Is Social Automation the Future of Social?

At the height of print publications, 50 million people read a newspaper every Sunday. Yesterday, more than 340 million people were on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

It’s a fairly safe bet that businesses can reach more people, faster, easier, and for less money, with social media than they ever could with print. Social has had a major impact on the way we communicate with consumers – and now a new conversation is emerging about social automation. By combining tool sets and applying a layer of automation (similar to marketing automation), will companies be able to derive even more value from social marketing? Are the promises of social automation simply a fad, or is automation the future of social marketing?

First off, by definition, “social” refers to interaction between living things. When the definition was formed, there was no thought of digital interactions or automations. Now, a “social interaction” can be between a company and their audience, and can be preset, scheduled, or even automated. I’m not saying all of this is bad – as a marketer, it would be hard to imagine trying to manage a steady social media presence without any type of post scheduling. However, the idea of automation can certainly make social media seem less social (and it’s for this very reason that Twitter will not allow you to automatically direct message anyone though their API).

For more clarity, let’s take a look at how people have used social up to this point. When adopting social media, many companies relied on the analog mass media techniques built into social tools. Consider the idea of “reach.” To increase your reach with mass media, you just spend more money, and this was the same for companies buying their fans and followers. This was not a fault of the businesses, but a lack of social channels having a defined outline of their revenue model. Businesses weren’t being punished for buying fans, but rather being rewarded with a larger “viral” reach.

Now social channels have a solid revenue model. They have taken the viral nature of social media away, and changed their algorithms so companies now need to pay for a targeted reach. Look at the effects of the recent changes to Facebook’s EdgeRank as an example. The strategy of having the fact that your fans Liked your page pop up on their feed to be displayed to all of their followers no longer exists.

This move is genius for both the social channels and the companies advertising on them. Yes, it means companies will have to pay for targeted placement, but it also takes the focus off of virality, and puts it on engagement. It levels the playing field for many marketers, since most companies have never, nor will ever have a “viral” campaign – and even if they did, they can’t know who saw it or value of its viral nature past a simple reach metric. It also allows a marketer to be more precise with their execution, knowing exactly who will see their ad, and allowing them to display more targeted content to a specific segment of people. It also still allows for some virility, but that is not the focus.

For the social platforms, it allows for a sustainable revenue model that is more attractive to marketers than sidebar advertising or pop-up banners. It also allows marketers to schedule and automate the publishing of these posts and in-feed advertisements.

When many people think “social automation,” they may think they will have the ability to tweet at a single person when they visit their website. Fat chance! That would instantly turn any social media platform over to the marketers, and take it away from the users of that channel. There would be an uproar from the users, and the social channel would quickly lose its audience and its value as both a social and marketing channel.

Instead, social automation is more about helping you simplify many of the time-consuming tasks associated with proper social marketing – such as listening, getting the correct person to respond to a social conversation, or even finding new people to engage with. I’m in full favor of these types of automations, and against any kind of automated conversations on social.

For instance, I’ve seen Hootsuite release a new tool into beta recently, which automatically suggests content for you to post, based on your followers. I think this can be helpful, but also very harmful at the same time. Having someone else choose your content does remove the manual task of creating content, but it also removes any honest connection with your audience. This is where I think social automation is going wrong.

The idea of social is to connect people and facilitate new conversations that may not have happened otherwise – not just to drive leads to a business. Social automation tools remove the manual legwork of finding new people to follow and help marketers to schedule out posts and manage their communications more efficiently, but I do not see these tools being a major breakthrough in the world of marketing in the way that marketing automation has been. The limitations of only being able to automate posts, and not to automate conversations between a company and a single person, won’t allow for this.

I see the future of social marketing growing brighter in the light of new advertising options such as in-feed advertising, and the partnerships between social channels and big data providers to help in the targeting of those ad placements. This is a massive breakthrough for marketers, and one which doesn’t require you to buy a new tool, but rather to understand your marketing options. As we push for new and more efficient ways to drive more demand for our businesses, let’s make sure we understand the value of honest and authentic communications. If marketers had the ability to automate single conversations with people via social channels, just like they can with marketing automation via email, it would kill the idea of social. Our social feeds (as if they aren’t already) would be full of sales copy, and not meaningful conversations.

If you are looking to social automation to be your next big thing, make sure you know what you want out of it, and what is possible. If you are looking for ways to increase efficiencies, then yes, social automation will help and possibly in a very large way; but if you are looking to remove the notion of having to actually be social with your audience, then you’re missing the idea of social automation.

So will social automation be the next big thing for social? In my opinion, the advances in advertising options from the social channels have a far greater chance at seriously increasing your bottom line then a scheduling tool will. But a combination of a social automation tool and a full understanding of its limitation, used in conjunction with the new advertising options from these social channels, is going to be your best approach. Good luck with your social marketing, and feel free to continue this conversation with me on Twitter at @msweezey.

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