Twitter Automation: A Marketer’s Dream Or The Biggest Fail Whale Of All?

Twitter Automation: A Marketer’s Dream Or The Biggest Fail Whale Of All?
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If you’ve been hanging around Twitter for a while and have noticed the occasional spurt of Q1s and A4s rolling through your Twitter stream, then you’ve stumbled on one of the myriad Twitter chats that make Twitter a fun, often educational and even inspirational community to be a part of.

Tuesday’s at 9PM EST is home to #getrealchat, hosted by the enthusiastic and inspiring Pam Moore and it’s a great place to get real about your social presence and marketing.

During this week’s chat a question came up about whether it’s a good idea to automate following, unfollowing, messaging and other Twitter “engagement”.

I mention this because the question has been following me around for a while and it gets debated, tested and debated again right in my own office. You may have read one of Ralph’s posts about his experience with auto direct-messaging.

Maybe you’ve even tried automating your own Twitter processes – I won’t call it engagement because automating everything defies the very idea of engagement.

But the reality is that we marketers and business people are busy. Some days we don’t have five minutes let alone several hours to find, build, nurture and maintain online relationships.

So I wondered: is buying a few followers really that bad?

Are auto DMs (direct messages) the kiss of social death?

Is there a place for automation or does social marketing not only imply but demand our attention?

As you might have guessed, I have an opinion. But better than that, I have experience – on both sides of the social table as a marketer and a consumer – to back it up.

The Siren Call Of Social Marketing

Smart business people know that structure is essential.

Without a process, we’re setting ourselves up for failure, and worse, for wasting our time and money.

We survive by having processes, automating and streamlining, and finding ways to do more with less and in less time.

Then along comes social media and it’s like a hungry baby. It nags, it cries, it wants to be coddled and fed. All. The. Time.

We brought it into this world so we nurture it and jump at its every wail. We spoil it to death. It gets more demanding and wants more of our time. We skip lunch and sleep with our smart phones so we can be on alert whenever it calls. Sure, there are vast rewards, but there are tremendous costs to our time and energy, too.

At some point, exhausted and drained, we hire a babysitter. That may be in the form of outsourcing or automation but it gives us room to breathe so we can actually run our businesses.

Then along comes the marketing know-it-all who tells us automation is bad and we’re dooming ourselves to 1992 and we’d better get out there and engage.

And we sigh.

If you’re like me, you bury your head in a bucket of Ben & Jerry’s.

No doubt social media has presented us with both an opportunity and a challenge.

How do you build and engage a social community, stay sane and run a business at the same time?

Automation Option 1: The Auto DM

Few things are as polarizing as the concept of the auto reply. Love it or hate it, it’s probably not going away so the real question is: should you use it?

The Good

The nice thing about auto replying to new followers is that you have that split second of their initial attention to make an impression and get their interest.

If you’re clever, funny, or if you have a genuinely awesome offer, it’s as simple as composing that initial tweet and setting it up to send to each new follower.

Some people argue that you should respond to new Twitter followers individually. I say that those people don’t have many followers.

If you get five or ten new followers a day, knock yourself out and engage each one uniquely and individually. But if you get dozens or hundreds – it’s time to make some value judgments about the best use of your time.

Other people argue that if you can’t engage personally then don’t engage at all. But is it worth losing an opportunity because you weren’t available the split second that social baby wailed?

Auto DMs are a little like sending the Butler to answer the door. It may not catalyze a brilliant conversation but at least you’re not leaving your guests out on the porch.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the DM has been so abused as to be mostly ignored or considered spam.

Generic and uninviting messages like “Thanks for following me” and the perplexing “You’re awesome!” followed by suspect URLs have made the DM all but meaningless.

Some people feel so strongly about it that they unfollow anyone who auto DMs them. That’s a little like someone hitting your Butler in the face with a shovel just for answering the doorbell.

If you automate your new follower messages, you may come across as a scammer, spammer or just lazy and lose people’s trust before you’ve had a chance to earn it.

The Reality

I’ve tried auto messaging new followers. I’ve tried engaging them individually. I’ve tried ignoring them until such time as they tweeted something worth paying attention to.

