Social media: take the name at face value, and you’d expect lively conversations taking place at every corner of the internet, from Twitter and Facebook, to Instagram and Google+ (okay, maybe not quite as far as the dingy Google+ corner, but you catch my drift).

Put social media into the world of marketing, and it becomes about two things: promoting your brand, and interacting with your customers, fans, and followers.

Unfortunately, much of the ‘social’ side of social media has been replaced by automation tools which, while making a social media manager’s life easier, can suck the human life right out of your customer interactions if not used tactically.

Sure, automation tools like Hootsuite and Buffer can cut down on time spent publishing tweets or Facebook posts, but despite astounding advances in artificial intelligence, social media bots are yet to understand the nuances of what’s annoying or inappropriate to a legion of devoted followers. In fact, there’s even a risk that too much automation could damage your brand.

What can go wrong with too much social media automation, and what are the rules to help counter balance these risks? We spoke to a couple social media experts to figure out how to avoid getting caught up in what can only be considered anti-social behaviour when it comes to social media marketing. We’ll stick mostly to Twitter, as it’s the platform that generally causes the biggest problems.

When you over-automate content marketing…

Social media automation is probably best used for tweeting content, whether it be articles, images, or videos that are relevant to your followers. Looking for this content can be like foraging for food in the stone age: hunting and gathering, then making sure you have enough to last through the next days or weeks, a process which can be really time-consuming. This is when apps like Hootsuite and Buffer come in, where you can simply hoard all of your content and set a time to publish, or better yet, have the app automatically set the time for you based on peak times for maximum reach to your audience.

It may make content marketing seem like a no-brainer, but as social media expert and bestselling author Brian Carter points out, reality can easily get in the way of a solid social media plan.

“It’s critical that companies realize that what they tweet or post or comment is taken the same way as if their corporate spokesperson said it on TV. So, it has to be that accurate, that right, that appropriate,” says Carter. “Automation increases the chance that your brand tweets something inappropriate. Things can go wrong when real-life gets in the way of automation.”

This ‘real-life’ can be anything from insensitively tweeting something inappropriate in the midst of a disaster, to inappropriately using a hashtag to get more traction on Twitter.

LiveNation had one such issue, when its tweets about a Radiohead concert in Toronto went out as scheduled, despite the concert being cancelled hours before when the stage collapsed, killing at least one person and injuring three others. Angry followers immediately noticed the tweet, and backlash against LiveNation ensued.

LiveNation radiohead tweet

The balance:

Despite the hunting and gathering nature of social media marketing, this isn’t the stone age, and just because a tweet’s been set, doesn’t mean it’s been set in stone. It’s important that if and when ‘real-life’ arises, your social media manager has a quick look over scheduled posts to make sure that nothing offensive or inappropriate has been scheduled that could coincide with it. The same can be said of trending hashtags– if you notice a trending hashtag, don’t jump on the bandwagon with a bunch of tweets before you know what it’s about.

As marketing consultant Joshua Currier succinctly puts it: “an appropriate balance would be to use automation in scheduling posts and updates, while also regularly reviewing activity, briefly scanning upcoming posts to ensure timeliness and relevance, and manually providing responses to any interactions.”

When you over-automate interaction…

Speaking of interaction, that, strangely enough, can be automated too. The social part of social media comes from the interactions you have with fans and followers, which on Twitter includes retweeting, mentions, and favorites, among others. In this equation, interactions are the humanizing factor behind social media, and by not replying to comments and tweets, you’re essentially ignoring your audience.

Interaction can be automated with something as simple as replying to new followers with a brief thank-you message, but according to Carter, even these seemingly personalized messages don’t get past savvy social media users.

“The most innocuous form of automation is a thank you tweet or DM in response to being followed. But many people find even that annoying. It’s not necessary and can be off-putting since it’s impersonal, and many people view social as something that’s supposed to be more personal,” says Carter.

Even more transparent can be retweeting something that clearly should have been vetted by a human (or at least better filters). That exact thing happened to the New England Patriots, who accidentally auto-tweeted a Patriots jersey with an inappropriate spam follower’s handle on the back of it, in celebration of reaching one million followers on Twitter.

New England Patriots celebration tweet fail

But the trouble doesn’t end there– automation can also put a brand at risk when it comes to answering customer complaints. Social media has become one of the best ways for customers to reach out to brands, and despite attempting to appear empathetic, auto tweeting responses to customer service complaints can seem more patronizing and robotic than helpful. Bank of America found that out all too well after it kept tweeting the same irrelevant messages to a disgruntled customer protesting the company and all of his supporters.

Bank of American Twitter stream

The balance:

You don’t need to respond with things like a thank-you message to every single one of your followers when they’ll be able to see right through it anyways. If you insist, it’s important to go beyond the auto-thanks to have some form of real dialog with people, especially when those people are reaching out, whether for compliments or customer service requests.

As Carter points out, “social is a form of customer service. Phones have been automated with voice recognition and decision-trees, but people hate that. If you must do it, do it well. But the best way to do it is with real people, personal and manual.”

Putting the social back into social media

As with most social media-related ‘formulas’, there’s usually not much consensus on how much is too much, although one thing is certain: going too automatic can cause problems.

You can schedule hundreds of tweets with automation tools, but if you’re not actually interacting with anyone, you’ll likely lose followers, and those followers will lose trust in your brand. When it comes to finding that balance, interaction should more often than not (if not always) be manual and organic; save automation for social media marketing.

As Currier points out: “the whole point of social media from a business perspective is to meet your customers where they are, and if you completely remove yourself, then you remove the opportunity.”

Meeting your customers half way, and having some discretion when it comes to social media automation, can go a long way.

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