Lessons Learned from a Twitter Robot
Lessons Learned from a Twitter Robot
Lessons Learned from a Twitter Robot

A robot didn’t write this post.

But if technology continues at the current pace, a future with bot-authored posts may not be too far off on the horizon.

Depressing? Definitely. Crazy? Maybe not. Automation is alive and well in the world of social media and the debate rages on whether social media automation defeats the purpose of social media altogether.

An oversimplified summary of the argument: (Some) people advocate for the humanization of brands while (some) brands automate their advocacy toward people.

In the battle of automation versus humanization there’s no clear hero and no clear villain. (It can be as confusing and frustrating as that sentence above was to read).

So who better to turn to for answers on the automation debate than a Twitter robot?

Meet @contentasaurus (Image by epsos.de)

For the past month, I ran a Twitter account where a robot produced every bit of content it spewed out into the social media ether. This robot relied solely on other people’s thoughts and added no knowledge of its own to the social media sphere because it was completely, 100% automated.

Here’s what I did:

  • Used RSS feeds to automatically Tweet content produced by 50 digital media blogs (mostly selected from the AdAge Power 150 and Junta42)
  • Picked (what I thought was) a cool name (@contentasaurus) and accompanying avatar (pictured)
  • Sat back and waited to see what happened

And here’s what the Twitter robot taught me:

Automation is not quite automatic

It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to set up an automated Twitter account which can cause you to wonder if your productivity shortcut was actually worth it.

You’ve got to do the dull work of setting up the feeds (I used Twitterfeed for this) and go through hundreds or thousands of Twitter accounts and mindlessly click “Follow.”

Then you’ve got to determine your sources and vet them for frequency and content (so you don’t flood people’s streams or find your auto-bot Tweeting bizarre personal posts from a blogger that are entirely out of context to your audience).

And even if you’re careful:

Sometimes, you look pretty dumb

Even when you carefully select sources, automatically posting from RSS feeds will sometimes lead to embarrassing gems like this one, which @contentasaurus dutifully Tweeted:

accidental automatic tweet
Jeff Larche is a great writer and a smart guy, but that doesn't mean this test post from his blog should have been shared on Twitter by anyone.

People will follow bots, but engagement is low.

After I set up the account, I prepared to be mostly ignored. But that didn’t happen (which probably says a lot about the quality of content produced by the sources I selected).

Some statistics from the 43-day life of @contentasaurus:

  • The account posted more than 2,500 Tweets (about 60 Tweets per day)
  • Which generated 443 clicks
  • Which resulted in about 80 @mentions and 19 Retweets
  • And a Klout score of 43 (for whatever that’s worth)
Not great, but not terrible for a “set it and forget it” Twitter strategy. But the worst part?

Ignoring people is painful. And it turns them off.

The hardest part of the experiment was ignoring the nice messages people sent to @contentasaurus; thanking it for sharing their post or wishing it a good weekend. Despite my impulse to act like a human and respond to them, I let the conversation languish, because that’s what a robot would do.

It turns out that when you don’t respond to people in conversations, they eventually stop trying to talk to you.

So, what are the lessons I learned from my Twitter robot?

  • Automation can be useful, but it’s got to be carefully set up, monitored, and curated (In other words, not truly automated)
  • Automation will never replace conversation
  • Automation, when mixed with curation and conversation, can be very powerful
Automating the sharing of carefully curated content can be a great arrow in your digital marketing quiver, but it’s best to keep a human nearby to keep it real.
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About the Author

Andrew Hanelly
Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.
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  • Anonymous

    Andrew, your opening is a nice punchline: ‘A robot didn’t write this post’.  You bet, I’m laughing.  I think there will always be ways where people will try to game the system, especially with this social media fatigue hype that I get to read a lot these days.  In my case, I’d go for automating responsibly or following the 80/20 rule: as in 80% conversation and 20% automation.  I guess it’s fine to automate posts if it frees up your time in keeping your accounts active, so you can engage more with your peers.  Then, you may wonder whatever happened to having fun getting to know your people online these days.  Perhaps, we are on this amazing race to become the first human bot around… or a human RSS feed.

