Automate social media without losing the human touch

Humans and technology unite!

“Imagine taking a week off at the beach while your social media profiles hummed along without missing a beat.”

“Effortlessly publish content,” “maximize engagement” and “increase efficiency with suggested replies.”

Learn to “work easier and smarter by adding machine learning to the mix.”

Software companies are full of promises for social media managers and content marketers. These are just a few. Countless other platforms also say their technology will simplify your work, save you time and make life easier.

How?

The secret is automation.

What, exactly, does that mean? With social media automation, technology is leveraged to plan and schedule social media content and management. The software platforms exist because social media managers are desperate for tools to help them manage the 24/7 demands of social media while increasing their returns on investment. Used well, social media automation can save valuable time while allowing brands to connect more efficiently with their audiences.

It’s easy to find examples of social automation gone wrong,  resulting in corporate spam or embarrassing errors. When automation is mistakenly interpreted as the ability to “set it and forget it,” the risk for insensitive or unfortunately timed posts and subsequent apologies increases.

Considering the risks, is automation worth it? When it comes to digital and traditional marketing, the answer is “yes.” Automation is already showing promising results.

Why automate social media

Social media managers are busy. Thoughtful automation can help.

The biggest benefit of automation, according to Adestra’s Marketer vs. Machine report, is saving time: “Marketers say the biggest benefits of automation are saving time (74%), increased customer engagement (68%), more timely communications (58%), and increased opportunities, including up-selling (58%).”

Automation is good for marketers. But what about social media managers? What about the consumer?

“…[A]utomation can be a scary word for social media marketers. After all, many of us grew up in the field as community managers—as people tasked with creating, managing and growing relationships with our customers—which at first blush appears anathema to automation,” Chris Teso, CEO of the social customer platform Chirpify, wrote for AdWeek.

He suggests the correct automation tools can allow social media managers to do what they do best—connect with people and manage social relationships—but at scale, much like a company that uses automation to personalize mass emails.

“Currently, only 5 percent of a social media marketer’s job is automated,” Teso writes. “Yet automation has the power to drive greater customer engagement at scale while giving brand marketers important data insights to further refine their efforts.”

How to automate well

Don’t lose that human touch.

If the goal is engagement, automation can be used to enable human connection, not replace it.

“Social media automation should not be used for targeting people with whom you don’t have a relationship—it’s a way to communicate with the people you already know more efficiently,” a staffer at Hubspot wrote following an AT&T Twitter fail.

Or, as one writer for the automation and scheduling tool Buffer pleads, “Social media is not a rotisserie oven. Please don’t set it and forget it.”

Instead, social media managers must remain actively involved and aware of the automation processes they’ve selectively chosen to use. They must recognize that not all processes and tasks lend themselves to automation. Automation efforts should begin with the question, “does this benefit the user?”

With that in mind, automation may work best for:

Evergreen content. Scheduling posts from the archives adds value for the social media user by focusing on helpful content they may have missed.

Tracking hashtags and keywords.  Social listening and monitoring tools can track mentions and conversations when you’re offline, saving time and increasing the speed of replies over manual search and monitoring.

What shouldn’t be automated?

Customer service. Social media users don’t want rote replies and stuffy bots in response to their questions, comments and concerns.

Sensitive posts. Posts on difficult topics or recent news are best handled by a social media manager in real-time.

By keeping the user’s needs in mind and electively choosing which tasks and processes to automate, businesses can live up to some of the promises of automation software, resulting in faster replies, greater engagement and easier publishing for social media managers.

I’d love to know: Have you tried automating any of your social media? Can you tell—or do you care—when a brand or account is using automation technology?

(GIFs sourced via Giphy.com, with the first and third authored by qualcomm.tumblr.com, and second authored by canity.com)

How to crowdsource innovation

Why is that? Because traditional research and development is too slow to keep up with innovation in social media, users learn to hack existing platform features to create the new functionality they crave. 

There are a few good examples of this already in the not-so-lengthy history of social media.

Consider the hashtag.

The octothorpe symbol was suggested by an early Twitter user who wanted a way to sort and group messages around themes.

It’s now a basic feature that’s synonymous with the platform and a cultural phenomenon in its own right.

