The use of automated bots, such as the now-defunct Instagress, caused a major stir recently when marketers and bloggers across the land started calling them into question. The bots are being used by bloggers and brands to like and comment on posts, thus inflating engagement and follower counts. The hashtag #Instafraud broke out and a can of worms was well and truly opened.
With our increasingly busy lives, we’re all looking for ways to automate tasks. Agencies and brands are already using social automation, such as scheduling tools to post tweets at opportune times or a tongue-in-cheek Facebook Messenger app.
Paddy Power did a great job of social automation with their Grand National chatbot, offering punters a humorous imaginary day at the races. Walkers, however, was left wishing it had devoted more time to its crisis response plan when its automated selfie tweet bot was gamed by consumers. What started as an innovative way to automate competition entries ended up in a PR nightmare, when undesirables such as Harold Shipman and Jimmy Savile were uploaded as entries.
Automated content and engagement needs to be given some serious thought before attempted. Let’s all take a step back and think what’s the worst thing that could happen, and plan for it. Here’s my view on what the issue means for agencies, consumers, bloggers and brands.
The agency perspective
Many agencies are looking proactively towards AI solutions to support clients in their quest to be industry thought leaders but it’s important to remember that there’s a time and a place for automation.
Social should be a place of opportunity. If it’s treated like a chore, it’s the brand that will lose out. There’s no comparison between a customer service bot that gets common questions answered quickly, and an engagement bot designed to game KPI data.
The consumer perspective
Scrolling through my own Instagram feed, I see a wave of confusion from people using the platform on the posts where automated engagement is taking place. In its first year, automated engagement was a relative unknown so consumers thought of it as genuine engagement. As the practice grows in popularity, combined with the fact that those undertaking it rarely get it right, engagement ends up looking like spam. Over the last few months, Instagram users have started to realise these comments are not genuine, leading to no follow-up engagement at best, or reporting the users at worst.
To a consumer, automated content is exciting and a challenge. Consumers want entertainment or information from automated services. If they’re not informed or entertained, as seen with the #WalkersWave competition, they’ll create their own amusement, normally at the expense of the brand.
The blogger perspective
Right now, these bots are being used simply to boost followers, but we need to consider that this could be at the cost of great content and genuine human engagement. Many bloggers have decided to fast-track their journey to becoming a full-time influencer by paying for engagement and followers. Before these paid-for engagement tools, you received followers and engagement by creating great content, and now, you don’t need to. This potential drop in great content is why a lot of the blogging community see it as a big no-no. Bloggers who create and share truly engaging content with followers see opportunities to be rewarded for their efforts slip from their grasp by those who aren’t as genuine.
The brand perspective
If you’re a brand, you should give automated engagement a wide berth to avoid a reputational issue. Automating likes and comments mean that you have little to no control over what user posts are engaged with. Automated content is where brands should be looking, but any AI solution right now needs to be given its own crisis response plan and have human intervention on standby to avoid a potential PR nightmare.
As a brand, you invest a lot of time developing your social audience and creating content, the last thing you want to do is have that tarnished by an automated mistake. Your reputation and trust that people have in your brand could be badly affected.
Finding the balance
There is a time and a place for social automation and we need to realise that AI hasn’t quite caught up enough to mimic human engagement on social media. Let’s schedule our tweets at optimum engagement time, let’s create a chat bot to answer our frequently asked questions and solve customer service queries effectively. Let’s also spend our marketing budgets on creating engaging content and work with those influencers who resonate with our target audiences. We need to find the balance between automation and authentic engagement, while being transparent and open about our practices.
This article first appeared in PRWeek sister title Campaign