Automating Twitter: Can Humans & Robots Tweet in Harmony?

The session was titled Automating Twitter. Whispers. Sneers. Suspicions abound. Was this the beginning of the end? The dawn of a new corporate spam? There have been shady APIs and coded bots in the past, sure- but those mostly were, and in various circles continue to be, totally frowned upon.

I’m glad to report that despite the provocative title, this session at Search Engine Strategies New York was not about relying on cyborgs for social media management. Instead, panelists Hollis Thomases, Founder,, Tracy Falke, Social Media Specialist, Freestyle Interactive and Paul Madden, Owner, Crea8 New Media along along with moderator Matt McGowan, Publisher and Head of U.S., Incisive Media shared their insight on how to successfully leverage automation tools to help streamline your Twitter strategy and marketing campaigns.

Hollis Thomases was the first to take the stage. She began by asking, “What is Twitter Automation? Is there such a thing as doing it well?” … questions that seem basic but stir some complex and often controversial responses.

Best Practices of Good Automation

  • Don’t just put your account on autopilot. On Twitter, people are looking to engage you, to have conversations with you. Unless you’re delivering breaking news or providing some sort of auto-check function, lack of interaction = ineffective Twitter strategy.
  • Keep your self-promotion and “spam” to a minimum. Don’t be too commercial in your use of the platform.
  • Use automation to help build relationships, manage accounts, increase efficiency and productivity, and enhance your tweets overall.
  • Integrate Twitter into other social applications, such as Facebook. Threading your tweets through another social channel is, after all, another form of automation.

By leveraging automation, your goal is to improve your Twitter experience and the experience of your followers… utilize it to monitor the impact of your tweets in a comprehensive marketing way. Then, use the feedback to enhance your strategies.

Leveraging Automation to Help Building Relationships
There are comprehensive directories out there group people together by their self-tagged interests:

This is another benign approach to automation. Let algorithms find useful Twitter folk for you. Rather than exxpending hours of energy tracking them down, or throwing tweets out there at uninterested ears,  find people who dig your brand or industry. Follow them, build relationships, thoughtfully work towards converting them into customers.

Leveraging Automation to Help Manage Your Account
If your company has one Twitter account that’s managed by multiple users, you can boost efficiency in delegation and organization with various desktop and web apps.

These single-dashboard platforms allow you to assign multiple people to the same Twitter feed. To preserve transparency, common practice is to add a caret with the initials of the person sending the tweet, i.e.: @BevvyMae Everyone here at Awesome Quaf City  loves your new hairstyle! ^LL.

Leveraging Automation to Help Enhance Your Tweets
Tweets are only 140 characters long, but they don’t have to end there. You can integrate a grander call-to-action in the same small space, such as a link to a poll, survey, or Tweetup invitation. Try these tools to bring people out of the stream, encouraging them to interact in a different way:

Other Useful Twitter Utilities

Integrating Twitter Elsewhere
Through external widgets you can plug your Twitter stream through to your WordPress blog or company homepage. Don’t underestimate the warm, fuzzy feeling that will wash over your customers and social contacts when they see their Twitter handle on your website. You can also leverage integrated social media apps like the ones offered by Facebook and LinkedIn.

Leveraging Automation to Help with Tracking & Monitoring

  • Tiny URL services such as, and are totally a form of automation, especially when they gather insightful data from the sites fed through the shortener. Some of these services provide this data on the cheap (you know… free…) but offer fee-based packages with more extensive data.
  • Setting automated Twitter alerts through services like tweetbeep, twilerts, trendrr, can alieveate the need to monitor the stream like a hawk 24/7. You identify your keywords and they send updates straight to your email, akin to Google Alerts.
  • Manage and optimize from metrics gathered by social media tracking tools including socialseek, social mention, scoutlabs.

Next up was Tracy Falke. In her experience, the biggest question on clients’ minds is about finding the resources to execute good Twitter marketing campaigns. Employees, time and money aren’t just laying around- one of the solutions is automation. But how can you do this correctly? Tracy says it really comes down to good common sense. It’s about proper etiquette. Act on Twitter as you would act standing in front of someone at a cocktail party. Be polite.

Twitter is a stripped model with an instant, seemingly endless reach. When it comes to leveraging it for marketing, don’t think there aren’t any limits. It’s not about no limits, it’s about knowing the limits. (Example: auto follow-backs + direct messages like “Thanks for following! Learn more about my passion for grasshopper lipbalm here [link]” = spam that crosses the line.)

Segmenting Your Automation
If you employ a Twitter autofeed (which is acceptable, so long as you space it out and don’t slam people with 15 tweets inside of 2 minutes), don’t forget to consider things like your followers’ location and timezone.
And of course, only feed them relative content.

Although many of these tools that can help automate your Twitter strategy claim to be “set it and forget it” models, that is not the mindset you should have in mind when you integrate them into your campaigns. These aren’t Crock Pot Slow Cookers, people! Tracy’s an evangelist of an 80% / 20% split between human interaction and automation. Leverage these tools to help you, but don’t (I repeat, DON’T) rely on them to do all the work. Set the services, schedule the tweets… but check back every day to respond to @mentions, brand conversation, direct messages, etc. People need to know there’s a human behind the screen.

