Online conversations: is automation worth your while?

A while ago there were plenty of blogs, including my own, reporting on the ways (fake) Likes, fans and followers on social media were at the heart of a commercial industry. Bloggers and heavy users of social media tend to automate or streamline at least part of their interactions.

Can you automate part of your actions without appearing – or being – ‘fake’ in the human sense? Should you?

Levels of engagement in conversations

Visitors and commenters: to automate - or not?The level of engagement involved in an online conversation can differ enormously. Dealing with online conversations can cost you hours upon hours. ‘Likes’ don’t seem to get a lot of follow-up by companies. However try to check up once a week or so – getting zero response is discouraging.

Related posts: Twitter automation, and A Clone War.

The role of automation in online conversations

What actions can you safely automate?

  1. Standard replies like “Thank you for the follow!”, “Thanks for the RT”, “Thanks for the mention”. This category was hit by Twitter’s decision to make automated actions by tools like IFTTT difficult. Meanwhile tools like still collect new followers and interactions and compose standard messages for you to send. My advice: edit them.
  2. Messages on repeat thanks to tools like Buffer, like “Read my post on subject X” for the umpteenth time. My main problem is with people who quote at me when they’re not even online 🙂

Automating your responses to questions

While it’s up to you to decide what to automate, here’s my tip:

Try not to fool people into thinking they have a personal and meaningful relation with you when they don’t.

Answering questions literally on autopilot is tricky and that’s why not many businesses are doing it (yet). I once asked a new follower who had sent an automated “Thanks for the follow” tweet if they’d had a busy week, and the response was something like “Busy week! Check my FB page…”

I can’t tell you how to do this type of automation on Twitter without IFTTT but it’s probably either down to your budget or your technical abilities. But that’s beside the point.

Questions indicate a sincere interest in a topic or in you. Personally I would say never automate this type of action. Not even to seem polite.

Comments – the life blood of conversations

This is what you can’t yet leave to an automation tool (unless you have a really big budget). You don’t need me to point out that all comments are not equal. I suppose you could automate replies to really short “Great Post!” comments but is saying “thanks” really that much of a time waster?

For the more relevant comments: if you’re used to putting yourself on the stage through blogging or on social media, don’t forget others are not. The important thing here is to have a heart 🙂

Forget about ‘social media’: get on the conversation train!

We all have products and brands we love. Whether it is the jeans we wear or the marmelade we eat. Experience may give us a good feeling about a brand because its products suit our taste, do what they’re supposed to do, and help make our lives run smoothly.

Engaging with a brand, on the other hand, is another matter. Engaging is something people do naturally, but companies seem to have a hard time understanding what is expected from them. They’re blaring their commercials into our ears in any place they can find, including every social network they can access. In several places, notably in “The Conversation Company” by Steven van Belleghem, you will find the notion that this has to do with companies’ view of social networks as another channel for their messages. Where we see networks, they see media.

If you’ve read “The Conversation Company” it’s entirely possible that the content of this post will not surprise you. As it happens, I’ve just started reading it (finally!). Before I really dig into this book – just in case it fundamentally alters my view – I would like to share where I stand now.

Put Your Heart In The Conversation

Put Your Heart Into The Conversation

Why is engagement a problem for businesses?

We may be “engaged in conversation” or in fact “engaged to be married”. This points to a mutual interest on a personal level. Businesses are primarily interested in customer engagement. Which sounds like: let them know you’ve got great stuff and discounts and your customers will be interested.

If your business decided in the past that only the marketing and communications people were allowed to talk to customers, that decision formed the basis of today’s problems with engagement on social networks. At some point, communication was restricted to the point where employees who wanted the rest of the company to know what their department was up to, had to send their text to the internal communications team for approval before it could be published on the intranet. A lot of companies are still at that stage.

Now picture companies where that mindset prevails on a social network… People in the marketing department are in over their heads the moment they start to engage on social networks. Much of their education has been focused on sending the right message to the right people. Personal contact – conversations – with potentially thousands of brand enthousiasts is not what they were trained for. Simply adding employees with the necessary skills will only lead to them doing all the work.

