10 Truths about the Proper Use of Social Media Automation

by Ken Mueller on October 3, 2013 · 20 comments

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

I was recently asked to speak at the Marketing Automation 2013 conference, hosted by The Standard Group. The focus of the day was, as the title says: marketing automation. Now, truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of automation, so when they asked me to speak about automation in relation to social media and content marketing, I knew I had a bit of a challenge.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-automation. I’m just a bit cautious. I’m perfectly fine with a lot of automation when it relates to CRM (Customer Relationship Management) because a lot of that runs in the background and doesn’t really impact the actual customer. And I understand the desire for automation. We are all very busy, and anything that can save us a bit of time, and perhaps money, might give us an edge and make our lives easier.

But when it comes to automation in relation to social media, I think we need to exercise a bit more caution, and that was the gist of what I presented. Because, after all, social media is more a mindset than it is a tool set. We have to understand that at the core, this is not about getting messages out. It’s about conversation and relationships. Your mindset will dictate the success of your efforts. If you automate your social efforts too much, people will notice.

Social is Social. And that’s based on people. Not numbers. Not outcomes. Think of the nature of relationships.

Now, as in any new media or technology, we start slow and then we tend to look for shortcuts, and that’s where automation comes in, and I think the natural tendency is to go too far, and then eventually pull back. We want to game systems, find easier ways to do more in a shorter period of time. That is a natural, and that cycle seems to happen with all technologies.

So when it comes to automation in relation to social media, here are some of my thoughts on how we need to approach it carefully, while not writing it off completely:

Customers distrust automation

In general, consumers associate automation with big business, and we are in a cultural climate that distrusts big business. There is a general distrust of big banks (the Occupy movement), big box stores, and chains. We cringe when we face automation on the phone while trying to get customer service from companies like Comcast or our phone provider. By extension, there is a bit of distrust when it comes to automation.

Consumers only like automation when it benefits them

Most automated systems are in place for the convenience of the business, not the customer. If consumers see it as an inconvenience, regardless of what it does for you and your business, you need to be careful. A perfect example would be the ATM, which benefits both the business and the consumer in terms of convenience. On the other hand, refer back to my previous comments about Comcast’s automated customer service phone system. Press 1 for this, 2 for that. Repeat.

Automation shouldn’t be perceptible

If you’re going to automate some social tasks, people shouldn’t necessarily be able to recognize it as such. In the Twitter world, think of Auto DMs. They are really annoying, even when you try to make them look more personable. People can generally see through automation when you are trying to make it look human. Part of getting your content out there is the need to build networks. You may have a need for more followers and fans, but it’s best to do this naturally.  In an August post titled, Will Automation Steal the Soul from Social, Rich Becker wrote:

From my perspective, longevity will favor those marketers that avoid the temptation of the short-term gain because people drive networks, not numbers. After all, as soon as you start thinking about people in terms of numbers, whether how many followers they have or some secret sauce social score, there is a good chance you have already lost them (unless you gamed social to get them in the first place).

It might take longer, but organic often trumps shortcuts.

Automation can make mistakes

A few years ago I was watching baseball and tweeted out a bit of an insult to one of the baseball teams. I was shocked when I got a notice that the team in question was tweeting back at me. When I checked, it turns out that they were retweeting my derogatory remark. It turns out that the team in question had set up an automated bot that retweeted any mention of their team. Dangerous much? If someone were a bit vindictive they could have taken advantage of this. The team was working under the assumption that any mentions must be good. But in sports we all know that isn’t true, so they were busy retweeting positive and negative comments a like.

In content creation there is also the issue of blog scraping, which has so many imperfections, that it is often laughable.

Automation is good for some tasks and not others

Just because automated technology exists, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Be careful. Choose the tasks carefully. For instance, an automated, out of office email reply is a good use of automation. People expect those, and it helps them manage their expectations of when you’ll get back to them. Each morning when my blog is published at 5 a.m. (while I’m still asleep), I have an automated process in place that pushes that blog out to a number of social networks. It saves me time, gets it out there faster, and no one really knows. It doesn’t affect how that particular post is received or perceived. When I get up and finally log on, I’ve already got traffic to my site as a result.

Another great tool for automation is IFTTT (If This, Then That) which allows you set up “recipes” to automate any number of online tasks. It’s a pretty amazing tool and can really make your life a lot easier. Also, check out Triberr for building a blogging community that gives you greater reach.

