By Jonathan Crossfield published June 15, 2014

How Automating Your Social Media Content Can Hurt Your Brand

social-meda-content-automationI have a rule. Actually, I have many rules, but you don’t need to hear the ones concerning black jelly beans or why tequila is no longer allowed in our house. The rule that’s relevant to this column is about Twitter, and although it may seem arbitrary, it’s about maintaining certain standards for social media content.

When I follow someone, if I receive an automated direct message a few minutes later to thank me, I unfollow immediately.

Harsh, you think? Reactionary? Unnecessary? Yet, I’m not the only one. I’ve met many social media users, both professional and otherwise, who distrust, criticize or actively unfollow accounts that use automated direct messages (DMs).

And I’ve yet to meet anyone who appreciates the gesture.

The practice is in decline, partly because many people were so vocal in their dislike of them. There are plenty of blog posts and articles already advising against them, so this isn’t another of those.

Instead, I mention automated DMs as a familiar and commonly despised example of how automating your social media content activities can backfire.

Think we can’t tell when your tweets, updates or DMs are automated? Oh yes we can. So, knock it off!

Is there anybody there?

If your social media is entirely or mostly automated, then your business is missing the entire point of having a social media presence in the first place.

Social media is a conversation. It takes two to be social, after all. Anything else is just broadcasting a prerecorded message, and no one ever described television or radio as a social medium.

It is frustrating enough to reply to an account — maybe asking a question about the link it just shared — only to be ignored. Fine, not everyone has time to reply to every tweet. But when I notice the account never replies, retweets or engages with anyone but merely shares its own content or brand messaging on an endless loop, I may conclude pretty quickly that there’s actually no one behind the curtain. Even the wise and wonderful Wizard of Oz stuck around to pull the levers behind his automated illusion, ready to intervene appropriately should the unexpected happen.

Using automation for good, not evil

Automation is never a replacement for genuine social media interaction, but it can enhance it.

Tools such as Buffer allow you to supplement your real-time activity with retweets and shares to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn without resorting to flood-or-famine bursts of activity. Instead of sending a series of retweets and shares all within a few minutes as you review your various streams, Buffer allows you to space these updates throughout the day on a flexible schedule.

Sometimes certain messages absolutely, positively have to go out at a certain time. Scheduling these mission-critical updates means everything goes out as planned, even if that meeting runs over or last night’s curry has you trapped in a cubicle at the crucial moment. Used in these ways, automation and scheduling are a precaution; a guarantee of things happening on time. But it isn’t an alternative to turning up “in person.”

Being in the moment

That now-famous Oreo tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl (15,861 retweets and 6,506 favorites) has been called one of the greatest marketing tweets of all time. But it would never have happened if the Oreo social media content team opted to schedule and automate the tweets in advance of the big game.

The “dunk-in-the-dark” tweet was successful because it showed the Oreo team was right there in the moment with the rest of the crowd, joking and reacting to the events on the field.

You can’t fake that kind of real-time authenticity.

The Oscars hashtag is also a regular target for brands looking for maximum social media content exposure. 2014’s “night of nights” for the film world saw a single star-studded selfie from Ellen DeGeneres nearly crash Twitter with 2.5 million retweets. (It was taken and shared on a Samsung phone, a major sponsor of the Oscars. Coincidence? You decide.) NASA also capitalized on the 10 Oscar nominations for Gravity — a film that threw space debris, satellites, George Clooney and eventually the entire planet at Sandra Bullock to try and stop her from ever making another romcom.

The U.S. space agency reacted enthusiastically as the movie won seven of the golden Ken dolls — not something you can predict and schedule in advance — while sharing incredible images and genuine space-age facts with the hashtag #RealGravity. The result? Thousands of retweets and plenty of enthusiastic engagement from an audience rediscovering its awe of space exploration.

Contrast those examples to the shellacking some brands received for their automated and unimaginative tweets during last year’s Oscars. Or to the hatred directed at brands for scheduling a flood of generic promotional tweets that filled people’s streams during the London Olympics opening ceremony.

Scheduling social media updates to an event hashtag is like leaflet-bombing a large party. Or worse, a major unfolding tragedy.

“I am not a number!”

Guy Kawasaki received plenty of criticism in 2013 for leaving his high-volume auto-tweeting spambot machine running as the Boston Marathon tragedy unfolded across social media.

Kawasaki, as well as some other high-profile marketers, prefers to view social media as an automated rolling newsfeed for his blogs and other marketing messages. He claims this is no different to CNN or many other media outlets with their ticker tapes of automated social media updates.