Personally, I fall into the “no auto DM” camp. I’ve found that some people do engage with them but on the whole they don’t do much – at least that I can measure, and who knows what damage they may be doing considering how many people despise them?

Most DMs that I receive get deleted immediately. They’re probably well-meaning, legitimate companies and people but I treat them as ads and they get filtered from my consciousness to leave room in my brain for more important things.

When it comes to the question of whether or not YOU should use them – think carefully.

If you choose to auto DM, craft your message as an ad so it isn’t spammy and deletable.

It’s probably not the best use of your time to ask people to Like your Facebook page. For starters, you’re on Twitter so be on Twitter. Plus new followers don’t even know you yet. That’s a little like your Butler inviting your guests to meet him at the bar afterwards.

Be clever. Be funny. Be authentic. Make an offer.

Don’t ask anyone to do anything – visit your site, vote for your YouTube video.

And measure.

See how auto DMs work for you and how they make you feel. For me, they weren’t a big fail but they made me feel kind of creepy so I ended up being uncomfortable with them regardless.

A better option: check out the Twitter page of a handful of new followers (if you get tons, it’s not practical to engage every one). Find an interesting tweet and respond to that. It’s less drain on your time than individual engagement but more meaningful than pure automation.

Automation Option 2: Scheduling Tweets

An entire industry has evolved around giving people the ability to schedule tweets and posts to other social channels. The question is not so much should you use scheduling tools but how.

The Good

You know that to-do list you have on your desk? And the six phone calls you have to make? And fourteen clients and nine projects and two hundred emails..?

You might have some trouble attending to those – and keeping your head out of a bucket of ice cream – if you have to stop and feed the wailing social baby every few minutes or hours.

Scheduling has become more of a necessity than an option. It lets you actually maintain a social presence without spending every waking moment thinking about your social presence.

We all know that the true kiss of death for social marketing is inactivity. Post once every three days to Twitter when you can grab a second and you’re probably doing more harm to your professional image than good.

People who succeed with Twitter marketing post often and consistently.

Unlike Facebook where you can easily overwhelm someone’s news feed with updates, Twitter moves quickly. If you’re not posting often you’re probably missing the majority of your audience. Not only do scheduling tools let you plan your tweets around a theme or campaign, but they let you keep up that breakneck consistency without totally losing your mind.

Think of it like having your Butler be the one running around with the hors d’oeuvre tray while you oversee the party.

The Bad

Filling up your social stream can give you a false sense of actually being social. Just because you curate some great content and share some super quotes doesn’t mean you’re engaging anyone. It’s kind of like leaving the party and taking a bath because you figure the Butler has it under control.

Some companies and people seem to forget that there’s a party going on. People are trying to talk to them and they’re off somewhere with their headphones on, in a world of their own, missing out on the conversation and probably annoying a few people.

Few things are as irritating to a customer as being ignored and social marketing has given them a whole new venting opportunity.

Irritated customers are only one tweet away from becoming your nightmare.

The other downside to scheduling is that you aren’t necessarily initiating conversations. You have to be present if you want to listen to what people are saying, learn from it and build relationships through real engagement.

The Reality

I’m a big scheduler. From social posts to my daily calendar, I need a clear plan or nothing gets done.

Unless social marketing is your sole responsibility, you have to schedule at least some of your posts or either your account will wither and die or I’ll be fighting you for the last container of Cheesecake Brownie.

I set aside time every day to find and post content that I think will be interesting or helpful to my audience.

But

I also set aside time every day to get on Twitter, see what people are saying, jump into conversations spontaneously, retweet things that pop up and stay on top of trends.

If you want to be successful on Twitter, you really have to do both.

And you must… must… must… respond to people who talk to you. If someone addresses you directly and you don’t answer, you might as well close your Twitter account right now.

Even if someone mentions or retweets you, a simple thank you or some kind of acknowledgement will go a long way.

Do you know what I do with people who I’ve reached out to a few times and gotten a big fat {    }? Unfollow. I have no room in my busy brain for their self-serving messages.

