Brand Social Media: Robots vs. Humans

The Risks of Scheduled Social Media Posts for Businesses

Brands fail at social media when someone gets tricked into letting robots do the human work.

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Every week or so brings the announcement of some new digital innovation that promises to improve the Director of Marketing’s daily workflow. With little more than a somewhat-plausible idea, a few hungry programmers, and the right amount of VC funding, you too can launch a new marketing software.

One such announcement showed up in my inbox this morning, and I was asked for my professional opinion of it. I’ve shopped similar products and services in recent years, and have admittedly become a little skeptical of them. Not many are able to compete long-term, and for good reasons. In today’s example, I was reviewing a new social media scheduling tool.

On this platform, users upload social media posts to a “library” at their leisure; the more the better. While uploading, users create categories into which they organize their posts. One category could be named “Links to industry articles,” another might be “Thoughts on remarketing strategy.” Users then configure when and how often the tool should post these uploads on their behalf.

The “benefit” of this platform is that you never actually have to post social media updates yourself. You just create the content, dump it into the appropriate categories, and let the software post it for you on a predetermined schedule. The idea is that marketers are too busy, and this platform can take over the bulk of their daily Twitter and Facebook activity.

Oh one other thing. The software will start re-posting your uploads after it churns through your inventory the first time around. In other words, when all of your scheduled uploads have fired, the platform goes back to the beginning and starts sending out the older ones again, so “you never have to worry about an update going to waste.”

As someone guilty of trying to get way too much mileage out of my lame dad jokes, even I have a hard time believing this is a good idea.

Robot Work and Human Work

I should mention here that I’ve used a few tools that provide some limited version of this functionality. In fact, I’m using one such tool right now on a regular basis. I enjoy finding creative ways to take some of the menial tasks off my clients’ chore lists. Robots should do robot work, giving humans more time to do our human work.

My problem with some digital marketing technology, and this scheduler in particular, is that social media moves too fast to get trustworthy results from pre-programmed activity. I’ve seen comments, links, and promoted tweets show up in my news feeds at exactly the wrong time and place. And many of these, I’m certain, were due to scheduled content where the poster simply couldn’t have anticipated the heavy, controversial, or incongruent context in which that tweet would appear. (In reality none of us—humans or robots—can predict all context at all at times. But sentient beings still fare better.)

Keeping Robots on Short Leashes

Imagine a Wednesday afternoon some day down the road, and most people on Twitter and Facebook are trying to process through a grave current event that just broke in the news—the unexpected passing of a beloved public figure, or a school shooting. No brand wants to be “that guy” interrupting a deeply emotional conversation to excitedly promote a new product line or make a droll comment about how frustrating the office printer can be.

How much are you willing to bet that a tweet you wrote three weeks ago is going to get better traction than the one your specialist crafted in the moment based on up-to-the-minute conversations?

This is a real risk brands should consider when engaging in any kind of social automation. The set-it-and-forget-it model of content planning has the potential to be forgettable (at best) and accidentally offensive (at worst). The best marketing automation tools understand these risks, and encourage humans to stay involved in the process, closely managing how their campaigns are rolled out at each step.

This is why I have a conflicted opinion of social media schedulers, specifically the one I learned about this morning. With enough human experience and personal oversight, these tools can probably be reigned-in so as to avoid such embarrassing missteps. But then doesn’t that kind of defeat the automation and time-saving benefits so loudly hyped by their sellers? As a brand with much on the line, wouldn’t it be more prudent and authentic to manually post content, always knowing its context?

Empathy and Context: The Human Advantage

I’m a firm believer that social media can’t be programmed. Rules, triggers, and dynamically-served content have a role to play in today’s broader world of marketing. That’s the kind of work robots can do better and more cost-effectively than people can. But if a brand wants to Ring True in the lightning-fast sphere of social engagement, it should plan, execute, monitor, and react quickly under the guidance of a human being.

Our best technology, even in 2016, can’t simulate human empathy. And as good as we get at teaching machines about relevance and latent semantic indexing, there’s no substitute for a human’s awareness of surrounding context.

This, unfortunately, is why brands sometimes fail at social media. Not because they lack the right technology, but because someone got tricked into letting robots do the human work.

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