Through this user-driven innovation, everyday users are telling social networks what they want.

Case(s) in point: The creation of Facebook reactions,  that combination of six emojis that allow users to respond to posts, was the result of user requests. (Does anyone remember when Facebook only had a “like” button?) On Instagram right now, users are driving solutions to the platform’s ban on links in posts. New products are being created to allow bloggers to drive traffic. It’s the premise behind services like Linkin.bio, tap.bio and many others.

Our need for communication (and perhaps, more cynically, the potential to profit from that communication) drives us to find ways to share the information we want, regardless of the limitations of technology.

Businesses should pay attention even when those developments don’t appear, on the surface, to align with commercial priorities of the networks.  The Internet’s crowdsourced innovations might seem more appropriate for creating new emojis and funny names for boats rather than serious technologies. However, the many adaptations, hacks, workarounds, inputs, ideas and requests of engaged users can provide real insights and inspiration for future development.

Pierre Levy would describe it as “collective intelligence,” a phrase he coined to refer to the pooling of knowledge and information that’s possible when individuals collaborate in a networked society. Tapping into user adaptations effectively crowdsources innovation by harnessing this collective intelligence. We shouldn’t be surprised when the next great platform feature is announced and we find that it’s one already bootstrapped by creative users.

I’d love to know: What features do you want to see in your favorite social networks? Is there a functionality you crave? Is there a work-around you’ve embraced?

(Sources: GIFs via Giphy, Text graphics via Canva.)

The struggle between being yourself & branding yourself

Behind every influencer is a personal brand.

Consciously or not, these curated presentations of self provide the framework for content that catapults influencers into positions of popularity and influence.

Scholars of self-presentation theory have for years studied the ways we adapt presentations of ourselves for different audiences, both on and offline. Well before YouTube and #brandpartner campaigns, sociologist Erving Goffman conceptualized identity as performance. In his 1959 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses the metaphor of theater to explain social interactions. On the frontstage, we know we have an audience and act accordingly. But backstage? When no audience is present, we tend to let our guard down.

Today’s most successful influencers are prized for their ability to  navigate these two stages seamlessly. Most, in fact, are masters at inviting audience members backstage. The perceived intimacy of the setting usually reserved for family, friends and peers builds trust with the audience and, as a result, influence. 

In an article analyzing the success of famous YouTuber and beauty guru Bubz of  Bubzbeauty, Florencia Garcia-Rapp suggests that the question facing influencers is, “Are you authentic enough to deserve fame?” She describes the particular challenge of the YouTube beauty community, which seeks to reward authenticity despite the inherent visibility-seeking behavior of videotaping yourself applying mascara.

To earn not only the attention but affection of audiences, YouTubers must perform authenticity. In other words, successful influencers invite the audience backstage without making it appear to be part of the performance.

The source of “Meade’s Maxim” is disputed but often attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. Though comical, it’s worth considering: If everyone has a personal brand, is a personal brand worth anything? (Image made with Canva)

Where does that leave the rest of us? It’s rare to graduate college today without being told to curate a “personal brand.” It’s useful professional advice to clean up your social media presence or think about the presentation of your resume. But does that suffice? Articles warn that no one will work with you without a brand, and your personal brand is what gives you influence. It’s what makes you powerful, attractive and visible.

Where did this come from? The concept of the “personal brand” wasn’t popularized until the 1990s. Tom Peter’s classic article, The brand called you, shares tips to become the “CEO of Me Inc.” The more than 20-year-old article reads like an inspirational guide for today’s YouTube influencers:

The “important thing to remember about your personal visibility campaign is: it all matters. When you’re promoting brand You, everything you do — and everything you choose not to do — communicates the value and character of the brand.”

Peter’s take ultimately characterizes the packaging of self as more important than substance of self. By his view, those who hustle the hardest win. But in Garcia-Rapp’s analysis, the concept doesn’t hold true, at least not in the community she studied on YouTube. The pursuit of attention not backed by skill will be shunned by the community. She writes:

“The most important requirement to achieve legitimized fame seems to be expertise and talent, demonstrated by beauty related know-how during video tutorials. The implicit requirement of being an expert is – perhaps precisely due to its high relevance for instructional videos – tacit. It is as if it went ‘without saying’ that gurus need to be talented, creative and innovative to succeed, especially among such heavy competition. However, expertise still needs to be validated.”