Automation is great for metrics

One aspect of social that often gets ignored is the collection and interpretation of data. But this is important, and there are all sorts of automated solutions that help you with this. Danny Brown does a great job of explaining some of the marketing data collection tasks that can be done via automation.  You can use personal URLS (PURLS) as part of a CRM to automate a lot of different tasks. Other great tools that provide great analytics include Clicky Stats, and my new favorite social sharing tool: AddThis Smart Layers (which I’ll be writing about in an upcoming post).

Just remember that analytics can only take you so far; a human needs to interpret the data.

Automation is great for research and brand monitoring

,A big part of the internet and social sphere is the ability to monitor your brand, your competitors, your industry, and more. This allows you to not only collect intelligence, but learn what people are saying about you. But the information you gather requires some sort of human response. In addition to the aforementioned IFTTT an AddThis Smart Layers, some great tools that automate the process of info gathering include:

I use all of these tools, and have also been checking out Tagboard for hashtag tracking.

A great example of this from this weekend is how Cinnabon responded to being mentioned in the final episode of Breaking Bad. Their team caught some chatter on Twitter as the result of automated monitoring, and then turned it into a major win as they responded.

Never leave automation unattended

I once worked at a chocolate factory that was heavily automated. All sorts of machines and automated processes in place. But humans were needed to take care of problems. Automation sometimes breaks down or doesn’t work as planned. Yes, I had a few of those I Love Lucy chocolate factory moments. Automation works well the great percentage of the time, and over time we get comfortable with that. And we tend to look in on it less frequently. But it can breakdown and might need to be repaired, or at least given a good Fonzie punch to get it going again. Don’t just assume that because it has worked before, it will always work without a hitch.

Know when to turn off automation

One of the beauties of most social platforms is that they either have built in tools for scheduling posts, or there are third party apps (like Hootsuite) that allow you to schedule posts. This is great because it helps you take care of a lot of your tasks at one time, rather than checking in constantly throughout the day. It also helps you continue your social presence over the weekend when no one is in the office. But…once you schedule your posts, you need to remember what you have scheduled in case something happens.

More than a few businesses got egg on their faces when their pre-scheduled posts went out during Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, and other similar events. During those types of moments, we really need to rethink business as usual.

Find the proper balance of human and automation

You need to find the sweet spot and know what it is for your unique situation. For instance, while Comcast takes a beating with much of their customer service and automated systems, they do a great job on Twitter with their Comcast Cares program. It’s human, and addresses a lot of needs, and other larger businesses are following suit. Know when automation is doing more harm than good.

Just as you would evaluate an automated tool or process before you use it, you need to go back and reevaluate often to make sure it is doing the job. Not just doing it well, but doing it right. There’s a difference. Remember, social media is built on being social and conversations. Even if they could build a robot to have conversations with you, would you choose that over conversations with real people?

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the proper use of automation in the world of social media.

How have you used automation, and what have you found that works or doesn’t work?




Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

You really nailed this, Ken. There is a lot going on in our space and many companies developing tools to make our lives easier. But, at the expense of what? We have to examine and weigh opportunity for automation and understand there's good and bad options associated with all of them.

Did you SlideShare your deck? Great speaking gig!

Latest blog post: E-Commerce For The First Time

KenMueller moderator

@Soulati | Hybrid PR I don't use decks. I find people zone out. I go live on the internet during my presentations to show live examples. more engaging and gets them more involved.


Great post Ken. Picked up several tidbits of knowledge and tools that I plan to test and put into action.

As an international marketer, I am somewhat forced to automate a lot of my social media to cover hours when I am sleeping and my community is awake (Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, etc.). I have found at times it works against me, for example if someone responds to a tweet in the middle of the night and my response is delayed until the next day, and other times when it works to my advantage, for example the fact that tweets I send between 11pm and 6am are retweeted and shared through social networks more than any other time during the day, including my own content.

So, automation fits pretty well in some respects against the 24 hour nature of my job, but I certainly have room to improve and new tools to test. This post certainly is pointing me in the right direction. Thanks.

KenMueller moderator

@John_Trader1 That's one of the trade-offs you have to make, I guess. IN order to do business overseas, you do need to automate some stuff, and hope that the benefits outweigh any downside.


BAM!  Great insights on automation, Ken - thanks for sharing them!  I am going to keep these tips in mind as I spread my wings and dabble with automation.  

It beats hitting a tree! :o

KenMueller moderator

@Mark_Harai I think too many grab on to any automation they can find, without thinking through it. We need to really go in with eyes open, aware of the pros and cons.

Lara Wellman
Lara Wellman

Great points!  I regularly get irritated by Facebook posts that get pushed to Twitter.  Mostly because almost all of them are too long for twitter so they require me to go to Facebook to see the whole message!  

KenMueller moderator

@Lara Wellman That's a good point, I hadn't thought of that when I wrote this. Great addition!


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