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The Social Media Automation Strategy Every Marketer Needs

Mar 26, 2014 12 min readTools
Photo of Kevan Lee
Kevan Lee

Former VP of Marketing @ Buffer


When I was in elementary school, my wardrobe was fully automated. I had a certain pair of sweatpants for Mondays, jeans for Tuesdays, Zubaz for Wednesdays, and so on. It was quite the system for a fourth-grader!

Automation has been a big part of my life ever since. I love to find helpful ways to work smarter—anything to shave an extra few minutes off my day. Automation, when done right, scratches this itch perfectly.

The same holds for automation of one’s social media marketing. There are huge efficiencies to unlock here, but at the same time, there remains one big question: “How do you automate your social media presence and stay in the conversation with your audience?”

Curious for myself, I researched and delved into this question of automation and came up with some intriguing answers. Based on that, here’s a strategy to achieve social media automation done right—both efficient and engaged.

First things first: Social media marketing should not begin and end with automation

Have you seen the infomercials for the Ronco rotisserie oven? Happy chefs throw all kinds of food into this oven, they turn the dial, and the audience cheers in unison, “Set it and forget it!” It makes for a convincing sales pitch for a kitchen appliance, but as far as a motto for digital marketing? Not so much.

Social media is not a rotisserie oven. Please don’t set it and forget it.

Rotisserie - set it and forget it

Instead, I like to imagine social media automation as more like baking cookies. When the cookies go in the oven your work isn’t over—you check on the progress, maybe you prepare the next batch. You remain engaged from beginning to end. The same should be the case for your social media accounts.

Automate what you can while still remaining engaged on a consistent basis.

The goal of automation is not to remove work entirely but rather to help you work more efficiently. Automation can take your daily social media work from a few hours to 30 minutes, perhaps, allowing you the ability to use your time wisely:

With proper use of social media automation, you can make your time spent on your social media online marketing as productive and profitable as possible.

With that in mind, let’s begin.

The simple system for automating social media

Once you realize that automation and conversation go hand-in-hand, you can truly work to build an efficient, effective process. Here are four steps to starting your well-rounded automation plan:

  1. Understand when to automate and when to engage
  2. Choose your tools for automation
  3. Find your ideal automation schedule
  4. Create ways to stay tuned in to the conversation

Step 1: Understand when to automate

Automation can be a little addicting. Once you unlock efficiencies in one area, it is tempting to keep going until you’ve mastered your entire workflow. With social media, it’s important to resist the temptation—not everything is meant to be automated. Even big brands have struggled with understanding when and how to walk the fine line of automation and engagement. Progressive famously failed at automation by sending automatic responses to users trying to engage the company on a controversial topic.

Progressive twitter

And Progressive is far from the only company to have problems understanding the difference between when to automate and when to engage.

Here are some ideas about when you’ll find it best to schedule ahead of time and when it is best to do the work manually.

Automate your content curation

Finding and sharing great content online is a useful way to build a brand and an audience on social media. Automation helps this process in two ways: It provides a means of posting these updates at the best times for your audience, whether you’re around or not, and it frees you up to have more time to find amazing content to share.

What’s a good rule of thumb for content sharing? You’ll likely find a golden ratio for your particular audience based on your social analytics, but if you’re in the mood for experimenting, here’s an interesting one I found: the 5-3-2 rule of social media sharing, proposed by TA McCann. The rule states that for every 10 updates you post to a social media channel,
  • 5 should be content from others, relevant to your audience
  • 3 should be content from you, relevant to your audience—and not a sales pitch
  • 2 should be personal, non-work related content that helps humanize you and/or your brand
5-3-2 rule of content sharing

The result of maintaining a schedule like this leads you to focus on your audience moreso than on yourself. In that sense, the system is more a way to ensure that you stay on point with your marketing—whether you follow it to a T is less important as whether or not you’re maintaining the right message.

Automate your non-urgent social media posts

Beyond content curation, most social media users will find themselves sharing thoughts, quotes, retweets, and more through their network of choice. You could imagine these being the “personal” notes in the 5-3-2 rule mentioned above. Provided these posts are not time sensitive, these would make perfect sense to automate and schedule.

Twitter quote

(Buffer users may have noticed that quotes are part of the daily content suggestions we curate to aid your scheduling queue. You can add and automate with a click of a button.)

