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Ask the Readers: Can You Automate Engagement?

It’s Ask the Readers time, and we’ve got a great one today.

We’re right smack dab in the middle of the Awesome Engagement Strategies Contest, and we’ve been getting tons of amazing tips, tricks and vice and tactics that we can use to increase our audience engagement.

Engagement is a hands-on business, and no matter how seriously you take it – keeping it up as your business grows is a challenge.

So it begs the question – can you automate engagement?

Can you take yourself out of the equation and still build relationships with your audience – or is the whole idea just crazy?

One the one hand, there are amazing tools and resources available now – email auto-responders, tweet schedulers, social commerce systems – all sorts of different technologies to help you transition into a more hands-off type of operation. We’re all busy people, and not everyone has the time to get right in the trenches with personal engagement for every single person.

But on the other hand an automated series of emails just doesn’t have the personal touch of one written directly to a single reader. It can’t, in form or function. What does that mean to the sincerity or quality of your relationship? Can you expect a customer or reader to really connect with you when you’re automating how you communicate with them?

So what do you think?

Can engagement by automation work? Is it right? Have you tried it yourself, or had it tried on you?

About Megan Dougherty

Megan Dougherty is an alumnus of Mirasee and is passionate about online education, small business and making a difference in the world. You can find out what she's up to and how side-hustles will take over the world at PayingforLife.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MeganTwoCents.

36 comments

  1. Pat Wooldridge says:

    I don’t see how a person can truly connect with someone else by using an automated system. It seems to me that the value of the business relationship would be pretty much lost. I can understand a mass emailing of an article now and then, but an automated mailing sent to many people at a time, even with each one’s first name in the heading, couldn’t possibly have a personal ‘feel’ for each. If the recipient’s reply would be acknowledged by even a brief, real answer, that would help.

  2. Amandah says:

    I’m still getting my feet wet with TweetAdder, but I can see why people use it. You can enter multiple “Thank You” messages, schedule tweets, set-up a retweet schedule, and do other neat things. Sometimes, automation can be useful. But nothing replaces ‘real time’ engagement.

  3. I like the automation of Triberr. It gets my posts and the posts of my tribe members out to far more people than I could reach on my own. But when I see someone favoriting or retweeting posts, I try to reach out to them personally.

    And I try to engage my fellow tribe members too. It’s a nice hybrid that keeps me active on a platform I find useful but don’t care for too much.

  4. Jarom Adair says:

    I find that automating everything when I send out information is effective at reaching a lot of people (emails and tweets), but then responding personally to everybody who replies is the way you make a lasting impression.

  5. Amandah says:

    I believe engagement by automation can work some of the time. For example, it’s understandable that if you’re blog has one million or more subscribers and you receive one hundred or more comments on your posts, you may not be able to answer each and every person who comments. You can either hire someone to answer for your or use an automation service.

    I’m testing out TweetAdder on one of my Twitter accounts and use an automated “Thank You” message. I have some followers, but not thousands of them as I had hoped and wished for. I know it takes time to build a following organically, but sometimes you get sucked into the sales and marketing of ‘automation’ sites that promise you the moon and stars. 🙂

    1. Megan says:

      Ahh – hiring someone… someday. Someday. 🙂

      TweetAdder sounds pretty cool – it sounds like it would save you the initial little bit of time that will free you up for more in-depth engagement with people you’ve already taken a few steps with. Thanks for the idea!

  6. Roberta Budvietas says:

    I think that the words may be part of the challenge here. Engagement means some form of intimacy. Automation means a non thought related action like breathing.
    And yet if we look at the most famous bloggers – Set Godin, Brian Clark, Tim Ferris etc,- do they engage or do they automate? What is the reason for the engagement? What is the purpose of the automation. I have several automated messages from Danny – and yet I feel engaged. However, several other automated information and responses annoy me. Why – because I value the information I receive from some people and others just set out to sell me.
    This is an incredibly difficult topic especially as your contacts grow. I know though that sometimes, automated emails allows me to reconnect with past colleagues. And let me tell you I love the reconnection. And would that happen without the automation? I believe not.

    1. Megan says:

      Interesting way to look at the concepts, Roberta – thank you!

      It is important to remember, as the person sending out messages, that you’ve got to be giving too – and to step back and really consider if something is valuable or not – that makes a huge difference.