Just ten years later, Fast Company, which published Peter’s original article, was rethinking the concept of “Me Inc.” It turns out everyday employees just didn’t care. Personal branding wasn’t for them. Those who did care about personal branding, the magazine asserted, were more likely to become part of a new class of wannabe “experts.” Only a few achieved real acclaim and success.

Peter’s advice inspired some and enraged others, but for most the personal branding revolution never came, according to Fast Company. (Image made with Canva)

So it goes in today’s competitive influencer climates. Inspiring influencers who prioritize personal brand development over the development of skills, talent and contributions to the community will never succeed in growing large audiences. In Goffman’s metaphor, it’s the equivalent of advertising your play before learning to sing or act.

Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” is perhaps only overstated in its assertion of accessibility. Today’s influencers are leveraging powerful, constructed personal brands. The presentation may suggest that success is available to anyone,  but fame, practically speaking, isn’t possible or desirable for everyone. Those who don’t actively seek to become influencers will find more success in the pursuit of being themselves than branding themselves. Influencers, in order to stay influencers, should do the same.

I’d love to know: Do you consider yourself to have a personal brand? Is it important to your everyday life and career, or a tool to becoming an influencer in your career or community?

Why high volume doesn’t equal high impact

Insights and recommendations for Augusta University cyber education programs on Twitter

The newly opened Georgia Cyber Center offers cybersecurity education, training and research on Augusta University’s Riverfront Campus in downtown Augusta, Georgia.

On July 10, 2018, Augusta University celebrated the grand opening of the Georgia Cyber Center in downtown Augusta, Georgia. The $100 million center represents an investment in the state and nation’s cybersecurity, bringing together education, training and research in a one-of-a-kind facility. The Georgia Cyber Center (GCC) is now home to Augusta University’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, where students studying cybersecurity have unprecedented access to hands-on education due to partnerships between industry, academia and government.

The opening of the GCC resulted in waves of news coverage and an enthusiastic community response. By tracking conversations on Twitter both before and after the event, we can gain insights into the substance of that response and better understand how the opening of the center is influencing conversations about cyber education opportunities provided by Augusta University.

Analysis

The keywords of Augusta University and its handle @AUG_University were monitored to gauge the “saturation” of Augusta University’s cyber news in conversations about the university. A total of 435 tweets were surveyed for the month of July 2018. Of those conversations, cybersecurity was present in 32 percent of conversations, occupying a larger share of voice than any other topic for the month.

Click to view larger. Chart made with Canva.

The majority of tweets mentioning both Augusta University and cybersecurity focused on coverage generated by industry bloggers or news outlets.  More often than not, the tweets served to amplify industry blog posts without additional comments or conversation. However,  additional themes were also present throughout the cyber-related tweets. Themes like cyber education, cyber jobs and the opening celebration of the center consistently received higher levels of engagement.

Click to view larger. Chart made with Canva.

All tweets mentioning both Augusta University and cybersecurity for the month of July were individually analyzed to determine overall sentiment. Of the 139 tweets surveyed, nearly 65 percent displayed a neutral sentiment toward the university’s growing cybersecurity presence. This number was heavily influenced by the number of blog headlines shared without additional commentary or context. No negative conversations were discovered for the month of July.

Click to view larger. Chart made with Canva.

To determine the strength of sentiment, the number of positive and negative words, exclamations and emojis were counted in each of the 139 cyber-related tweets and assigned positive (+1) or negative (-1) scores. A tweet with three positive words, for instance, received a positive sentiment score of +3. Some themes showed a much higher prevalence of positive words, resulting in stronger positive sentiment scores. Conversations about cyber education and the event received much stronger positive sentiment scores than news and blogs.

Click to view larger. Charts made with Canva.

Insights

Augusta University’s gained a positive reputation boost for its cyber education programs due to coverage and conversations about the opening of the GCC. The event resulted in high volumes of conversations about cybersecurity in Augusta, including Augusta University’s campus and programs. High volume, however, should not be assumed to equal high impact.