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  • Twitter prohibits the use of the site to disseminate mass unsolicited messages (i.e., spamming). According to Twitter’s rules, what constitutes “spamming” will evolve as the site responds to new tactics used by spammers. Twitter’s rules list several factors that the site considers in determining what conduct constitutes spamming, including whether a Twitter user has followed a large number of users in a short amount of time; whether a user’s Twitter updates consist mainly of links and not personal updates; and whether a user posts misleading links.

  • I couldn’t agree more.  I think automation is great for relevant account and link sharing, conjoined in with your actual “human” interaction.

    A great example of this kind of usage would be what I do with my Melodyhunt1 account.  I’ll post tweets on it like I normally would, except I do not ever post links to my blog.  Using Timely, I schedule nine various posts a day which link to various album reviews and microreviews.  I then use the account as I normally would, replying to people, retweeting tweets, and posting other music-related stuff manually.

    I feel automation is excellent, but with everything, it’s only good in moderation.

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  • ulstrup

    You are right, for sure, on social media engagement, but automated social media “behaviore” works for SEO. Google +1 and SERPS is just about the most interesting topic right now.

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  • What an interesting “study.”  I gained a lot from your experience.  I know Jason uses automated functions for his twitter account… seeing that you were able to achieve 80 @mentions, 19 retweets, and a klout score of 43 tells me we can use these tools to achieve results if they’re balanced with human communication.  Thanks, Andrew.

    • Exactly, Chase. Balance is the key.

  • What a clever experiment! Conversation is certainly key but I can’t help but notice more twitter users are actually acting like bots. So much sharing now occurs, some users even ignore conversation opportunities. 

    • Agreed. It’s tough to scale 1 on 1 interaction, so I think we’ll see more automation as a result. If people have a limited amount of time to interact on Twitter, for instance, they might be inclined to automate the sharing of links from blogs they regularly read so the time they do spend on Twitter can be devoted to actual interaction. That’s the use case I see most commonly, anyway. If the sources are carefully curated, I don’t think I have a problem with it. What about you?

  • Andrew, this is awesome!  I would argue, though, that a bot could be trained to respond to those human tweets automatically as well.  Something sophisticated could do it I’m sure, but a hack might be something like run a search feed for the username through Yahoo Pipes, filter for original content perhaps and then publish a new feed of replies with the words “Thank you!” in the new messages.  Hell, I didn’t even write this comment myself!  I am a bot that goes around the web offering half-baked, obtuse “just put it in Yahoo Pipes” comments everywhere I go! ;)

    • You know, you’re probably right (well clearly, you *are* right, Mr. Bot).

      I think technology and automation could probably take care of a lot of the day to day management of a Twitter account, for example, but it’s that last bit that’s impossible to automate. The part where someone sends you a joke, or tells you off, and you respond with “Thank you!” I get the spirit of your comment though, and that’ll be a sad day when artificial intelligence dominates and us mere mortals must serve their every whim. Then again, we probably don’t have to worry, they probably won’t let us live.

  • Great article. I had been wondering about complete automation for some time, and how it would turn out. Your result was actually better than I would have imagined!

  • Cool experiment! There are some things a robot can do and some it can’t. Though sometimes it would be tempting to set up a robot to thank people for a flood of #ffs! 

    It’s interesting to think about this in the light of our work–we’re trying to bring Voice into social media to humanize the social media experience even more. If our apps take off then even robots could be used to post voice statuses. (Our project: http://voice.com/)

  • Of the people you ignored, did they unfollow or just stop trying to engage? Curious. Your experiment is interesting and like @LLsocial:disqus I am thinking of the ‘what if’ you had replied. If your account had gained an even larger following and more interaction, at the end of the day.. does that matter? Sure you’d have gamed a higher Klout score but would the Contentasaurus have been invited to guest post, speaking engagements? Just wondering about the payday and the business returns on all that SM investment. 

    I’m not big on automation (scheduling is something else) and think you’ve hit upon some of the reasons why. For it to work, you have to work for it.. you can’t set and forget, so really it’s not helping as it should. Mostly it’s because I don’t think you can automate quality curation, you can’t automate conversation or time-shift relationships. Since I’m about networking and meeting people in the interest of developing my biz, I don’t see how to automate that as the real human touch is always required. FWIW.

