Social Media's Unicorn: Networks Without Effort

Unless you are a spy, a recluse or in a witness protection program you need to be on at least the most important social networks. You need this for networking, to establish an online reputation or simply to protect you brand. But maintaining a presence even on a handful of major sites can take time. After "do i really have to do this stuff" the most common question I hear is "isn't there a tool that does all this automatically?"

No there isn't and there never will be. There will always be tools that do part of the work -- we will look at these in a moment -- but there is not going to be a tool that can create and maintain accounts across all the important sites without any effort on your part. You are no more likely to find one than you are to find a unicorn in the woods. But while you are searching you will find plenty of things that might not be so flashy but at least they exist.

Why is automation so hard?  To begin with the social network landscape is always changing. Now you should be on Pinterest but you can probably give Myspace a miss; maybe tomorrow Facebook will be a ghost town and everyone will be on PinBookedIn. Anyone trying to build a tool that works everywhere will struggle to keep up. But much more importantly any automatic tool can only do what other sites allow. 

Normally third party tools gain access to social sites through the interface created for this purpose -- something called an Application Programming Interface. Not all sites have one of these APIs and even when they do the rules can change without warning -- like when LinkedIn recently lost the ability to display tweets.

When there is no API you could build a "screen scraping" interface that could open an account on any site, put up your profile, send regular updates and respond to other users. But this is likely to violate site terms of service so the tool would be blocked. At the same time it is also easy for site owners to block.

So if a the all-powerful automatic social network tool is as real as a Unicorn, what is there really out there?

First of all there are many workhorses like Hootsuite.com that allow you to read and post to different accounts through the same user interface. They also let you schedule updates in advance, which is great for things like news releases, allowing human community managers to focus on conversations. The pro version has some more automatic features that allow you to post updates from an RSS feed, though this should be done with extreme care to avoid spamming users.

There are also sites like Knowem.com which take the hard work out of verifying if your brand is already taken on more than 500 sites. This is a useful tool for anyone checking candidate brands and for brand protection. With a paid account Knowem will also create accounts and post a basic profile for you on 300 sites. This might not be exactly automatic but at least you don't do the work.

Another popular approach is to bring all your social page together in a single portal page. About.me provides a central landing page that links to all you other pages.  XeeMe.com combines this with some features to cross link contacts across networks, though the interface looks too complex for my taste. Profiled.com looks cleaner and gives you a portal page where you can see activity on other networks and also reports when you are mentioned, giving you an early warning of potential reputation issues. Though if you are looking for a simple landing page that links to your other profiles I tend to prefer Zerp.ly because of their stylish interface and the ability to add audio and video. I know of dozens more sites like these and there are any more being added all the time. (If you have developed one that you think I might want to show in workshops let me know). 

There are also a number of tools that promise to automate you accounts but the results are usually disappointing if not actually damaging to your reputation. Some of these promise to build you a following on Twitter by autofollowing people who tweet certain keywords. Superficially it works: wait long enough and you will have thousands of followers, but they are mostly other bots because real humans are smart enough to recognize these bots and usually don't follow back. So you can end up with thousands of followers but nobody who actually reads the tweets your bot is sending. This makes about as much sense as sending a conversation bot to a party instead of going yourself. 

With 2012 technology and business models the dream of a magical tool that can do your social network chores for you will stay just that -- a dream, no more solid than the unicorn you have been hunting in the woods. Even if technology advances to the point where robot engagement tools can pass the Turing test all we will have is bot talking to bot. People will be out of the loop making the whole exercide pointless. So the answer to the questions are Yes, you really do have to do this stuff and, no, there is some help but you have to do some work yourself. The only way to avoid this work is to pay someone else to do it for you.



Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

For lectures, workshops, coaching or writing on this topic visit http://andrewhennigan.com, email conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France or 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden.



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