Of course, when people do turn to social media for real-time rolling news coverage, an automated marketing newsfeed looks an awful lot like an avalanche of spam. Even on a good day, this newsfeed approach just doesn’t feel like social media content marketing to me. It treats the audience as mere numbers on an analytics report, where churn doesn’t matter as long as the sheer weight of automation can keep volumes growing with an acceptable percentage of click-through.

And this is why I unfollow accounts that thank me with an automated DM and a plug for their new eBook. It tells me I’m part of an aggregated number on a spreadsheet, not an individual person worthy of engagement. It hopes I will enjoy their tweets when it will never give me the courtesy of reading mine.

Most of all, it appreciates my click of the “follow” button without ever appreciating me.

And that’s just not how this game is played.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly magazine.

Cover image via Bigstock.

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

  • Filip Galetic

    Kawasaki’s tweets are grating Boston marathon crisis or not. Just sayin’.

  • ronellsmith


    The automated direct messages have always been the bane of my Twitter experience. Now, however, my bar is set quite a bit lower, whereby I will decide to unfollow folks who share content primarily via IFTTT. I don’t mind the occasional tweet using IFTTT, but more than 15% and I’m thinking you shouldn’t be clogging up my feed.

    I seek to follow folks who read and share amazing content. If you’re not reading the content you’re sharing…well, we can’t be “friends.”


    • Kimota

      Completely agree. I don’t want to follow a keyword algorithm. And a stream that is just one tweet after another of “I just posted a photo to Instagram [link]” is not going to excite anyone. POST IT HERE THEN! Don’t make me go over there when I want to follow you here.

      Like I say, some automation is fine and probably even recommended to be effective. But too much – and I like your idea of 15% – and I start to get stabby.

  • Chuck Bartok

    Automating Social Media posts and effective Social Media cannot be in same strategy plan.
    It takes “so little time” to manage social personally, and if one does not have the time,, hire a professional

  • Scott

    It may or may not have involved automation but having this post arrive in my inbox on Sunday, Father’s Day, isn’t a great social media strategy either. I saw the headline and thought “why am I getting this on a Sunday?” then added this comment without reading much of the story. Not blaming the author as timing may have had more to do with CMI than with him. A good reminder to know the audience. I often unsubscribe from otherwise useful lists because they don’t let me opt-out on the weekend. It may be a 24X7 world but I don’t like an inbox full of list messages on the weekends.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hey Scott…totally get that. You may want to just get our weekly enewsletter instead of the daily. Some people like the daily, some the weekly.

    • Chuck Bartok

      I agree, Timing is everything.
      We have learned what days of week and time of day our audiences, in various niches, respond best.
      Actually, since most are active agriculturists, weekends work for some
      here i am posting on Father’s Day. Tsk, tsk

  • Dianna Huff

    I routinely unfollow people / accounts who don’t engage — even if they’re big egos, errr, big names.

  • Robert A. Velarde

    The only problem Jonathan with unfollowing an instant DM is that I do that manually which could seem automated but it is not. I like to respond to people quickly.

    • Kimota

      True, and I do look at the DMs to catch obvious clues of automation. Ie, generic wording, doesn’t include my name or reference anything that would indicate a real-time response. Like I say, people can usually tell which ones are automated and which are genuine responses.

  • Andrea Edwards

    I completely agree, so thanks for writing this piece. Another thing that annoys me is people sharing tweets immediately after they have been sent. I read everything I share (and add an opinion) so for me, this impacts the credibility of the sharer, Cheers

  • Daniel DMiddy Magrin

    What annoys me is when you respond to these automated messages and nobody answers back. Total lack of respect for the follower.

  • Jake Tipper
  • Party-sleuth Debbie

    This is a great post! I’m am increasingly frustrated by businesses scheduling self promoting posts and not engaging.

  • Steven Carlisle

    Great post. I also hate automated DMs and do feel that automation can be used for good.

  • esl67

    Great post! As one who does all the social media for two start-ups, I know the value of actual engagement! In fact, I’m already fretting about an upcoming vacation overseas, and how to actually BE on vacation, but not lose what we’ve built through real interaction!

    • Kimota

      Will others still be working in the office while you’re away? Set them an editorial calendar and allocate someone to monitor other activity or set up alerts. Certainly for small businesses I don’t think there’s any harm in letting followers know that you’re on holiday either. People understand that Mom and Pop businesses occasionally still have to be Mo and Pop. I think it’s when activity disappears without any notification of why that confusion happens.

      • esl67

        Thanks so much! I don’t really have anyone to delegate to, so I’m really considering letting folks know that our social media “chief” is on vacation, but still scheduling some things. I know I really need the break too, just to help restore my own creative juices!