3 ways for marketing departments to get social media results with limited resources

One way to max your return-on-invested time and money is by finding people who are already talking about subjects that are relevant to you. You can, simply put, add to a couple of conversations to get people’s interest, start a few of your own, and upload the latest for an interested group of potential customers who have decided to follow your activities.

Or you can engage in conversation with a limited number of product enthousiasts. This may influence people when they are online looking for information about a product which you and your competitors sell.

A third option is complete or partial automation of your social network activities. Complete automation misses the point – see my earlier post in which I describe a few types of ‘fake’ accounts I’m sure you have come across too. The bottom line of complete automation is: you’re not at home, and that may have serious side-effects. You could end up with the ‘social’ equivalent of online ads for flying vacations next to an article about a plane crash.

If you use partial automation you need to consider which parts you will do yourself:

  • Like the robots in the factory, you need to supervise what your online tools actually do, and what they may be doing wrong.
  • And you need to make sure you do your bit.

You cannot afford to take human intelligence out of the equation and expect everything to run smoothly while you’re not watching.

Check your organisation for conversation artists

The main issue is that the people who were once hired to take care of ‘communication’ have part of what you need on social networks, but not everything you need.

  • Your marketing people are traditionally good at making plans and following up on them. Viewed from such a department, the dynamics involved with social networks probably look a lot like call center dynamics: they play havoc with any kind of schedule.
  • On the other hand, your customer service employees know how to talk with people who have a complaint. Unless they’re trained to stick to customer-unfriendly protocols to the point of forgetting any other way of working, they will jump at the chance to help customers with questions.
  • Do you know who else is good with conversations within your company? You’ll need good listeners.
  • Somewhere down the line you’ll get software in to help you deal with online communication in all forms in a structured way. Before that time, however, it’s important to take inventory of what you have so you’ll know what you need.

It is time we start looking for conversation talent within our businesses. I’m convinced we’ll find it everywhere!

Please RT: About Online Sharing

Social networks make it easy to add other people’s content to your own message stream. A number of businesses are only too happy to do exactly that. How to avoid the murky waters of content theft?

A bit of psychology: why do we share other people’s content at all?

There are social as well as practical reasons to share other people’s content. Let’s take a look at this short and probably incomplete list of reasons:

  • Give and take – you can’t expect people to share your content in the long run if you stop sharing their content altogether. You need goodwill.
  • You really, really like a bit of content and want to let others know about it.
  • You don’t create the kind of content you need to attract the audience you need – but others do. If you want to be noticed on a social network it pays to be talkative.

Adding your own content

Spot your original content amidst all the retweets
Creating and sharing: mixed content

If you want to share your own views, there are several ways to come up with enough content to share it on a regular basis.

  1. Being extremely productive. Blogging full time. Experience helps. (Example: Darren Rowse – @Problogger).
  2. Having (relatively) low standards for the content you produce. If this is your approach you don’t read up much on subjects, and you don’t check your posts for typos. (no example)
  3. Producing good (or great) quality content over a longer period of time and then sharing it daily on social networks. (Example: Jeff Bullas)

If you’re still busy gaining the necessary experience and building up a treasure chest filled with heaps of great content, you will find yourself without relevant, ready-to-share content pretty often. Sharing the same 5 blog posts 40 times a day will not make you popular. And it’s a bit early to start inviting guest bloggers if you blog for the sake of sharing your own ideas.

Sharing other people’s ideas will help you AND them – if you do it right.

Basic tips for sharing other people’s content – especially if you own a business

Probably fine:

  • reblog someone else’s post on a platform you don’t own.
  • share interesting news on social media
  • post a paragraph on your own website and adding your own view (content curation)

Tip: always add a link and the author’s name (Twitter handle) and for preference mention the website where you found the information. Why? It’s not just good manners. Check the paragraph below about measuring your reach.

Posting complete blog posts on your company website is pushing it too far. Even if you add a statement on the lines of “this text was originally posted on website X” that does not tell your readers whether you have the author’s permission to fill your company website with their work.

Tip: the main question is whether or not you paid the author for contributing quality content to your website. Add a paragraph “About our authors” to avoid misunderstandings.

Once you have created a significant amount of content, the balance between home-made and other content will start to shift.

Tip: You need to monitor your content sharing mix and decide what suits you at each stage: 20/80, 60/40, 80/20?

