Peter Drucker once said: “The human being is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being—muscles, senses, and mind—is engaged in the work.”

Marketers and salespeople have an insatiable appetite for automation. Most corporate social media accounts were automated into meaninglessness years ago, but employee accounts are quickly following suit. As evidenced by Buffer’s popularity, today’s marketing professionals are more likely to schedule their own tweets than engage organically in a live conversation.

I call this “factory social.” It’s the result of a decade of social media automation. We use data to determine the best time to send tweets and we pre-script our “dialogue” long before we can observe the contours of a conversation.

Yet, we celebrate the rare moments when a brand like Oreo is able to spool up a timely ad in response to unfolding events.

Every social platform knows all too well how automation erodes the value created by their network. They were designed to prompt conversation—a two-way exchange of ideas and information. Yet here we are as marketers, automating our efforts to broadcast jargon-ladled copy to a network of equally disengaged broadcasters.

This year, we’re going to see a broad backlash against these failed social media strategies. The organizations that make the necessary changes will benefit disproportionately in both customer relationships and top-line revenue generated by social. Here’s what you need to be thinking about if you want to be on the right side of this trend.

1. Automate business processes, not engagement

I’m always amazed by the obsession most marketers have with tools. There’s a tool to automate every facet of social media and the bulk of them have even automated engagement—like scheduled tweets, canned responses and keyword-based listening.

I’m not anti-automation. But I do know there are appropriate places for automation and inappropriate places. To hand over the human act of authentic dialogue to machines is akin to putting robot actors on Broadway. It undermines the fundamental purpose of human-to-human communication—to make a real connection.

It’s hard to walk back the scale and reach of a fully-automated social strategy, but there are other ways to get the efficiency benefits of automation without forfeiting any chance of authenticity. For instance, if you can automate the process of finding content for employees to share on social, you eliminate much of the research burden that goes into social engagement. You can also automate much of the tracking and reporting on the flipside, so that your people aren’t spending their time measuring and compiling data for PowerPoint slides.

If you really consider what goes into a memorable social interaction, there are many steps that can, and should, be automated. Just leave engagement to the human.

2. Augment your people but leave their voice alone

Have you ever noticed the customer support responses to complaints on social? It’s a copy and paste reply that has been pre-written and approved, so agents use it no matter what the customer complains about.

You see much of the same when a company makes a big announcement—employees share the same pre-scripted copy from all their social accounts. Their followers’ eyes likely glazed over before they finished reading any of it.

Instead of telling your people what to say, companies are beginning to harness the power of each employee’s unique voice. In the same way you wouldn’t recommend a product to a relative by shouting the slogan at them, you shouldn’t put words in their mouths.

Pre-scripted social content was intended to increase the odds that your people would post about your company. Today, it not only decreases the odds they’ll post, it increases the odds that their followers will tune them out.

Meanwhile, the untapped potential of your employees’ unique, individual voice remains buried beneath desperate attempts to scale distribution. Give your people an array of owned content, third party content and original art to use at their discretion. Arm them with materials that inspire them to use their voice to engage their audience. Give them something to be proud of and their voice will carry it farther than even the most poetic canned copy.

3. Scale dialogue, not distribution

Remember when monthly traffic was the only relevant KPI for company websites? Today, we’ve grown more sophisticated and take into account pageviews per session, time on site, average shopping cart value, conversion rates, usability scores and we even have survey tools to gauge visitor satisfaction.

In desperate attempts to scale distribution and reach at all costs, most businesses now find themselves stuck in a loop of gaining and losing followers on social. It’s a wasteful cycle driven by vanity rather than business logic, particularly for businesses that aren’t dependent on raw brand awareness to make sales.

Factory social is a slave to those vanity metrics. Because it fails to engage people authentically, anyone overseeing such a program would by definition have to double down on a spray-and-pray approach to demonstrate value.

As any business operator can tell you, if you orient your team’s efforts around the right goals, the rest is just details. Make dialogue—a two-way conversation between your people and your customers—the North Star of your social efforts and you’ll quickly put an end to factory social. Set a measurable social engagement goal for your sales teams. As Peter Drucker famously said: “What’s measured improves.”

Handle with care

If nothing else, it’s clear factory social has pushed social networks to their breaking point, but the backlash has begun. Companies like Hubspot and IBM are demonstrating a smarter approach that is generating stronger results. And many social media marketers have wisely sounded the alarm that irresponsible use of these networks will break social channels permanently.

Social media, once heralded as the most promising new channel for customer acquisition since the rise of the Web itself, is not beyond saving so long as we accept the responsibility to handle it with care. Factory social is an abuse of the network—a race to the bottom that should no longer be appealing or acceptable to business decision makers.

And that’s why I’m so confident that the backlash is coming—it’s always about the bottom line. If a backlash doesn’t materialize, the only alternative is executives turning the lights off on these programs altogether.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Hank Nothhaft

Hank Nothhaft

Hank Nothhaft, Jr. is CEO and founder of Trapit, which makes social selling and employee advocacy easy. He developed Trapit while serving as an entrepreneur-in-residence at SRI International, where he focused on applying artificial intelligence to new markets. Previously Hank served as group product manager at WebEx, where he led the company’s flagship service to an acquisition by Cisco.

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