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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.