Neither do your customers.

Schedule to your heart’s content but keep half an eyeball on the real-time conversation so you don’t miss out. Trust me, your Butler isn’t that entertaining.

Automation Option 3: Following and Unfollowing

There are tools that let you automatically follow people based on certain criteria, automatically follow those who follow you and automatically unfollow people based on their activity (or lack of it) and when they unfollow you. Good idea or recipe for disaster?

The Good

If you want to build a following fast, you can set up a program to run in the background and collect people who fit certain criteria or have certain keywords in their profiles. You automatically follow them, they automatically follow you, your numbers grow into the tens of thousands and you can sit back and start scheduling your posts.

If someone unfollows you, you can do the same without spending time filtering and processing it manually. After all, if someone stops following you, they’re probably never going to engage with you so unless their tweets are the most brilliant and entertaining things you’ve ever read, you don’t need them taking up your valuable brain space.

And there’s a certain benefit to having the numbers. The more people you reach, the more opportunity you have to meet people, connect and even sell.

Especially if you’re just getting started, automating the follow/follow back process can help you build that coveted social proof. Nobody wants to be the only one at a party. But once you draw a crowd, suddenly everyone else is interested.

It’s a little like planning your party, inviting the ten people you know and then sending your Butler out into the neighborhood to invite everyone else in.

The Bad

On the down side, it’s a little like planning your party, inviting the ten people you know and then sending your Butler out into the neighborhood to invite everyone else in… who the heck are all these people? And why did he invite that guy with the purple hair?

When you automate following, you never know who you’re going to get. They could be nice people. They could be total scumbags. They could be bots that will inundate your stream with hair loss remedies and Justin Bieber updates.

Or, they could just be… irrelevant. Social marketing, like any other marketing, requires that you engage with your target audience. If you leave finding that audience up to your Butler, you have no way of knowing how qualified those people are to be your audience.

Social proof is about numbers. Sometimes it’s about ego. It’s not about quality or relevance.

In the end, you don’t really want numbers – you want engaged people. And consider the fact that having big numbers can backfire. How good will it look if you have 10,000 followers but zero mentions and retweets, because none of them fit your demographic?

The Reality

If you really want that social proof then give it a shot – but slowly, carefully and only at first. Once you’ve got a few followers and you don’t look like the neighborhood loser anymore, you’re better off going organic. I can’t tell you not to do it at all because I’ve tried it, too. But I can tell you that I quit after a couple of weeks because I got terrible results.

I set up automation to follow people with specific keywords in their profile and that matched other specific criteria. But you know what? People will say anything in their profiles. How many times have you seen “social media specialist” in someone’s profile and nothing but “get free followers!” in their Twitter stream?

It’s also pretty likely that you’ll end up with a lot of bots because bots do everything automatically and you’re basically throwing in with their lot when you do it, too. It doesn’t do anything for your marketing and it doesn’t do anything for your reputation to be following a lot of scammy spammy sometimes ethically questionable accounts.

So if you are going to try it, be sure that you’re monitoring your results or you’ll just end up with a bunch of bots and unintelligible conversation.

A better option? Set aside some time for real market research and find people who look like they’d be a good fit for you and your goals. When people follow you, spend a few seconds scanning their Twitter stream and choosing whether to follow back.

This doesn’t have to be gruesome and time consuming. A half an hour a day or an hour a week can help you build a much more targeted, effective following.

Automation: The Verdict

Marketing is about finding a very specific audience, generating interest, building trust and loyalty and maintaining relationships. You can’t buy or automate that. You build it, with time and with effort.

There are tools that will help you with your process and time management, but only your attention and presence will actually advance your business.

Automation has its place. But it doesn’t replace real engagement. Use your tools wisely and remember that there’s “social” in social marketing. Find the balance and you’ll find the path to your success. After all, the Butler isn’t the one your guests came to see!

Do you disagree with anything I’ve said? Have any strong opinions or Twitter pet peeves? Tell me!

And join the #getrealchat on Tuesdays. It’s a great place to hear what real people think and what real people do when it comes to the practical demands of marketing.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera