Companies that use automated models as their primary approach to social media (publishing, responding, engaging) risk these outcomes: Best case, they leave themselves exposed to defeat by competitors, and worst case, they irreparably damage their brands. Social media is about dialogue and relationships among people by definition — and that’s what consumers expect it to be.
Jeremiah (@jowyang) raises the issue of how brands will scale publishing, responding to, and engaging with the ever-increasing mass of user content coming at them. Based on metrics reported directly by Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and Tumbler — and assuming these represent 60% of the worldwide market — we estimate that user posts presently number over 50 billion/month and continue to grow exponentially. The automated technology companies Jeremiah lists are trying to solve this problem via algorithms that automate the process and eliminate the human role. (Disclosure: LiveWorld is a client of Jeremiah’s firm Altimeter Group, and our business focus is scaling social media for Fortune 500 brands by using a combination of technology and human management of user content. That is, utilizing technology to enable humans to review, respond, and otherwise engage on social media at very high scale volume, high-quality, cost effective rates. We manage over 4,000 Facebook, Twitter and community site venues.)
No doubt many more automated technologies will come to market; some will be effective at automating the distribution of reference content. But to suggest as does Head of Lettuce CEO, Anthony Francis, that using such tools will make Twitter and Facebook no less social is to miss the point and underlying dynamic of social media. Anthony makes a good case that if a customer’s problem is solved, he’s happy — whether automation or a human being solves it. In this respect, automated systems may well have a place within the channel, just as FAQs do on any website; they may be effective at using the channel for the tailoring of static content distribution — a more efficient way for the brand and consumer to work through static content experiences. Frankly, however, so much of marketing today in social media is just that — simply interactive content marketing distributed through social channels, that the social experience is not optimal anyway. So, in that sense, automated tools might make this sub-optimal marketing more efficient.
However, automated models aren’t effective for true social media marketing because they don’t actually solve the main need or address the main reasons people participate; they don’t address true social. They don’t conform to the channel, as good marketing must do. They don’t build the relationship foundation needed for dealing with the unexpected social media crisis. And most of all, rather than encourage pro-active social exchange, they lead brands to be anti-social.
The whole point of social media — the customer expectation, the reasons for its mass volume success, the way it works, and the opportunity for brands — is to be truly social, meaning human-to-human dialogue and relationship building. Automated models, no matter how good they are, do not personalize and socialize a brand through human interaction. And it’s not just a matter of automated technologies versus human interactions; the human interactions need to be personal and social as well. Most marketing today in social media fails the true social test. It’s just interactive content that may yield impulse response and even high Like metrics, but does not create sustainable customer engagement. The true social test: Are the customers talking to each other? Is the brand fostering social behavior and relationships among its customers? And is the brand becoming a part of that social behavior, dialogue, and relationships?
At LiveWorld, we use technology extensively, including some automation, but always to foster more human review and interaction, not to replace it. The problem with automated tools, whether as simple as automated scheduling of posting across social channels, or as extensive as the publishing and response systems Jeremiah describes, is that they further de-socialize and de-personalize the user experience by removing the human element, which runs contrary to customer usage patterns and expectations in social media.
Social media at its core is about dialogue that enables people to form and benefit from a range of relationships — mostly with each other, and if a brand executes well, with the brand too. The primary benefits people realize in social are relationship-based: self-expression/sharing themselves, friends, and attention.
A very large consumer brand’s core brand identity has a deeper cultural footprint than its competitors. This brand’s history is based in conversations with customers and caring about their everyday lifestyles. The competitors are less social, more focused on product information delivery. By taking a constantly-changing personal approach, and shifting its content to be more social about the customers’ lives and experiences, this company achieved over a 60% increase in its Facebook organic engagement, and improved its Twitter share of voice from about 20% to about 45%. One customer actually posted that the personalized, socialized experience on the brand’s Facebook Page — compared to the impersonal experience of a competitor’s Page — motivated her to come back to the brand’s stores. When a brand deeply understands the customer’s story and respectfully engages with the customer around it, the experience makes a distinct impression.
Classic example: The 2004 Dove Campaign For Real Beauty
Heralded as a watershed for social media as a marketing form, the Dove program worked because women around the world flocked to the venue to tell each other their personal stories around body image and self-esteem. The Dove brand, having fostered these self-expressive connections that promoted bonding and attention, was rewarded with incredible word of mouth awareness, brand loyalty, and a 51% increase in sales. As we managed the rollout and growth of this program, the brand content and support of consumer response was very fluid, constantly changing with learning the sensitivities, interests, and personal viewpoints of the women. An automated schedule and adjustment of brand posts and responses would have missed the entire dynamic of the program, which was to foster deep emotional resonance over a common issue. Few social media programs today live up to this example because they are about delivering content, not a personal experience. Automation drives brands more to content delivery and away from building such human bonds.
Marketing must conform to the channel and meet customer expectations
I’m not suggesting Jeremiah is wrong in his hypothesis that some brands will go down the path of automation. Indeed automated models may be more effective than static FAQs. But they won’t be an effective use of the channel. Effective marketing takes the form of its channel and meets or exceeds customer expectations.
TV is a one-way rich media form that entertains and informs — with the greatest impact usually being event-oriented. Commercials that do the same thing do well there. Search engines are venues that allow users to look for pointers to other places on the web. Banners and adwords take that same form and do well on search engines.
Marketing in social media must take on social characteristics, consistent with consumer behavior and expectation around dialogue and relationships: sharing/expressing oneself, making friends, and get/giving attention. This entails fostering environments in which people get to talk to each other and form relationships. Presenting the brand in personable social way, and fluidly interacting with consumers in ways that are situation specific. We view social media as a party; the most successful brands foster a party consistent with their customer’s expectations, as well as the brand’s positioning and values.
Taking it a bit further, if we all arrived at a party that was in an empty warehouse with no music, decorations, refreshments, or interesting conversation, it would be pretty boring. We wouldn’t know what to do, and our view of the host (the brand) would be low; we likely wouldn’t want to attend any more of this brand’s parties. By association, we wouldn’t want much of anything more to do with this brand, including buying its products. And we’d tell other people how we felt. On the other hand, if we arrived at the party and there was country music playing, sawdust on the floor, red and white checkered tablecloths, waiters in cowboy hats serving beer, and lots of interesting people to dance with and have interesting conversations with, we’d think, “Gee this is a great party, what a great brand, I can’t wait to tell my friends and come back again.” And by association we want to hear more about this brand and to buy more of its products.
Of course not all brands have the cultural identity of a country music party. And that’s the point; some better fit a formal party with Champaign glasses, waiters in tuxedos, and string quartets. Each brand is different, and in social media the brand’s party is constantly evolving with the customers as a central driver.
Now imagine a party that’s fully automated. Let’s assume it’s really advanced technology, as one commentator wrote, so much so that people like to follow this party for the information it provides. But does anyone really want to stick around this party? Where are the music, the waiters, the decorations, the interesting host, and most importantly, the other people at the party that I want to interact with? I suppose one day those other attendees can be automated too. After all, there are plenty of games online with automated players. But that’s not want consumers want. They want to share/express themselves with other people, they want friends, and they want attention from other people. They expect brands to be part of this, to foster it, and to participate as personal, sociable people. The best brands actually do this by bringing individuals in their company forward in social media as identified brand agents, which then foster consumers as brand advocates. Anybody think a consumer is going to be influenced by an automated brand advocate bot as much as by a real live person with whom they have a conversation (online or off)?
Jeremiah laments that phone call centers have gone automated and that seems to be accepted by consumers. Banks have gone to ATMs and consumers have accepted that. We believe the associated experiences in these examples underscore our position. One of our global brand clients has told us that the less personal call centers become, whether remote/offshore or automated, the more brand damage they incur. ATMs are an interesting example, but quite different from the social media dynamic we’re discussing. ATMs provide a distinct transactional benefit: convenient cash anywhere often where I couldn’t get it before. They also offer the convenience of not waiting in line (and the bank reducing its cost). This benefit may translate to social, in that getting a fact or a resolution quickly without having to wait may benefit a user. Even so, the brand in this situation, like the bank with ATMs, is losing the opportunity for human interaction, engagement, personalization, socialization, and loyalty. Would anyone disagree that over the last 30 years even as banks became less personal, their brand image has deteriorated?