Influential tweets were present in smaller numbers, usually from engaged individuals excited to visit the center or share about opportunities for students. These handful of conversations, though less frequent, provide more meaningful insights. Compare the following tweets:

Both contribute to the conversation about Augusta University’s cyber initiatives. The first represents one of dozens of similar tweets from industry blogs sharing news of the GCC partnership. It includes a link to an article for more information, including key quotes from the university’s president and founding dean of the cyber school. It has nearly 20 times the followers as the second account.

However, the first tweet also lacks any public engagement. The second has multiple retweets and likes from across the community and university. With a dark and slightly blurry cell phone photo, it’s able to capture authentic excitement about the event and its impact on higher education in a way the first tweet hasn’t.

Recommendations

Augusta University is already successfully pursing earned media that results in social posts about important initiatives like cyber education. This reliably produces a high volume of tweets but not necessarily true conversations. Since reporters and industry bloggers are already sharing this coverage, Augusta University should consider strategies to increase engagement around these tweets. These could include replying to and retweeting coverage or inviting reporters and bloggers to visit the center in person via Twitter.

The overwhelmingly positive tweets about cyber education and the GCC campus suggest possibilities for future content. Augusta University should consider additional content including photos, videos and tours of the facility and the new educational opportunities provided there. A emphasis on capturing the genuine excitement of students, faculty and community members would elevate the content and would likely result in high levels of engagement.

Augusta University should also work to make positive conversations about its cyber education programs as accessible as possible. While a hashtag #AUGCyber is occasionally used for this purpose, it was only used nine times in the month of July and only twice by the university’s handle @AUG_University.

Click to view larger. Chart made with Canva.

Choosing to actively promote the #AUGCyber hashtag for Augusta’s cyber education programs could connect interested individuals not only to Augusta University cyber education programs but also like-minded individuals advocating for cybersecurity growth in Augusta and across Georgia. It could be deployed on digital display boards at the center, on student recruitment materials, in all relevant tweets and with potential giveaways to further encourage organic, positive conversations about cybersecurity and Augusta University.

Why use social networks that fail us?

I love the word “affordances.”

If you haven’t heard it before, and I hadn’t too long ago, it’s a made-up word that perfectly summarizes all of the complementary transactions between individuals and their environment. While the term is borrowed from psychology, those of us working in digital and social media today most likely know its truth intuitively. Consciously or not, we use social media because we get something out of it. The “we” in this case applies both to individual users and the brands that have staked their claim all over our Instagram feeds.

The “businessification” of social mediaanother made-up word whose source is unclear, but is often used to decry the commodification of everything from medicine and technology to politics and sports—is rapidly changing the opportunities and interactions our social networks afford. This issue bubbles to the top of our societal consciousness and debate every time lapses in privacy and the misuse of data remind us of the real costs of participating in social media. Breaches of both data and trust aren’t just making increasingly frequent headlines. They’re triggering societal backlash, waves of new privacy research, and some serious navel gazing on our social media habits.  Take a look:

Quote: My well-being has improved tenfold. My mind has never been so clear. I feel like I'm learning how to properly communicate in a world without social media. I've been given more time with my thoughts." Emma Fierberg on quitting social media
Source: Emma Fierberg, a writer at Business Insider who has definitely had enough

It raises the question: Why do we do this to ourselves? What does social media afford?

Wait. Whose best interest? 

Social media scholars suggest that our social networks serve to maintain or widen relationships. They do this by supporting the social networks we already have while helping create new networks, often with strangers who share our interests or views.

We crave the connection, so much so that we at times act against our logical “best” interests by joining platforms that fail to protect us, following accounts that stroke our anxiety, or giving in to too many hours of scrolling in a day. There’s a well-documented disconnect between our desires to protect our privacy and our actual behavior on social media.

Businesses aren’t exempt. (While the earliest social networks may have connected friends, it wasn’t long before brands joined as users. Sites like Ryze.com helped users leverage business connections and music promoters quickly turned to MySpace to market bands.) Today, CMOs report that their businesses are spending more of their marketing dollars on social media than ever. But should they? In the Harvard Business Review, author and professor Douglas Holt questions the effectiveness of popular social media marketing strategies, going so far as to call most of the content businesses produce “brand spam.” He writes:

“As a central feature of their digital strategy, companies made huge bets on what is often called branded content. The thinking went like this: Social media would allow your company to leapfrog traditional media and forge relationships directly with customers. If you told them great stories and connected with them in real time, your brand would become a hub for a community of consumers. Businesses have invested billions pursuing this vision. Yet few brands have generated meaningful consumer interest online. In fact, social media seems to have made brands less significant.”