Measured reach versus actual reach

Measuring the number of social shares your content gets gives you some idea of the reach of your message. Tools like Tweetreach list the number of mentions, the number of tweets and retweets, and the number of followers of all the sharing accounts. So you know how many people may have read your message.

A few caveats:

  • If sharers use scheduling tools, all you can do is hope they’ll mention you or use your title or hashtag so you can track their messages. This practice means that the reach you measure is lower than the actual reach. To close the gap, make sure that:
    • the sharing buttons on your site work properly – so visitors use those in stead of their own bookmarklets;
    • title, name, and hashtag combined fit quite comfortably inside a tweet when you click a sharing button.
  • Automatic reblogs and retweets are forms of automation which remove the engagement aspect altogether. This practice means that the reach you measure is (a bit) higher than the actual reach.
  • In an open platform like Twitter, the right subject (the right hashtag) may mean the number of views – and clicks – is higher than the number of any single sharer’s followers.

With so many tools around you can only hope they cancel each other out. In fact, a lot of tools exist that help you reduce the amount of guesswork by adding analytics to the links inside your messages – think Hootsuite, Buffer and the like.

How accurately do you need to measure reach?

Do you need to know who actually reads your content before sharing? In that case you need clicks combined with retweets by the same sharer. Just in case there is an automated tool running which retweets anything containing #subject.

In most cases it’s fine to have a rough estimate of your reach. Compare it to your website’s analytics – the number of clicks your content is actually getting – and you’ll have some idea of where you stand.

After all, reaching any audience is one thing – only part of that audience will engage with your content on your website. That is where the fun starts.

Please add your thoughts to my musings by commenting below; or find me on Twitter!

Online engagement: the future of Favorites

In the past few weeks, every single social network I’m on (and possibly a few I’m not using) changed in some way.

Just a few examples of recent or announced changes:

    • The ‘like’ is getting even more important – the Facebook search engine (
    • Profile photographs are getting more important on Facebook and on Twitter (larger photographs on Facebook & the added Twitter headers)
    • StumbleUpon changed its favorites to likes – this completely escaped my attention (thanks Andy Nathan for mentioning it)
    • Twitter is closing down any sharing option which allows Twitter content to be shared without showing its origins (LinkedIn, IFTTT)
    • Facebook is adding a Twitter-like follow option (“subscribe”). LinkedIn has done the same.

What is the future of the favorite - how will we mark items?At least two of these developments affect the future use of Favorites.

Time to look at how Favorites are currently being used – and what the future holds for them.

How to interpret a favorited item

In itself, marking an item is not an action which you would use to ‘engage with others’, it is a way to ‘engage with content’.

However, if someone favorites an item published by you on Twitter then you will receive a message about what they did – depending on whether you have decided to read that type of message. In other apps and social networks, different actions are triggered.

I’ve come up with 9 reasons anyone could have to mark an item:

  1. For later reading
  2. To thank the sharer for sharing (if you’re aware of the message being sent to the sharer)
  3. For later sharing (if you’ve sent too many messages out already)
  4. For later use in their own content
  5. To trigger an action (for example by IFTTT – until next week anyway) which will publish the favorited item onto another social network.
  6. On Zite, a ‘thumbs up’ will help determine what kind of content you are shown in future visits. Zite also has a ‘thumbs down’ option – this app is for your personal convenience.
  7. In StumbleUpon, a ‘like’ (or previously favorite) will help determine what kind of content you get to see in future visits to their websites. In case you’re not familiar with StumbleUpon: use a large screen for interests like Nature or Landscape and prepare to go “Wow!”
  8. To show the item to your followers – others with similar preferences, when they visit the StumbleUpon community to browse or ‘stumble’ their interests
  9. To give you more relevant search results (in Google Search). Google Plus has probably got a bigger over all impact than other forms of marking items: your pluses (as well as your other online activities) are tracked in order to personalize search results.

Note that this list does not include social motives I mentioned for Facebook-type likes in my previous post.

What to do if your tweets are favorited?

If someone adds one of your tweets to their favorites you have several options:

  • Ignore them. It is up to the reader to decide if they like your tweets.
  • Thank them. Most people are now on several social networks, and that means the use of favorites changes. However you may still surprise Twitter newbies if you respond to their actions – especially if they’re not active on other social networks.
  • Send a diplomatically worded message when you have another piece of content which might interest them (unless they’re following you of course).
  • Follow them.