Automate your RSS

Bloggers generally want to share their latest posts to as many social places as possible, and since almost everything that ends up on the blog ends up on social media, automation is helpful here. You can automate so that new posts get transmitted directly into your social media channels. The only catch here is that you’ll want to check the formatting of everything before you set this process in motion. Just be aware to stay in tune with feedback from your audience. Blind blasting of RSS content can scream automation, which can be a turnoff to your social audience.

At Buffer, we like to post multiple times about the new content that appears on the blog because it gives us a chance to try out new headline structures and to reach a larger percentage of our followers throughout the day.

headline testing

Automation makes it so that we can do this process all at once rather than popping in and out every few hours when it’s time to post again.

Automate your marketing flows

Many big businesses have flows and funnels that begin with social media—lead capture from tweets, product improvements from social suggestions, troubleshooting, feedback, and more. If it makes sense to you, automate these to cut down on the work it takes to manage these social accounts. For instance, if you can trigger a lead generating process each time you favorite a tweet, you’ve made the job that much easier.

Do NOT automate customer interactions

As in the case of the Progressive example above, automating customer interactions can lead to some really bad experiences. Many busy companies might be tempted to automate simple responses like “thanks,” but anything more than that is a dangerous game.

Plus, customers appreciate unique and individual responses on social media, and many of them love social media as much as they do because of these interactions specifically. When you take the human out of social media, it isn’t all that social anymore. Automating customer interactions might never lead to bad press like Progressive, but it can have damaging effects on engagement and reputation nonetheless. Customers can tell when they’re dealing with an assembly line instead of a human.

Do NOT automate troubleshooting

In a similar vein, troubleshooting should generally be left to real people and real interactions. There may be opportunities to streamline communication if there is a common problem that can be fixed with a simple answer, but even then, it is best to always run it by a human first. When the customer is already inconvenienced by a problem with your product, it makes things that much worse to compound the problems with a robotic response.

Step 2: Choose your automation tools

Organize your social sharing with Buffer

Buffer lets you connect your Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn accounts so that you can create queues of content that get sent at the times you choose. Tools like this are incredibly helpful for automating social sharing and content curation as you can place all your good finds here and let Buffer handle the rest. (Try the Buffer browser extension for a truly supercharged experience.)

Buffer a Retweet

Connect your apps with IFTTT and Zapier

Tools like IFTTT and Zapier are heaven-sent for automation. These services connect apps with one another to create a call-and-response chain of action. For instance, you can connect your blog’s RSS feed and your Twitter, Facebook, G+ and LinkedIn accounts so that every time you publish a new post your social account gets updated as well. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Both places allow you to browse their long lists of possibilities so you can find something useful for you. Potential recipes include automated systems for favoriting tweets and sending them to Buffer, archiving to Dropbox whenever you are tagged in a Facebook photo, and saving articles to read later directly from favorite social media posts.

Here is how the process might look if you were to connect your IFTTT with your blog:

RSS to Buffer

Step 3: Find your ideal posting schedule

Tools like Buffer let you throw all your great finds into a queue and space out your posts accordingly throughout the day or week. By default, the well-spaced schedule hits your audience at sensible times throughout the day. But let’s say you want to get ultra-specific on what times are indeed best for posting to social media. There are certainly a number of criteria to consider:

  • What time zones are the majority of your fans located?
  • When do your posts most often get clicked and shared?
  • When are you around to respond to interactions with your content?

The first two elements of timing can be hacked with helpful tools like SocialBro, Followerwonk and Tweriod. These sites can analyze your followers to tell you when your audience is around during the day and when they are highly engaged on social media, both with your content and with others. Here is a Tweriod graph for when I can expect my Twitter followers to be online:

Tweriod screenshot

In addition, here are some helpful stats passed on by Social Media Examiner that can help you understand when the majority of people will be online to chat:

  • Twitter engagement for brands is 17% higher on weekends (Dan Zarrella).
  • Users are 181% more likely to be on Twitter during their commute (Dan Zarrella).
  • Retweets have been shown to be highest around 5 pm (Kissmetrics).
  • The best time to maximize your click-through rate (CTR) from Twitter is 1–3 pm (Raka).

As far as timing for when you’re around to respond, that one’s up to you. It wouldn’t be much fun to miss out on relevant conversations based on content you posted while you were sleeping, so keep this in mind when you’re scheduling.

