Mana Ionescu

Is Marketing Automation Cheating or Just Slightly Creepy?

By: Mana Ionescu | June 13, 2013 | 

Marketing AutomationWhen I asked my brainiacs’ circle if marketing automation was cheating, their responses ranged from:

“Why would it be?”

“It’s a non-issue.”

“It’s smart marketing.”

“Maybe it’s slightly creepy.”

At the same time, the question does come up. A lot.

So let’s see, when is marketing automation smart, and when do we run the risk of going too far?

What is Marketing Automation?

It’s marketing execution using tools and software that automate repetitive tasks.

Marketers input hypothesis-based criteria and algorithms into the system, which executes a series of scenarios. This increases efficiency, reduces human error, and improves speed of proving/disproving marketing hypotheses (modified definition of the one on Wikipedia).

What is Cheating?

To act dishonestly or unfairly or against pre-agreed upon rules, or a contract, in order to gain an advantage.

What is Creepy?

You know it when you feel it. So will your audiences.

What is Smart Marketing?

Successful marketing has always been technology-dependent, which implies data, algorithms and engines. Even direct mail is automated.

Those highly-praised Target “custom-mailers,” are actually printed by a machine based on an algorithm. The marketers behind it don’t manually, individual-by-individual, send coupons for baby products vs. coupons for back-to-school.

Is it always smart to do so? No. But is it cheating?

Let’s look at social media and inbound marketing the same way: Automation, contracts, and audience response.

Email Marketing

The clear contract: Permission-based marketing. Did the owner of the email address give permission to you to email them?  Do you have a contract? Typically a smart email marketing contract is a commitment to not spam and only share valuable (in their eyes) content.

For example, the agreement we have with our readers is we won’t spam and we’ll send a monthly email with practical digital marketing tips.

You may wonder where CAN SPAM fits in here. It doesn’t. In fact, CAN-SPAM is dubbed “you can spam.”

Those rules state you can email people even without their permission. But that’s an article for another time.

The grey area: Indirect data collection. How about the emails collected from white paper downloads, sweepstake,s and contests?

This is a grey area because in most cases the contract is you get one piece of content for free if you give your email address. But most white paper download rules don’t clearly state how the email addresses will be used. Is that smart marketing or breaking a contract?

The don’ts: Don’t buy addresses. There was no email marketing contract there. You will get a list that’s 60 percent incorrect, and the other 40 percent won’t open the email because they don’t recognize the sender name. You’re wasting time and money, so don’t do it.

Twitter Automation

If you are looking for leads on Twitter you will need some automation. There I said it.

A high-volume content space, requires a high-volume method. Whether you’re using a mentions alerts system, or a follow/unfollow system such as Manageflitter, or a third party app, you are going the automation way. And a dose of automation with the right level of observation is healthy.

The clear contract: Twitter is meant to be an open network. Twitter encourages posting, following, unfollowing, retweeting, DMing, and mentioning anyone you please – as long as you don’t act like a spammer.

Twitter has very clear rules on what this means.

We typically hear of the “bulk follow and unfollow” rule. In fact Twitter discourages following or unfollowing too many users in too short of a period of time, but also discourages posting only updates with links and no personal updates.

Ouch, half of the Twitterverse is in breach of terms!

So, using automation tools to follow, unfollow, and post is fine, as long as it’s not using a spam pattern.

If you are looking for more efficient targeting, go the automation route. And that’s the key to this.

Spammers don’t look for fans. They look for anyone. Spammers don’t look to deliver value, and don’t have contracts. Spammers don’t target. They do everything, in bulk.

If you take a purposeful, targeted approach, in most cases you won’t be breaking rules. In fact, that’s what true marketing automation is, using tools for better targeting and outreach.

The grey area: Auto-messaging and “group tweeting.” Auto-DMs and auto-responses may be in breach of the Twitter terms, falling under the category of posting the same message repeatedly. There may be instances where response scripting is needed (customer service and legal and compliance instances for example).

The group tweeting situation is where you truly, genuinely, want to invite 100 of your Twitter contacts to an event. In fact, the original purpose of Twitter was to facilitate group messaging.

So, should you craft separate messages for each friend, or is it ok to send them all the same message?

Don’ts: Tweet and run. If you’re going to use automation, don’t use it with Q&As. You’ll get the community to talk to you but you’re not there to participate. It’s just not smart marketing.

Publishing: Finding Content and Scheduling

Is it cheating to use an engine to find associate content (such as Zemanta), and is it cheating to pre-schedule publishing of your content?

