Last month Twitter made headlines for its attempt to address the growing spam problem on its service. Twitter’s approach was to file suit against companies that use the Twitter API to automate the following and tweeting of other accounts based on keyword searches.

This raises an interesting question regarding the use of automation tools to manage a Twitter account. Specifically, what is spam and what isn’t?

The process used by these tools is not dissimilar to that used by many social media marketers. For example, some marketers send automatic direct messages (Auto-DMs) to new followers. But is this a useful way to foster engagement or is it just a less visible form of spam?

An Experiment

Advocates may argue that Auto-DMing is a form of engagement that shows personal interest in one’s followers. However, the goal of this practice appears to be increasing click-through rates for links or growing follower numbers.

To get some more insight, we conducted an informal experiment. We used a dummy account to follow many individuals interested in the field of social media. We then sat back and monitored the account.

What we found was interesting. After following 938 different accounts, we received 68 direct messages from 54 different accounts. Some people even sent the same message more than once.

Here are some of the more common examples we received (links and names removed):

  • “Got a social media question 4 me? Or get lots of answer in my book”
  • “Networking is the way to wealth they say, want to also connect on LinkedIn?”

In some cases it was hard to tell these messages apart from actual spam attempting to phish our account data. We replied to every message we could with a question or witty response that would hopefully prompt an additional response. Of the 32 responses we were able to send, a total of two people responded to us. Any people who would call that real engagement are kidding themselves.

Professional Perspectives

For an additional perspective, we turned to some working professionals in the field to get their opinions. Kate Gardiner runs the freelance web strategy firm Distill. Her clients have included PBS Newshour, environmental group NRDC and Al Jazeera English.

Kate used to employ the practice of Auto-DMing as a way to acknowledge her audience. She said that it helped raise follower retention, but her teams eventually abandoned the practice when they found it didn’t significantly increase click-through rates. Kate says, “We found we did better putting our great content for people to engage with consistently. While it took a lot more time and effort it seems to be worth it.”

Next we spoke with Leah Jones, a Vice President at Olson PR. Leah’s take was not far off from Kate’s — although she made a point of saying that anyone who has ever employed Auto-DMing didn’t do it under her direction. She had this to say: “Spam outside of email is in the eye of the beholder. If all of your users feel it’s spam then it’s spam. I don’t see anyone on the receiving end of Auto-DMs who want to receive it. It offers very little value if any.”

For Kate and Leah at least, using Auto-DMs was not a viable strategy to engage followers on Twitter.

Everything In Moderation

Automation of social media is not always a bad thing; in many ways it can be a huge help. The practice of pre-writing and scheduling tweets in platforms like our own Sprout Social can help you optimize the release of your content. This creates consistency that your readers can rely on and helps ensure the maximum number of people see your links.

One the most valuable facets of social media is that it allows us to connect with other human beings in a meaningful way. Too much automation can defeat that benefit altogether. It can even lead to frustration from followers if they reach out to your brand for a response and find that there is no one onboard the ship. You’ll get much further by publishing and sharing great content — and being more human with your followers — than you ever will by sending Auto-DMs.

[Sources: Twitter, Beth McShane; Image credits: Jim CapaldiMai Le, Highways Agency]