A quick look at someone’s previous likes or favorites, or their presence on other networks, will give you the necessary insight into how that person values his or her actions.

Favorites and the future: social search

In some ways, networks are looking more and more like each other. They check what people like about each of them and implement whatever is lacking, or in need of improvement in their own network. A few trends:

  1. Social networks are drifting closer together. Certain aspects are viewed as normal, and any network lacking them does not meet the criteria of the mainstream users. ‘Social’ has become a commodity.
  2. Judging from recent news on social networks, the future contains more social search. Facebook’s search engine will apparently allow you to check things like: what nearby restaurant have your friends visited recently – and liked? By the way, there is a whole section “Facebook marketing” on if you’re interested.
  3. Favorites will go pretty much in the same direction. Favorites on nearly every social network may turn into likes, if only to blend in with the rest. The way in which favorites are used will converge as well.

Social media convergence, social search – so what?

My main concerns with social search are: I want to know when I’m doing ‘social’ search – personalized search – and I want to be able to turn it off (I’m not kidding).

We need to be able to know what the (online) world looks like when we’re not influencing it.

How do you feel about the current tweaks, chops and prunings social networks and apps are getting? Are you looking forward to enhanced marketing opportunities? Or are you really not liking the way things are going? Love to hear from you!

One-click engagement: the Like business

Viewed from the surface, nothing could be simpler than a Like. But the more I read and think about online engagement, the trickier this aspect of online social behavior seems.

Viewed from a human perspective, engagement is simply about conversations and mutual commitment.

In that light, what is a ‘like’ on a social network worth?

Even if you don’t go around asking for likes you will probably attract likes from people who:

A thumbs-up for what? What does the liker like?

What does one particular like mean?

  1. Like you (person or company)
  2. Want to show their appreciation for your efforts
  3. Like your contribution
  4. Want to share the world of their peers and do so by liking what their peers like.
  5. Want to be a part of your world and will ‘like’ whatever you do (yes, I know).

In our real-life social interactions, we may ‘like’ something or someone for very different reasons.

Online social dynamics

If we move these social dynamics onto an online social network, we get a similar picture. But this time you’re left without the physical presence which may give you a hint of the participants’ motivation for ‘liking’ you.

Businesses on social networks: turning networks into ‘media’

If social dynamics didn’t blur the meaning of a ‘like’ enough, businesses have made the picture even fuzzier by adding their own types of rewards to the normal range of social rewards. Discounts, vouchers, receiving ‘inside’ information, and the like.

‘Like us’, in various forms depending on the network, is a major call-to-action made by businesses. You need to be visible in order to sell anything. But this practice has some drawbacks. See if you recognize any of these:

  • The race to increase reach by businesses has a side-effect in the fans & followers business which we’ve seen a lot of lately. Numbers of likes – and numbers of fans – have become a way some people measure your popularity in a social sense.
  • Buying clicks (likes) by offering discounts and prizes can turn out to be a great way of spending money, in stead of earning it. Also, if you start rewarding people for their activities you can’t tell afterwards what was more important to them: your brand, or the reward. This article on highlights the issue. You run the risk of showing your audience that likes are the only important thing for you – which turns clicks into a currency.
  • The penalty of finishing ‘last’ as a business may be that you’re not able to sell your products (to consumers at least). But even if you don’t own a business, the sense that likes matter may influence your behavior. I lately viewed some Twitter-related apps and ran into one which will allow you to lie about your current location.
  • Newsfeed over website visits: once someone has ‘liked’ you (your fanpage) they will rely on what they see in their newsfeed. This post by Mari Smith on Social Media Examiner dates from 2011 but the picture won’t have changed dramatically since then.

All this means you either join the race for likes – and keep your news coming; or you opt out altogether, or you just hope enough people will be interested in your business to ‘like’ you even if you don’t promise to reward them for it.

While it is nice to be ‘liked’ rather than ignored, the problem is that one simple click may mean one thing to you and something entirely different to your clicking visitor.