  • Libby Cortez

    Love this perspective, Jonathan – and love your humor. But I, like some others in these comments, could use a few thoughts on how to create a real & human social brand on a budget (i.e., thoughts for those who can’t carve out much time or hire a social manager). I usually recommend that my clients schedule a portion of tweets to maintain a consistent frequency, then have someone pop on a couple times a day for some real-time engagement. Thoughts on this approach? Any other suggestions?

    • Kimota

      As mentioned in the article, I recommend using tools like Buffer to space out and supplement your real-time actions. But it’s all about moderation. Someone else in this thread suggested about 15% like this, which seems a reasonable figure to start with.

      Logging in a couple of times a day is usually enough for many small businesses – maybe with alerts set up for certain things so urgent replies can happen when necessary – such as a complaint or time-sensitive issue. Every business is different so you’ll know better how often that may happen.

      And as always with social media, it’s about cutting your cloth accordingly instead of trying to spin too many plates. Do one network well instead of doing many poorly due to lack of time or attention.

  • Maketta

    I agree! Automation is not the way to go. Someone told me that someone had scheduled an event in advance and it ended up being canceled. When they told me that I figured it wasn’t a good idea. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    I found this blog post on and Kiinged it!

  • Natalie Allen

    I have to say that I’ve sent some DM as a genuine thank you for following, but I’m not sure if the person who receive it treated them as any other automated DM… To be fair, maybe only 1 person answered. And I blame all this kind of promotional/automated DM’s, because if someone has an interest on you, I think the right and kind thing to do is to thank and build a relationship that goes further than a simple follow.

  • Kimberly Maska

    It is so important to use mindful marketing to connect with our customers. While it may be tempting to automate our content, there is no replacement for human connection and engagement.

    • Jade Davis

      That’s so true! And isn’t that the purpose of social media to begin with? To be SOCIAL? 🙂

  • Ann07

    Nice! This is indeed an interesting topic to talk about.

    Well, marketing automation has pros and cons. As far as I know, automation can grow leads. However, it costs a lot.

    I believe that many marketers tempt to automate their content, of course, for many reasons. But as what is said above, it is not a good replacement for customer interaction and engagement, though automation can enhance these two connections.

    Thanks for the shared knowledge! 🙂


    By the way, I found this post shared on

  • Warren Whitlock

    If you automatically follow/unfollow/ or do anything it might as well be a bot doing it. That’s why we say NO RULES. That real human using a bot is still a human and may be a great connection once they see that all automation is dumb.

    Automation is not evil. It’s dumb. Let it do the dumb things you need done so you can concentrate efforts on real human connections.

    That being said, the advice here is great. People tell me they unfollow on bot DM welcomes and I strongly advice that users turn them off. There’s no Twitter bot that has passed the Turing test.

  • Jitendra Padmashali

    As per my view one thing that is undeniable about social media is that it is a powerhouse. Other forms of media took much longer to gain the popularity that social media has gained in recent years.

  • Rick Cedrone

    This feature provides an interesting look at the downsides of automating
    social media content, but what about the positives? There’s a time and a place
    for social media automation, and one of the avenues where it can do good is
    throughout the partner channel. Like you said, certain messages have to
    go out at a certain time— there’s just no way around it. But, not every company
    has a marketing department that can manage social media alongside all of their
    other day-to-day activities – especially partner companies that rely on brands
    for marketing support, for example. This is where social media syndication
    solutions have emerged as a key way to address this issue. By allowing channel
    marketers to automatically publish content through their partners’ Twitter
    handles, marketers are still ensuring their collateral and messages are
    reaching the right audience at the right time, but they can now spend their
    time on more critical marketing efforts.

    — Rick Cedrone, Marketing Manager, TIE Kinetix

    • Kimota

      Absolutely there’s a time and a place. The key is not to rely on automation as a majority or total replacement for genuine real-time participation and sensitivity to what is happening in the time line right now when your post goes out. I liked the rule of thumb someone suggested elsewhere in the comments of approximately 15% automation. Yes it’s an arbitrary benchmark and different scenarios may mean this is higher or lower. But I’d rather aim low and adjust upwards if there’s a strong quality and/or customer argument to do so (not just business convenience/efficiency), rather than default high and end up winding it down in response to feedback. Ie; followers may expect certain customer support information at certain specific times – fast notification and regular updates of a hosting outage, for example – and this might mean some automation actually helps to meet, rather than frustrate, those expectations.

  • clemmie

    As Social media marketing is going to be more common in this era. Everyone wants popularity and fame in the world. So there are always positive ways to get popular and with this negative aspect cannot be neglect able. Black hat techniques are also using in a wide rage that will cause harmful for site and spam bots are very common.