You don’t make friends in a crisis
Social media has brought marketing to a customer-driven model. For the most part, this development gives us the opportunity to better understand, serve, respond to, and engage customers. Good news travels fast; so does bad news. Problems happen, and social media crises inevitably ensue. They can’t be avoided, but they can be managed. The best absolute practices are to have a plan in place in advance and, as well described by Chris Savage, build a community of brand advocates and loyalists. To build such advocates, a company must foster a social cultural model that attracts and engages customers in dialogue, creating relationships and bringing them into the brand fold. Nobody wants to have a relationship or be an advocate for an automated process or robot. Brands that primarily pursue automated social media models miss the opportunity to create loyal brand advocates. When the social media crisis happens, automated systems won’t be able to address the unhappy constituents, and likely will alienate them even more. There won’t be any customer advocates to help out.
It’s not the tool but how you use it
It’s not so much the automated tools themselves, but how they’re used that’s the problem — how such tools ultimately encourage brands to distance themselves from their customers to become anti-social instead of social.
Even simple social media publishing tools that schedule posts to go up automatically at different times and across channels leave the brand open to being remote, out of touch, out of context; you need to closely monitor what’s scheduled when — and be ready to replace it when/if circumstances change. A 2011 study by Ederank Checker revealed that when such tools are used on Facebook, user engagement levels go down. These excerpts cite factors they hypothesize:
High Chance of Being Scheduled or Automated: Posts that are scheduled typically struggle to have high engagement. This is most likely due to the nature of a scheduled update. It’s difficult to create unique engaging content several hours or days in advance. Any negative impacts of scheduled posts are most likely correlations with poorly developed content.
Automated content typically performs horrendously, due to lacking human touch and craftsmanship. These types of updates struggle for engagement as is (even if they were manually posted onto Facebook). We highly advise against any automated content on Facebook.
We agree and see the problem as three-fold:
1) Pre-scheduling of posts lends itself towards the posts being pre-canned ahead of time rather than timely and posted in context — as happened recently in Toronto, when Radiohead concert promotional tweets kept posting to fans even after the collapse of the stage and its tragic aftermath. Because the venue promoter had pre-scheduled the tweets, they came off as (at least) unaware and (at worst) insensitive. As Valerie Sprague points out, close monitoring could have prevented the misstep — but evidently no one was watching.
2) Often automated tools do not present the content as personal and in context — either because they just don’t support the range of features or because when using such tools, community managers tend to become robotic in their thinking. For example on Facebook, most posts from tools do not include photos, but do include a “published by xyz tool” credit. Users see a less interesting post that looks like it was automatically scheduled, and therefore not worth their attention.
3) Cross-channel posting often addresses the least common denominator. When brands use automated tools, they tend to create a post and schedule it to run across channels. The first problem this creates is that each social channel is different and warrants distinct content to be most effective. The second problem is that consumers often follow a brand across social channels. Getting exactly the same post in roughly the same time period two or three times from a brand is (and feels like) spam.
Proponents of automated technology most likely will say that eventually their tools will factor all these aspects in — selecting and tuning content by channel and by person. Perhaps so, but we’re skeptical. In any case, a tool is not likely to be personally interactive and social with a consumer; it most assuredly cannot create and manage the cultural dynamic of the party described above, and it will never be a real live person that becomes a real live friend.
When a brand organizes its customer relationships around automated tools, it is creating more distance between itself and those customers. It’s reducing the relationship to computer code, even as it turns out that people don’t take well to being managed by algorithms. Consumers don’t get to share themselves, make friends, and get attention with algorithms and they don’t want to. They want real people. They want brands to foster these human dynamics among their friends and they want the brand to behave like a friend too.
Peter Friedman, Chairman & CEO LiveWorld @peterfriedman @liveworld www.liveworld.com