Building a relationship based on the first like

Beyond the first like: building social relationships

How to get beyond the first like

The main issue with any type of single-click engagement is that it is the start of readers and viewers engaging with the sharer. Apart from reading or viewing a text or an image, ‘liking’ is often the only form of engagement we show.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Accept that likes are the easiest way to stay informed. You’re likely to be just another item on someone’s supermarket shelf.
  • No matter what a like means to the ‘liker’, the fact remains that there is now a paperthin connection between the two of you. See if you can get off the shelf. Depending on the possibilities of the social network, your mission should be to establish a more sustainable kind of contact.
  • This article by Tracey Burrows points the way beyond that first like. I’m sure there is more to be found – if you want to add, you’re welcome to comment below this post.
  • The article by Mari Smith I mentioned earlier contains tips on how to use your Facebook metrics to your advantage.

I’ll go into the ways in which other social networks tackle ‘social’ actions in my next post. Meanwhile: how do you deal with likes? Feel free to leave your comment below!

Online engagement: how to get it, and how to prove you did

Marketing people have been talking about engagement lately. I should know, I’m reading the stuff.

What is up with engagement?

Social Media Engagement - Are The Sparks Flying Yet?
Social Media Engagement:
Are The Sparks Flying Yet?

Businesses seem to be figuring out that just getting clicks isn’t getting their products sold.

Now this may seem obvious to any of us who have in fact clicked, faved, or liked, or been asked to do so. If you have a business, you need to get a number of people to develop a serious interest in what you have to offer.

How do you get people to engage?

After reading up on content marketing and engagement for a few weeks I must say I still haven’t seen anything which looks like a good answer to the central issue: getting customers’ permanent interest in a brand. No wedding bells on the horizon, unless they’ve been keeping it quiet like certain celebs try to do.

The only thing which seems interesting is agile engagement, but it sounds like a lot of work – and to be quite honest, the details look a lot like the things marketers have been doing all along, but under a different name.

This is a recent post  by Sarah Skerik (PR Newswire) which keeps it relatively simple. Check out the 6 tips in the lower half of the post to see if you’re doing any or all of those things.

A few tips of my own:

  • If you have started to build a presence on relevant social networks, the worst thing you can do is neglect it. You need to keep at it or risk ending up with an account that looks like an empty house. Read my earlier post for tips how to deal with accounts that have drifted from the center of your attention into the twilight zone.
  • Don’t just share the same content to multiple networks – offer extra visual stuff on Pinterest, make sure that your message works in the limited space of Twitter. If you share to a social network, you need to be relevant by the standards of people on that network.

The above should not come as a great surprise if you have a healthy amount of common sense.

How do you measure engagement?

In order to prove that the online budget is well spent – that your efforts are leading to results, you need to measure what we do, and how often. Which begs the question: what is a sure sign that we’re seriously interested?

Sure signs of attention are difficult to come by online. Ideally you would have to see a potential customer’s pupils dilate indicating their interest, but I’m pretty sure turning on the webcam for that purpose would run into serious privacy issues. There are plenty of activities or ‘engagement signals’ that allow you to use less invasive methods.

An interesting contribution was crafted by Econsultancy:

“35 social media KPIs to help measure engagement”

The post contains a list of things you might measure to get some idea of the quantity, as well as the nature, of engagement on your website, blog or fan page. While it is not a list of ways to get engagement, it does yield a few clues on current practices to measure what you’ve got.

A couple of groups of activities that businesses currently measure:

  • One-click engagement: likes, favorites
  • Conversational engagement: comments, questions
  • Sharing: reblogs, (re)tweets

In my next few posts I would like to explore some of the online activities that are currently measured. I will focus on questions like these:

  • What is the nature of the engagement you are actually measuring when you focus on a specific activity? -OR: What is our motivation for doing what we’re doing?
  • What are the limitations and downright problematic aspects of using these statistics?
  • And how can you (attempt to) work around those issues?

By focusing on one ‘group’ of online activities in each post I hope to come up with at least the glimmerings of an answer to questions like these:

What metrics measure what? How do you define your success on social networks? Do your metrics prove that success? Or are you wasting your time?

> Note: in the past week or so I’ve written quite a lot more about the whole ‘social media engagement’ or ‘online engagement’ subject. It is turning into a series all by itself. I’ll probably publish twice a week and hope that what is evolving right now will be useful to you. If you have any questions for me, let me know.