Step 4: Create a system for staying in the conversation

Just the fact that you are performing this step in the process is a good sign. Desiring to stay in the conversation will be beneficial for whatever system you end up installing.

Use Mention to track yourself and your brand on social media

Mention is a superpowered version of Google Alerts that you can use to track your name across websites, blogs, and social media channels. Mention searches and finds any instance whatsoever where you or your brand are mentioned, and you can reply and engage straight from the Mention dashboard. Like Google Alerts, you can be updated via email when you receive a mention; I’ve opted for a daily email to bring me up to speed on who’s saying what. It’s a hand-delivered opportunity for personal engagement with an audience.

Mention screenshot

Turn on notifications so you’re aware of opportunities

Twitter, Facebook, and the like have the capability to notify you of virtually anything that happens to your account. Often times, these notification settings are one of the first things users turn off, especially once the scope of emails becomes apparent. I’m not suggesting that you opt-in to every single email from your social media channels, but it’s definitely worth a look to see which alerts and notifications might be helpful.

For instance, I have chosen to be notified for almost everything Twitter-related as I seek to build relationships there. From the list of options, I’ve only turned off the notification for new followers, and even with that, I check the list daily in order to reciprocate those who have followed.

Twitter notifications

Set aside time to dive into the stream and engage

Of course, the best way to stay in the stream of social media conversation is to roll up your pantlegs and wade on in.

One way to do this is to schedule a block of time each day to visit your social media profiles. At Buffer, we lovingly call this the “drive-by.” You can use this time any number of different ways to engage with your community. Respond to comments, post spontaneously, engage in what others are posting, etc. Since automation is saving you time with posting, you should have a little extra time to make a drive-by one of your daily habits.

Avoid the pitfalls of automation

Beyond the four step process for a social media automation strategy, there are a few other best practices to be aware of when it comes to scheduling and automating your online presence.

Customize your messages for different networks

As you’re crafting your content queue, remember who’s on the other end of all this work: your audience. What’s best for them?

You may find that on Twitter it is best to be brief, whereas Google+ enjoys a lengthier message.

Different styles work better on different networks. Why not aim for distinct messages for each of the social networks you share? Have a style for Twitter, one for Facebook, one for Google+, etc.

Simply plugging in set messages to be spread across all your social media platforms can sometimes look insincere and robotic. But if a user sees how much thought you place into creating unique messages across different platforms, imagine what an impression it would make.

Don’t schedule too far in advance

The goal with automation is to fill your queue so that you can focus your energy elsewhere—finding great content to share, responding to customers’s needs, brainstorming new ways to take over the world. That being said, there can be such a thing as too much scheduling.

Be careful not to schedule too far out in advance. Doing so might lead to your missing/forgetting the message behind your sharing. You could end up with untimely content that made sense two weeks ago but doesn’t on the day it goes live. Schedule your posts for a week or so out, but by all means dive in daily for spontaneous updates as you see fit.

Stay abreast of current events

When automating, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in the world around you. The Hurricane Sandy example is probably the most recent instance where current events dramatically changed the context for thousands of social media users. Another good example—in a positive way—is that of Oreo and its response to the power outage during the Super Bowl.

Oreo super bowl ad

Be prepared to hit the pause button

When big news does strike, it’s important to be prepared to hit pause on all your automation instances. Buffer lets you tick off the days you want to stop your posts, and similar scheduling programs also allow for a fullscale halt if the situation requires it.


Hopefully you see the advantages of automation and the symbiotic relationship automation has with conversation. One cannot be as effective without the other. Automation benefits from conversation because you have a more engaged group of followers. Conversation benefits from automation because you are freed to spend more time engaging with those who matter.

Begin by figuring out what is best to automate, and be sure to end with a good balance of scheduling and conversing. While it might be easiest to automate it all, you’ll find that being part of the conversation will pay dividends in the long run.

What tips and tricks do you have for automating and engaging? Do you have a system in place to balance these two ideas? I’d love to know how you tackle this issue and what you’ve found that works for you.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like How to Find Your Best Time to Tweet: The 4 Most Accurate Methods and A Scientific Guide to Posting Tweets, Facebook Posts, Emails, and Blog Posts.

Image credits: MyDigitalSLR, CNN, Business Insider.

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