  7. I would say that automation can help, but it can only do so by magnifying what you do by hand. Let me give an example.

    You likely get the same queries again and again from you audience. Many of them want a personal email reply.

    Here, you can have pre-written canned responses to repetitive questions, speeding up how fast personal replies can be written so you can actually engage with more of your audience. You can have systems that let you just type “ans1” and automatically replace it with the first canned response.

    Now if these replies are being crafted in direct response to what that person asked, then it’s still personalize *and* it’s automated. You still needed to care enough to take the time to have someone read the email and figure out what their problem was. Automation was still able to speed things up though.

    1. Megan says:

      I love this element of compromise. This kind of comes back to Theresa’s rule of thumb – what does someone expect in a given situation – and here’s a great way to meet that expectation.

      Any particular softwares or services that you find are good for this Piers?

      1. I use a rather odd collection of tools I’ve pieced together myself, that probably wouldn’t work for anyone else. A quick search on the phrase “Text Expander” though turns up a whole bevvy of tools that should do what I mentioned for just about anyone.

  8. D Hayes says:

    Hi Megan,
    A very good question indeed along with some great comments so far. I especially liked debmalya’s comment and would probably agree with that scenario. I personally feel that if you are just starting your online marketing business, engagement should not be automated. With automation, you are going to be seen as a spammer. I don’t enjoy receiving the same tweet over and over from the same follower all day long. It can be quite annoying.
    I have found that the Firepole Marketing team is most excellent at one on one audience engagement. Others should learn from your practices 🙂

  9. Robyn Rochelle E. says:

    Of all the things that hold me back, honest engagement is the biggest. I desire honest engagement with people that are interested in what I am doing. And yet, that is totally unrealistic. I send out a newsletter and update to hundreds of people every month, but I rarely get a response from them. I try to e-mail every person on the list once every six months personally. This is not so easy to accomplish. I have thought about auto response – it leaves me cold. But, how do I keep so many people updated and informed? It is a quagmire!

    1. Megan says:

      It’s a pickle, all right. What other options for increasing your engagement have you tried? Is your audience really into Facebook, Twitter or another platform? Maybe your audience just isn’t that “into” email engagement? (Hard to believe – but it happens!)

      Let me know what you try!

  10. I like to ask “why” when I am stuck. Automating responses works in some cases, but you need to ask “why” at that point. What is the purpose of that step in the process? If someone has just bought a product from you, an automatic thank you response, or how to use it response is fine. But if you are building a relationship than the why answer is building the relationship and an automated response will not work. They want a human and have their radar up to detect if it well crafted automated response. People expect a human response in many cases. You can often have staff respond, but if you promised them you would respond then it needs to be you. Put yourself in their shoes, what would you expect?

    1. Megan says:

      That is a really, really good rule of thumb Teresa – thank you for sharing it! It’s really easy to forget to do something like that – but it gives so much insight.

  11. debmalya says:

    It all depends on who you are. If you are Steve pavalina or Seth Godins with readership and subscriber base cross to one million mark then it’s impossible for you to get in touch personally with every reader that you have. But I know that some great bloggers like Ramit sethi, they hire email analysts specifically for these purposes. It’s a nice approach, I think, especially by someone who is healthily earning seven figures year in and year out

  12. Ancuta says:

    I receive daily hundreds of email messages. I open probably 10% of them. However, there are three or four people I open all the messages coming from. Their messages are automated but deliver great content and are written in a personal style. I like them and I don’t feel cheated at all because they are automated.
    There is one more thing these people do which I think is essential: anytime I replay to any of their messages I get their answer. I can hit replay and someone is there – not a machine. I hate when I see messages like ‘no-reply’…
    So we can still build engagement when using modern communication means. All depends on the tone we use and on allowing a two-way communication.

    1. Megan says:

      That’s a really, really important point, Ancuta – not everyone will reply to an email – so if someone takes the time to write back to an automated message – you’d darn well better take the time! Thanks!

  13. These days, anything can be leveraged through some form of automated process. I believe that the eternal key element for successful engagement is through relevant content. The most effective medium has been proven to be via Videos. Learning to build your brand with the help of links to YouTube and video blogs command stronger attention and invite/evoke natural responses for likability and/or sharing. Social proof these days has become “priceless.” At the end-of-the-day, such targeted approaches will answer the mail, gain credibility, and enhance the bottom line.

