope you will like it.

As we try to absorb this philosophy more deeply, we’ve grown into the idea that marketing doesn’t have to explicitly sell a product. It can also be so simple and so useful as to scarcely seem to exist at all.

Try this instead: The Content Marketing Manifesto by Rand Fishkin

Contests and giveaways

Frequent visitors to the blog may have noticed that we very seldom do any sort of contest or giveaway, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early days of Buffer, as seen in the tweets below, contests were a part of our marketing strategy.

contests
As we evolved, we later determined that other activities seem to provide us with better results and phased this element out of our strategy.

In this way, this one isn’t so much a mistake at all as it is a healthy and natural part of the evolution of any brand as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps if we tried a contest again today, things might be quite different!

Try this instead: How to Run a Successful Social Media Sweepstakes via Social Media Examiner

It was a fascinating journey to see how Buffer has evolved from its very first tweets. I hope some of these lessons might be applicable to your brand, as well.

If you happen to take a look at your earliest social media posts, I’d love to hear what discoveries you come across, too! What social tactics and strategies worked best, and which ones wouldn’t you recommend again? Let me know in the comments!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Loved this post – nothing like looking back…it makes you both cringe and feel awesome to realize how much has changed/improved. 🙂

    I feel like contests work best in the early stages of a website. I started a blog back in June and ran quite a few Rafflecopter promotions. Around December, I noticed that the new subscribers from the giveaways started to stagnate.

    • Agreed @brittanyberger:disqus! It’s always fun to look back to where it all started and realize how much progress you’ve achieved during the years.

      Buffer has definitely gone a long way since that first tweet back in 2010!

      Keep up the great work guys, awesome post and breakdown @Courtney!

      • It’s been quite a journey, Daniel! Thanks for giving this one a read! 🙂

    • Hey Brittany! Thanks so much for checking this one out! Interesting to hear that you’ve noticed the same thing regarding contests and giveaways!

  • Blair Smith

    Sometimes it’s good to stop. Turn around. And look at where you came from. Thanks for this insight, Courtney. I’m working on a startup idea. This will be part of my marketing plan.

    • Sounds great, Blair; wishing you lots of luck with your startup!

  • Will Blunt

    Hey Courtney,

    Thanks for another great post. I can’t get enough of Buffer’s transparency it totally rocks!

    Reaching out to influencers is certainly one of my favourites, and something I’ve had some traction with. I love the language Leo used to reach out early on; it recognises that these influencers are busy, and doesn’t specifically ask for anything.

    Keep the great content coming 🙂

    Will

    • Hey Will! So awesome to put a face with a name after our meetup! Thanks so much for giving this one a read. I agree with you; I took a lot away from studying Leo’s language as well!

  • Really good stuff @courtneyseiter:disqus. Building a Twitter presence initially can be daunting and hard, but it takes hard work and a proper strategy in place that you follow through and through. A lot of people give up after a month because it doesn’t seem to be working, but a little tweet in the next few days / weeks might inspire a sudden rush of followers.

    It’s also incredibly important to ensure that the reason you’re on Twitter is legit, and that you’re actually adding value. With Buffer, you guys have a great tool which didn’t necessarily make it easy (tons of social products out there starving for attention) but a great product is the foundation of your marketing, and as a result – your social strategy and eventual success.

    • Hey Avtar! Thoughtful comments as always here! Yup, consistency and keeping at it are really key with any marketing strategy.

  • Taru Bhargava

    Hey Courtney! Great Post 🙂 We are in the midst of doing the same for our product and this post couldn’t have a better timing. Each issue is explained beautifully, just what a start-up requires.
    Waiting for more informative posts in the future.

    • Hi Taru, thanks so much for checking this one out. Best of luck with your product!

  • So many great platforms so little time!

  • Analysis is a must for every marketers social media marketing campaign to get the desierd results. The main thing is to how you communicate with your audience and providing them a lovely experience to convert them into promoters to get more fan following.

  • navid

    Great article, its true that there are so many social media platforms but the trick is to find the right one for you, through testing analysing each platform will give you a indication of how each one works for you. personally working for a startup http://www.betfect.com we decided to focus on instagram and snapchat as our main social media platform we should focus on. Instagram is ever growing and becoming even more popular than twitter. Join me on twitter or email me for more info on how to use the emerging social media platforms @navidejlali, [email protected]