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!

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+.

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