    • I think what you said is worth a lot. The human touch is indeed what makes social media special. Knowing that a human thought about the content we’re consuming means a great deal. That’s why magazines are (still) so popular. Everything that comes from a human source is guaranteed to have one thing in common: Someone thought about it. That matters.

      To be honest, I don’t know if they unfollowed (though I bet I can check) but they definitely didn’t turn out to be repeat interactors (for the most part).
      I agree with you that the real payoffs of social media (speaking gigs, guest posts, consulting gigs etc.) would have NEVER happened to contentasaurus.For instance, I met @Jasonfalls:twitter through Twitter. I was a reader of his blog and followed his Tweets. When he put out a call for guest bloggers, I responded with an impassioned email (that I hope has since been deleted). Contentasaurus wouldn’t have been able to do that.You’re absolutely right, Davina.

  • Thanks for the article.

    I have some experience in this specific topic and content niche.  Obviously this was outside of your experiments scope, but if you took five minutes a day to respond to any “at” mentions and to thank for RTs, I think you actually have a mildly successful and useful account on your hands.

    Irony is that I found your article through a similar automated Twitter account, that does exactly the same thing your experiment does, plus an occasional small personal touch.

    • I agree with you – all it would take is occasionally doing the “hey, thanks for sharing!” or “I know, right??” for this account to give off the impression of being human, and therefor would be more appealing.

      I can’t say it enough though: the reason I think this “worked” was because I picked really good blogs to automated (from curated sources, quite fittingly). 

      You think I should keep @Contentasaurus:twitter alive and help it out human style? Could be a good follow-up post in the making.

      • I totally agree that choosing what blogs to include is a level of curation.  Maybe not curation at its best, but still a form of it.  Not the account I referenced previously, but I created a account that just posts blog feeds from my local community of Lawrence, KS, and it has been somewhat popular and useful: @LBlogs:twitter 

        I have a blog post on my thought process if you are interested: http://www.llsocial.com/blog/2011/4/28/automated-curation-and-why-i-created-lblogs.html

        I personally think that automation is difficult to do right, but your curation approach combined with as much human monitoring as you can afford, can certainly make for an account that some with find useful. And great thing about Twitter, is if they don’t, they can always unfollow.

  • Thanks for sharing this experiment. I always wondered why people were drawn to robo-accounts and now I know. I still can’t see real value in them :-)

    • The long-term value is certainly questionable. How many clicks could this account generate over a year? What would happen if the output was increased? What would happen if the account was suddenly accompanied by a human who could take care of the “social” aspects?

      I think the real value in automation is in curation. If you pre-approve sources (and know they will share good stuff) what’s the harm in syndicating their content? There are certainly drawbacks, but there are benefits, too.

  • Leo Dimilo

    Hey Andrew,

    I think that automation misses one of the most important strategies when it comes to social media..networking with others who are active social for future opportunities. Many twitter people think links and mentions with little thought that they could be expanding their social graph beyond a casual mention.

    Very interesting (although predictable) insights.

    • “I think that automation misses one of the most important strategies when it comes to social media..networking with others who are active social for future opportunities.”

      That’s obviously true and has been the major argument for those in the “humanization” camp. I think the interesting thing was how quickly this automated account accumulated Klout (merit of Klout in question) and clicks (443 clicks over a month isn’t “nothing.” It’s the hint at a potentially substantial traffic source.

      I was surprised with the traction the robot got. Imagine if you scaled up the output of the robot x 10. Would you get 4K+ clicks in a month? Would we still think that was worthless?

      I think automation mixed with humanization can make for the strongest type of presence.

      Thanks for your interesting (although predictable) comment. :)

  • What a great post. Not that I ever thought about automating but it sure shows the importance of automating the right way and real engagement to make real connections both for personal and business reasons.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Claudia. I wanted to see what would happen if I completely removed the human element out of it. Sure, it got some results but nothing in comparison to what a human can do on his or her own. I do think automation can support social media initiatives, but there’s gotta be a human pilot or else it gets pretty lonely pretty quickly.


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