The clear contract: Compelling content wins. People are attracted to social media accounts and communities that fulfill certain needs, mainly the need to get information, to socialize, and to be validated. Since we can’t perfectly predict when each of our followers is online, it’s best if we evenly spread the content out to provide content for all those needs.

Or you can use automation! You can use Buffer, or Hootsuite auto-scheduling to place your messages in the social stream at the “perfect” time.

The grey area: Obeying copyright. Even with a tool that finds relevant associated content, you still have to be careful about copyright and attribution. Using automation to publish curated content poses some risks.

Want to be safe? Get familiar with – and obey – copyright laws.

The don’ts: Don’t schedule and forget. During two past national tragedies many organizations had pre-scheduled promotional posts. These pre-schedules were left unattended and made said organizations look insensitive, absent and unappealing.

Don’t just schedule and forget. I talked about “feelings” earlier. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. One of our clients, a film director, said it so well, the Friday of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting: “It doesn’t feel right to be out there pimping my movie this weekend.” TV interviews and social media promos got cancelled. And he gained respect through his absence rather than his presence.

So, once a week, ask yourself: Is my pre-schedule still relevant? Do I have an escalation procedure to minimize the risks of automation?

Long story short, the number one rule is respect the contract. The number two rule is use common sense.

So, what’s cheating, what’s creepy to you? Please do share!

About Mana Ionescu

Mana is the president of Chicago Social Media Marketing company Lightspan Digital. She believes in purpose and storytelling as the keys to online marketing success. Connect with Mana on Twitter @manamica and Google+.

  • Chris Shaffer

    SOME scheduling isn’t the end of the world, as long as you use it in a way that makes sense. It’s always better to not automate, since you can’t scale human interaction in a meaningful way.

    • @Chris Shaffer until we really get AI to work right? 😉

  • Mike Driehorst

    Echoing a bit what Chris noted, some automation isn’t bad, but don’t over-do it. Automation is neither creepy nor cheating; it’s just not as good as real-time, human-driven social media, and doesn’t meet the audience’s expectations, IMHO.

    • @Mike Driehorst “not as good as,” nails it. In marketing we should aim for what’s “better than,” not just be lazy about it.

  • Bob Farnham

    I agree with Chris. For me, it’s about the interaction with readers. I use automation occasionally but prefer not to. What is the best automation set-up?

    • @Bob Farnham the best to what end? For those who just don’t want to do the work, any automation is the best heh. 😉

  • KateNolan

    I get creeped out when, 30 minutes after I’ve downloaded something, I get the “Did you read it? What do you think? Let’s schedule a demo!” call. Sorry, If I’ve downloaded something it’s in the  TBR pile to review and follow up with my team on. Of course, this is mostly the marketing automation software folks who do that. Funny that they’re the ones turning me off of automation!

    • KateNolan sounds like they’re not knowing their audiences. And that’s a common problem with automation. It only works when the targeting and the funnels are well designed. Another thing I wonder about the white-paper model is… how much attention does the content get and how much does the “sales” process get. And if the content is great, shouldn’t they allow enough time for the content to do its job before they call?

      • KateNolan

        manamica Exactly! Give me time to read, digest and even attempt some of it!

        • KateNolan so Kate now that you had time to digest this, any further thoughts? ;p #teasing

        • KateNolan

          manamica Gaah!! /runs away
          Well played!

  • This is all “new” to me so thank you for the explanation!

    • biggreenpen you are welcome. So what did you think – creepy or smart?

      • manamica Well, I can’t think of many instances where it is “smart.” I think as a consumer I tune out things that don’t appear remotely thought-through. So from the standpoint of the investment the business makes in automation, they aren’t getting their money’s worth (probably) and they’re probably not enhancing their relationship with me as a customer (or potential customer). And it CAN verge on the creepy!! I’m proofing a book right now for which I have had to google things like specific brands of semi-automatic weapons and marijuana grow rooms. I hesitate to think what the bits and bytes behind automation are going to deliver up to me now that they think I may be in the market for that kind of thing. 🙂

        • biggreenpen haha! you should ask mylespulse about how I pranked him with a sports gun magazine. And I don’t want to know what ads they’re retargeting you with, but if you see a funny one pelase send me a screenshot 🙂 
          You raise a great point about “thought-through” marketing. Is it possible that how marketing automation has been “sold” it gives people a license to not think through properly? We have a saying at Lightspan “think before you tweet.” Even a little tweet requires some thought, a big campaign should require a lot of it.