Bots Gone Bad
Changes to Google’s algorithm in the last few months have allowed us to get a better understanding of awesome things like SERP management and online reputation management. These facets of online presence are essential to consider if you decide to code a bot for Twitter automation. If you set up bots without a clever, intelligent, human strategy, you’re asking for trouble. And if you succumb to the Slow Cooker “set it and forget it” approach, what can you expect if there’s a crisis or recall and the only one there to respond is a bot?

If you do this, Tracy says “you’re writing your death warrant across the search engines.” You have to cleverly think about this. It’s wonderful if you have lots of content to share, but there’s lots of engagement you are charged with carrying out. Automation is a tool to help you do this- it is not an unpaid employee. Automation is about making your life and interactions easier, making the generation of content easier, making your tracking of ROI easier, make justifying your social media marketing budget to the C-levels easier.

Retweet bots are tricky business, especially the ones that have absolutely no concept of sentiment. Sentiment analysis is usually 50-50, anyway. No machine can fully understand sentiment or the nuances of our language. (And with words like “wicked,” “ill” and “cool”… can you blame them?). Tracy regaled us with an instance when her and a friend were tweeting back and forth some observations/complaints about a client’s competitor, John Deere. Some joker had set up a John Deere RT bot that retweeted every tweet with the keywords “John Deere.” We’re not saying John Deere created it, but if they don’t do anything about it, they’re totally neglecting their brand presence.

Tracy left us with one final token of advice should you choose turn to automation tools: “Keep it real!”

Oh, and this:

Last up was Paul Madden. He tackled the slightly spammier side of the session. Hollis and Tracy’s presentations could have been titled Automation Tools That Can Do Legwork While You Are An Awesome, Valuable Person On Twitter, Yay! Paul’s preso was more of a How To: Build A Believable Tweet Cyborg 101. He illuminated the dilemma many companies face, the same one Tracy pointed out: people feel they “have” to have a presence on Twitter, but skilled employees cost money. This predicament makes bots look like a mighty fine (and super cheap, comparatively) alternative.

So You’ve Decided To Make A Bot…
The challenge is to make the bot believable. Anyone can code a bot, but not everyone understands how to code a human. (This seemed adorable to me at the time. Sort of Hallmarky. Yes? No? I just picture cute robots with cartoon hearts. Maybe it’s just me…)

Here’s how Paul structures the setup:

  1. Build a following. The ever-frustrating follow/unfollow trick still works, but the tools that do this have to be pretty intelligent to fly under the radar.
  2. Employ a hybrid model. Twitter + server base app coded in php + offshore team that maintains and populates the server. Then, schedule tweets through Twitter.
  3. Create your bot account. Make him/her as close to a real person as possible. Give them a regular-looking, inviting avatar.
  4. Give them a stylesheet (bio). “Katie is a student at [local university] who likes [brand-related topics] and has a dog named Bruno.”
  5. Generate a tweet spreadsheet. Vary the types of automated tweets:


  • General: “taking Bruno for a walk, it’s so nice out!” (Build a personality.)

  • Questions: “anyone know where i can find a good [brand-related topic]?” (Subtly mine data from your followers.)

  • Links: “this is an awesome place to learn about [brand-related topic][link]” (Paul’s a firm believer in a 1:10 ratio here – only tweet one link per ten tweets. Most importantly, these links should NOT point back to your site. Just share good, relevant content, man!)
  • Hashtags: “omg i love my job! #socialmediamarketing” (Only when it seems relevant. DON’T spam hashtags.)

In addition to straight-forward status update tweets, don’t forget to engage people! Code your bot to integreate @mentions, retweets, etc.

Remember to match your tweets to your audience. Check out your site analytics. When is there active presence and participation? Correlate your schedules- set up the bot to tweet when your audience is actually online.

Paul agrees with Hollis in Tracy- you’ve got to check back every day, not only to make sure the bots aren’t crashing and burning (or trying to take over the world! Ahhh!), but to engage your followers, reply to @mentions, thanks folks for RTs, answer questions, respond to DMs, pay compliments, you know… be human. Despite Paul’s slightly spamtacular take on Twitter automation, he still says it’s the one-on-one interaction that will always matter most.

How Not To Get Caught
Don’t try anything that’s just straight-up wrong. You’re not allowed to impersonate people, masquerade accounts,  rules about spam. Don’t do anything dumb that will risk the main brand account. But as Paul pointed out, Twitter doesn’t really enforce their own rules… “YET.” Above all else, remember that this is social media… so don’t be antisocial and don’t do anything that would piss people off in real life. In the Twitterverse, this translates to:

  • No auto DMs
  • No RT spam
  • No asking for followers
  • No copying other tweets for the sake of content (unless you give credit where credit is due)

So you see, folks, robots and humans CAN coexist in a peaceful and productive Twitterverse. Within reason, you by all means should leverage bots and tools to automate the dirty work so you can enjoy a more streamlined experience with your social marketing campaigns… just make sure you know where to draw the line.

Speaking of drawing, I just had to seize this opportunity to exercise my deep freaky borderline inappropriate love for robots artistic abilities.

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