  14. Sarah Arrow ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Depends on whether you want to look like a human being or not 🙂

    I automate Twitter. I started out loving Twitter, I practically lived there (if it was at all possible, I’d have done it), and now 5 years later I’m tired. I’m tired of people sharing the same old Mashable posts, I’m tired of the same old people never changing. But my attitude is more to do with me, and how I’ve set up and manage Twitter more than anything else.

    Google Plus is interesting- no automation. People have to spam by hand and therefore there’s less of it, and the engagement is better than Facebook. Dare I say I’m tired of Facebook?

    And that’s the thing, where real people are I want to be.

    I respond to emails. Even autoresponders when they are written with warmth. I don’t respond to anything that can’t get my name write if it comes from a social media expert – they should know better.

    People are starting to act like Corporate in their automation of everything, and then act surprised when they don’t get the same results.

    1. Megan says:

      I think we all fear becoming too *shudder* corporate!

      Interesting how you say you’re getting tired of Twitter – I’m just getting into it and find that hard to imagine right now – but perhaps the day will come.

      You can say you’re tired of Facebook! Google+ may not have started out fantastically – but maybe they were counting on Facebook Fatigue!

      Thanks for the interesting food for thought Sarah.

      1. Danielle says:

        Very interesting string here. I am not burnt out on Twitter yet either because I just picked it up again last year. However, I completely agree with Sarah’s comments about everyone rehashing tired old posts from Mashable (I don’t follow it specifically for this reason; bound to find the posts anyways).

        I’ve heard a lot of people praising G+ going into 2013.

        I wrote about what I consider the 4 Vices of Social Media and I consider automation one of them. http://goo.gl/ml98s

    1. Rob Calhoun says:

      Cendrine,

      You can still call it engagement. Email marketing should engage the reader to take action. That action can and should vary. If you send the same thing, people discount your emails as “Seen it” and hit delete or just ignore them.

      Engaging a reader to take action is something that can and should be automated. The magic happens when they take that action. You want them to go to your site to read the rest of an article you gave them a taste of.
      They’ve taken that step.

      Next, you have a call to action at the end of the post prompting them to comment.
      They’ve taken that step.

      You now become active with the people who have been engaged and taken action. Your efforts are leveraged to the maximum using automation and you still have personalization with those who want to be personal. And that is who you should be taking the time with as they (people who take action) give you results.

      1. Hello Rob,

        Thank you for your insights. I understand what you mean, and my comment about automated engagement had rather to do with updates and tweets.

        I dream of the day when people start leveraging social media as a social activity rather than a chore that requires automation.

        I do understand the concept. But to me, if all you think about is timing your tweets and Facebook updates, you have it all wrong.

        It’s all about conversations. Businesses really need to get back to the basics. If you can’t answer customers or audiences right away, you just let them know. People prefer honest folks than people who hide behind automatic tweets. Celeb Boutique nightmate, anyone?

        1. Rob Calhoun says:

          Timing your social media posts isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. You have to protect the value of your time in some way. Social media can drain that very sneakily.

          It’s the set it and forget it approach that becomes the problem. Just as with email automation, you can automate posting. Just don’t let it become devoid of personality. Engage with those who respond to the posts.

          The only way any automation can be successful is being prepared to become personal when the readers do. That timing is the difference between your positive return on investment or being just another person saying “automation, social media, email marketing, etc.” doesn’t work.

  15. Yvonne Root says:

    Just as you’ve said, Megan, this can be a sticky wicket. It’s even more difficult when you’ve been able to really engage one on one — at first.

    Some people know and either care or don’t care that the email using a first name for everyone on a list is automated.

    Some people don’t realize the automation involved.

    I guess what that boils down to is that a small percentage of people will be offended. One way to deal with the offended is to state up front what you will be doing concerning automation and why. And, if what you are presenting is “worth it” even the people who don’t care for the automation will stick around.

    The people who are still unhappy with the new process will probably leave. Hum.

    1. Megan says:

      You’re absolutely right – setting expectations is key!

      At the end of the day – if someone isn’t happy – I guess it’s best that they leave… you can’t please everyone!

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