  • Definite pet peeves of mine: when I immediately get a DM asking me to like, subscribe or download something, I have serious Follower’s Regret. And in the hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, I unfollowed a handful of people because I was tired of their scheduled tweets about SEO and marketing tactics stinking up my feed. I don’t like dealing with robots.

    • RobBiesenbach honestly I don’t get the auto-DM upon follow thing. It is so 1989! Get with the times people! 🙂

    • RobBiesenbach How about people sending auto DMs to connect on Facebook. What do you think of this practice?

      • PTheWyse RobBiesenbach I have to set the record straight – I never click on any DMs, I rarely read them, and only look at my inbox because sometimes true friends will message me there. But if someone really wants to reach me they can email me it’s mana at If they had paid attention to my Twitter stream they’d have seen my email address publicly posted by me before. It’s not a guarantee that I’ll write back right away, but I do read all email and respond as soon as I can.

  • crestodina

    There is definitely some creepiness involved with automation. I recently learned about “progressive profiling” which is a way for marketers to to gather info about visitors by gradually asking visitors one question at a time to build up a profile visitors. ZIP code, gender, job title are asked and answered, one questions at a time, through tiny surveys and forms. So the marketer eventually builds a profile for engaged visitors. Creepy, right?
    The types of marketing mentioned here are smart targeting and I respect that, even if they are in they are in the gray area of terms and conditions. But knowing that websites are gradually building a profile on me …I start to get weirded out.

    • crestodina thanks Andy. Is that why you don’t use Facebook? ;p And sorry to break the news but the credit bureaus have been building profiles on you since you first got a credit card and have been selling that data to retailers and banks for ages. I still don’t understand why we are so kind to banks and credit bureaus and so demanding of website to collect “less.” I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s not a new thing…

      • manamica crestodina I won’t open the whole FB can here, but profiling and data / privacy concerns is part of the reason I don’t use the platform. 
        I think the reason people are becoming more suspicious is that we realize companies and governments tracking us aren’t just interested in our buying habits. They want to know who we are and that’s not far off of thoughtpolice / 1984 stuff.

        • JoeCardillo wait wait wait, I’d die to hear the rest of this sentence… “I won’t open the whole FB can of ______________” crestodina

        • manamica JoeCardillo crestodina Well I would never out Andy as an ex-KGB spy parakeet trainer, but let’s just say I’ve seen some things in the  Siberian desert that I wouldn’t want on Facebook either…

        • crestodina

          JoeCardillo manamica crestodina Ha! Love it. Updating my LinkedIn profile. Past Experience: KGB… Skills: Bird training…

    • carmenhill

      crestodina Hi Andy, to me progressive profiling seems pretty transparent, since you’re choosing to answer the questions…just one or two at a time, rather than in a long form. Lots of sites build a profile for engaged visitors without asking anything at all. I assume that’s always happening, but to me that’s definitely creepier.

  • Great post, so much to think about here! Though I do think auto-DMs and group-tweeting deserve to die a quick death.

    • Unmana as I was saying to RobBiesenbach I simply don’t get the auto-DMs. When these methods were young I could see people testing them but by now it should be obvious that it doesn’t work and it turns people off.

      • manamica Unmana RobBiesenbach Yeah the problem with auto-DMs (and the reason DM is now a post-tweetpocalpytic waste land) is that is it was built as a personal messaging tool. So you have a structure that says “I am contacting you personally” and a message that says “sexy marketing time!”

    • Unmana I agree with your statement. I can’t stand auto-DMs. I also can’t stand those, “someone is making up information about you…etc etc”. It is definitely a virus haha.

  • Great post manamica it is important to find the right balance for productivity sake to not be creepy or faceless. But that said marketing exists because for many markets and products the value of a sale to an individual isn’t enough to warrant the cost of a direct sales person. You can’t have someone friending you to influence your purchase of pepsi. But pepsi has direct sales people selling to retailers and restaurants etc.
    I feel there are 3 areas one grey one black/creepy that pose risk.
    1] garbage in garbage out. if the humans doing the automating create poor algorithms or make oor assumptions you fail
    2] Grey – like some of your examples you can make your brand feel very impersonal. Even club cards are impersonal. How many people get a glowing feeling when a coupon at the supermarket prints out for the brand you rejected in favor of the one you just bought because the rejected brand aid to have that coupon print when the competition was bought?

