As an army of marketers preach the virtues of authenticity and transparency, Paul Madden, aka @seoidiot, is an anomaly.
The owner of Crea8 New Media, based in Lancashire, U.K., is transparent about his not-so-transparent social media tactics. That is, he openly discusses how he and his team of eight colleagues create Twitter accounts with two goals: securing new followers and getting them to visit Web sites that show clients in a positive light. Only thing is, Madden declines to identify those Twitter account names and those clients.
This sure feels spammy.
Yet Madden makes no apologies for his line of work. "If I wasn't doing it, someone else would," he said in an interview.
I caught up with Madden after he was speaking on the panel, "Automating Twitter," at Incisive Media's SES New York this week. (ClickZ and SES are both part of Incisive Media.) And he took the time to answer my follow-up questions during an SES social hour coincidentally organized around the theme, "White Hat/Black Hat," where attendees were given one free drink plus their choice of a white or black cowboy hat. Madden had the latter.
Asked what he thinks about the labels "white hat" and "black hat" in social media, he said he looks at it from another approach. "There's what works and what doesn't work," he replied.
So here's how Madden describes the inner workings of his social media venture:
He creates a "fake person" account on Twitter, uploads an avatar for the account's photo, and begins to follow other people on Twitter.
Once the account draws a following, Madden and his team send out automated tweets to followers. Some tweets are mundane - "taking Bruno out for a walk" or "have never seen a bad Matt Damon film." Some tweets - written as questions - are intended to get a follower to "engage" with the account by sending a reply.
To get followers, Madden said the "follow-unfollow game still works." That means he'll follow other accounts in hopes they reciprocate and follow the fake account. If that fake account has less than 2,000 followers, Twitter will not permit it to follow more than 2,000 others. So, Madden will then start unfollowing some of the fake account's followers.
Madden said his firm sometimes reuses portions of other people's tweets. "Be careful doing this," he warned. "We don't wholesale copy other tweets."
For Madden, the ultimate response: getting a follower to click on a URL in a tweet. And that URL links to a blog post or Web site that casts his client in a positive light.
Madden says he takes steps to protect his clients and avoid the appearance of being spammy. Those measures include:
Madden walks a fine line. He doesn't appear to be breaking any laws, but is he violating Twitter rules and social media etiquette? Twitter states it prohibits people from using the service to spam others. To determine if an account is engaged in spam, Twitter says it looks at whether there's "aggressive follower churn," or if someone repeatedly posts other users' tweets as their own, and other factors.
Do's and Don'ts of Twitter Automation
Still, marketers contend that automation tools can be valuable to help track, analyze, and build relationships - if used properly. Or they can make a brand look unprofessional or worse.
Fake accounts, like those described by Madden, "are all well and good if you don't get called out. But I can see a brand getting caught up in a major snafu," said Hollis Thomases, author of the book, " Twitter Marketing: An Hour a Day," and a ClickZ columnist. "If something happens, a brand will be tarnished," she said.
Thomases and Tracy Falke, social media specialist at Freestyle Interactive in the U.K., emphasized that businesses that use Twitter automation tools must still ensure that people oversee the tools and use them to participate in the social channel.
"You can set up automation with intelligence - human intelligence," said Falke. "Without clever intelligent human strategy, what happens if there is a crisis and the only thing listening is a bot?"
Referring to a bot in need of human attention, Falke cited @toyotabzz. The account is associated with Social Approach, a company whose Web site says it offers "a powerful technology platform that discovers, aggregates and monetizes social content and makes it available to eBusinesses."
According to Falke, the account is using a "clever bot that picked up my name and sent geo-targeted tweets" and finance pitches. But ToyotaBzz's profile photo features a child. "That's not appropriate," Falke said.
Guidelines advanced by Falke and Thomases include:
Social Science in a Twitter Era
While pushing social media marketing approaches to its limits, Madden is also somewhat of a social scientist, testing and observing what's happening in social channels. For instance, he said his team set up a Twitter account and followed 1,000 random people in the tech sector. Even though the account bio read, "Please don't follow me. I am a bot," 667 of those 1,000 people followed the fake account. "That shows that automation is endemic," Madden concluded.
Or as @moon tweeted during Madden's discussion: "Listening to all these bot jockeys automating Twitter and Facebook accounts leaves me to conclude Social Media is mostly Zombies."
And that doesn't feel very social.
You can follow or unfollow Anna Maria @annamariavirzi.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
March 19, 2014