Today on social networks, both brands and users are losing.

Winners & Losers 

Quote: “The primary problem with today’s social networks is that they’re already too big, and are trapped inside a market-based system that forces them to keep growing. Facebook can’t stop monetizing our personal data for the same reason that Starbucks can’t stop selling coffee — it’s the heart of the enterprise.”
Source: Kevin Roose for The New York Times

So, who’s winning? A few years ago, the answer might have been more clear. The big platforms were running the show. But in recent months, the CEOs of prominent social media companies have been called to testify to Congress to answer for the abuse of their networks. There have been reports of a “global slowdown” in Facebook user growth. Questionable content moderation decisions have become front-page news. It’s difficult to predict the long-term impact to the business model, let alone ripple effects for consumers. But, certainly, the landscape has changed.

As social media platforms evolve, we must remember what we gain and at what cost. We must remember: Social networks afford transactions. It’s true for users, brands and platforms alike. As users we must protect ourselves while making transactions of time, attention, affection and more with friends, brands, and the platforms that collect our data. We must check privacy settings, read terms of service, and reevaluate what we share and who we follow. We must continue challenging platforms when they fail to act in the best interests of users, whether it’s lapses in privacy, errors of moderation or any number of problems that plague social networks.

Brands, too, should rethink their role by focusing on the needs of the users, optimizing for people more than platforms. Holt writes:

“The big platforms—the Facebooks and YouTubes and Instagrams—seem to call the shots, while the vast majority of brands are cultural mutes, despite investing billions. Companies need to shift their focus away from the platforms themselves and toward the real locus of digital power—crowdcultures. They are creating more opportunities than ever for brands.”

These “crowdcultures”—a third made-up word, for those keeping track—are the “innovators of culture” who drive online communities and, perhaps, the reason we have social media in the first place. They’re creators of the relentless tide of information and activity that make social media popular and profitable. They’re quick to vote with their time and attention, abandoning networks that no longer serve them. These digital crowds have high expectations for networks, fellow users and the brands that fill their feeds, which are too often letting them down.

A Way Forward

It’s easy to assume that greed or the overwhelming influence and power of select networks have led us here. They certainly play their part, but it’s possible that something far less sinister is in play.

A newspaper editor I once worked for loved to quote variations of Hanlon’s razor: “Never assume malice when simple incompetence will do!” (This was almost always in reference to problems in local government.) The aphorism exists for a reason. In navigating the endless possibilities (i.e. affordances) introduced by social networks, the CEOs and engineers of major platforms haven’t quite figured it out yet. Our global social media experiment is still in its infancy.

Tarleton Gillespie, researcher and author of Custodians of the Internet, cites in his book a conversation with a policy manager at Flickr who was exasperated with engineers for failing to imagine how their tools might be misused: “There have been so many different times that you think, ‘Haven’t you guys thought about how people are going to abuse this?”

For all of the predictive algorithms and tests and principles of user-centered design that guide platform development and management, the answer might as well be “no.” Platforms owe users sincere, ongoing efforts to remedy systemic and structural challenges, but no company will be able to preempt all of the harmful possibilities. It’s ultimately how they respond to errors and abuse that will be key to retaining users and allowing individual networks to evolve into sustainable businesses, useful tools and true cultural phenomena.

The present failings of platforms serve to propel this conversation forward. If we can learn from our mistakes and hold ourselves and each other accountable, we’ll find a much more desirable set of affordances between social networks, brands and users. The imperfect platforms and systems we use today are paving the way for future solutions, including better software, greater expectations for transparency, legislation and consumer protections, and a new generation of informed users.

I’d love to know: How do you feel about using imperfect platforms? Are you deterred by the very public challenges platforms have faced moderating their communities or protecting user data? What level of transparency do you expect from the social networks you use?