    3] black/creepy – online tracking and behavioral targeting. Or like many retailers who operate secret cameras to analyze shopper behavior.
    I think with the right balance and strategy you can automate a lot as long as it is balanced with real contact/feeling.

    • Howie Goldfarb thanks Howie. So you mean we should take people into consideration? ;p

  • Hey this is a great post Mana, raises some interesting Qs. 
    Howie’s first point below is spot on – and to further it, when setting up marketing automation the most important thing to remember is that you are having a conversation with humans. 
    We all know that great content rules, and that helps. But thinking about structure and conversation is the piece that people forget. A small example would be: promoting a blog post or whitepaper on thought leadership w/email marketing and a landing page. 
    Many companies use these as bait for sales leads.  So effectively they’re asking compelling questions, and then answering them with “buy our product.” That’s like auto-DM’ing someone.

    • JoeCardillo wee I thought I responded to this but I guess commenting from mobile doesn’t work. Let’s see if my memory works properly still…. Regarding structure and conversation – I love that you’re mentioning both instead of just “conversation.” And I’m assuming you mean here the process, the flow of options – if x then z? It must be really complex and take a lot of care to design the process well. I’m thinking of it like this, does someone visiting my blog 3 times and then downloading a white-paper mean their intention is to buy, or are they just coming to learn? How do you evaluate intention in automation? Is it even possible? And if it’s not possible, maybe the next step (calling someone) shouldn’t be to get them to buy the product should be to get a sense for the intention. I would definitely test the approach and others to see which works best.

      • manamica JoeCardillo Sorry this took me so long, but what an insightful point Mana – I was reminded of it (and cued to come back here =) by an experience this week where me/my company are the potential buyer. 
        We’re looking into email tracking/user friendly syncs from email to CRM, and I’ve been in touch with a vendor – the rep is perfectly nice, but she’s following up too much, which I think is at least in part because I read every single email and on her side it’s interpreting that as intent. 
        The easiest way to find out what someone wants is simply to ask them, either out front, or in pieces like progressive profiling. So far I’ve seen some interesting automation but nothing that supercedes the need for an architect to create the experience (and when I say architect I mean an actual person, who is using data on the customer / prospect experience to inform how the automation works).

  • Hello manamica,
    I really enjoyed this article and this quote stood out. “Twitter discourages posting only updates with links and no personal updates.” I see a lot of influential marketers that only post links. There is no interaction. 
    For awhile I followed this routine and I noticed that it was not working. So I decided to be more personable and interactive. I am glad that I made that decision. I was spamming my followers and I didn’t even know it. 
    Thank you for crafting this post and exposing the limitations of automation.

    • PTheWyse manamica
      You bring up a great point.
      Too many people just post links. I admittedly post some links, but I also take time throughout the day to interact with a lot of people. As you said, interacting with people will change the game for you.
      It’s like, interact or fail ( if you remember the old skate or die).

      • IpjRobson PTheWyse we’ve studied this extensively and have data that shows how Twitter accounts grow new following mostly through interaction. During periods of just posting the account follower growth was flat. During periods of 80% interaction & 20% posting, Twitter following started going up, and the more the interaction the faster the following grew.

        • manamica IpjRobson PTheWyse 
          Cool thanks for the information.

  • My favorite part: Compelling Content Wins. I use automation primarily as a content curation strategy. I still read through the content, but if I shared as quickly as I read, then good content would get lost in my own noise.
    Instead, Hootsuite, Buffer, DoShare, Triberr, and BundlePost allow me to schedule that great content over a longer period of time. I do tend to “schedule and forget”, but that is because I already read and approved the content (and sometimes commented on the blog post).
    I really liked TweetSpinner for helping me with my follow/unfollow and targeted Twitter following. When TweetSpinner was acquired, I moved over to ManageFlitter. I do not like it as much, but it still helps me out. My followers/following grows slowly because I still take the time to vet out who I follow.

    • dbvickery you may check out Tweepi for follow/unfollow. I like that I can stalk crestodina with it… I go in there and follow people he’s added to his lists. I know how carefully he curates them Again, here’s an example of automation that may work. Since I know Andy and his attention to quality, following people on his lists ensures a certain level of quality and like-mindedness.

      • manamica dbvickery crestodina Commencing Andy-stalk…

        • crestodina

          dbvickery Stalk anytime!

  • Randy Milanovic

    Neither creepy or cheating. Automating your website allows it to work in your absence, and satisfies your visitor’s request for contact/content. That said, you’d be a fool not to follow up quickly.

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