Automation gone horribly wrong (and how to fix it)

Disclaimer: The following post is a hot plate of opinion overflowing with a steaming heap of advice,  and garnished with snark. It was inspired by someone who mentioned TrueTwit. (Enough said, right?) Continue at your own risk. Also, there are many words. Grab a drink and enjoy.


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I'm a huge fan of automation. The whole point of automating tasks is to save you time - and who doesn't need to save time? - make life easier, or generate data for analysis.

Time-saving, valuable automation

I used to work for a research firm that delivered anywhere from one to hundreds of reports to clients at the end of a project. At the end of a second project for one particular client, we delivered hundreds of individual reports with comment data from the research. The feedback we got was that the client wanted the reports to look like they had after their first project. 

That was bad news.

There wasn't an easy way to re-run the reports to make them look like the first batch. Sometime between the client's first project and their second project, something about the process changed. Someone asked me for help with formatting each of the reports in a way that would fulfill the client's request. So, I got started manually making the formatting changes to provide an estimate of the time it would take. We were prepared to get every spare person started making changes.

It took me a little over an hour to do one report - and I had the strongest skills in the software we were using. In other words, the time it took me was the best possible scenario. Factoring in the number of reports, and the hours I worked, along with one or two others, I calculated that we'd have the reports ready to deliver in just six weeks -IF we did nothing else.

We had three days.

So, I decided to see if I could build a macro that would allow us to automate the changes. The number of commands ended up being so extensive, I had to break it out into about 10 separate macros. I may have even built a macro that automated running all of the macros so I only had to run one to complete the changes in each document. It took me about 6 hours to set up the macros, and a few more hours to get through all the reports. Six weeks of work reduced to a day and a half or so.

I'm betting someone smarter than me could have done it even faster, but I was still pretty excited that I managed to make my idea work and also allow us to deliver early.

So, you see, automation is really, really good when implemented properly and for the right reasons for a clear result. (What is the result you want from your automation? That's a good question to start with.)

No good, horrible, very bad automation

Unfortunately, there are forms of "automation" (in quotes because not all of these are actually automation) that the world can do without - and yes, I fully intend to pick on TrueTwit.

1) TrueTwit validation service

TrueTwit is something I don't run into very often anymore. Either Twitter users have mostly figured out that it's annoying and completely useless, or I'm just not following people who use it, or I'm just not following people enough. (I should check on that...or work on it.) TrueTwit claims to do three things:

  • Verify people from robots

    Editorial comment: I'm totally a person and I usually just unfollow when I get that annoying request to validate my existence. My existence is validated enough on a daily basis, so I'll pass on clicking through. Oh, and since this service is actually mostly about making sure you don't follow bots, I really should point out that there are some bots out there with better content than some of the human twitter users I've seen. Just food for thought.

  • Avoid Twitter spam

    Editorial comment (a.k.a. snort): Hahaha...this is just too funny. AS IF anyone can avoid Twitter spam. Did they type this with a straight face?

  • Save time managing your followers

    Editorial comment: I wasn't aware that managing my followers was so hard. They follow me or they don't. They manage that, not me. Why do my followers need to be managed? I feel like this is adding pressure to my twitter usage that I really don't need.

You know what eliminates the need for TrueTwit? Me going to the profile of people who follow me. It takes me all of about 2 seconds to figure out whether I want to follow them back and it's amazing how easy it is to decipher whether each of those accounts is human or bot - literally, a fraction of a second. Sometimes I follow and later realize I don't really want to be following them. Thank goodness for the unfollow button.

How you fix this: There are two different tactics you can apply to fix this particular automation nightmare. The first, and ideal, method is to not sign up for TrueTwit. The second is to delete your TrueTwit account and revoke TrueTwit's access to your Twitter account. 

2) Thoughtless cross posting

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks are what I like to call "different". Different is good, but it takes a little more work. One of the frequently asked questions I've had when working with small businesses (and even individuals) has been whether I recommend linking Twitter and Facebook, or vice versa. (Before Twitter shut it down, I got this question a lot about LinkedIn too.) You see, it's one thing to be on Instagram sharing a picture and to consciously choose to post it to both Facebook and Twitter while you're posting to Instagram. It's quite different to set Twitter or Facebook up to automatically post every status update to the other. 

If you push all your Twitter posts to Facebook you end up with this strange conglomeration of posts from Twitter on Facebook that have @ mentions that make no sense in the context of the network. Or, if you push all of your Facebook posts to Twitter, you're guaranteed to end up with "fb.me" shortened links every time you break 140 characters, which is extremely easy to do on Facebook since there's a 60,000 character limit. And then your Twitter followers will try to click through and find that since over half of them are on a mobile device, they now have to log in to Facebook to see your full post.

True story: A client recently asked me if this could be done and I said, "Yes, but I will not tell you how, because it's a bad idea." Then I explained why and he was totally cool with it. I love easy clients.

How to fix this: Someone way back in the olden days of Twitter and Facebook decided these things were a good idea - or they let third-party apps develop such functionality within their APIs. The beauty of these settings is that they default to the right choice - i.e., firehose between two different networks = off. If you mistakenly turned yours on, the easy way to fix it is to revoke access. Cross posting the same/similar content on two or more different networks isn't always a good idea, nor is it always a bad idea. Making sure you think about it first is most definitely always the right idea.

(Pro tip: Revoking access fixes many horribly wrong things.)

3) Apps that post content on your behalf

I'm kind of a stickler for wanting to be actively involved with what I'm sharing on my profiles. There are many, many (pretend I added a bunch more manys to that) applications that will tell your followers what your horoscope is, how your workout went, a weekly accounting of your follows, send auto DMs to everyone who follows you (after all, we all love form letters), even share "curated" content. This list, believe it or not, is just the tip of the iceberg - there are that many.

There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, but I feel like they should come with a huge banner that says "use with caution". They operate on a set it and forget it mentality and many post to your account without first getting approval. Years ago, right after I joined Triberr, I joined a couple of tribes I was invited to. Unfortunately, I didn't go through all my settings thoroughly. I was horrified when I started getting messages asking me why I was spamming my followers. My account was set up to automatically share everything my fellow tribemates published and the space between shares was very short. 

That was kind of mortifying, particularly since there wasn't a single post that had gone out that I would have actually chosen to share. Not one. Was Triberr to blame? Nope. It was all Karen's fault (as in me, myself, and I).

How to fix this: Don't sign up for services that automatically share on your behalf unless you are absolutely certain the content shared isn't going to be something you'll later regret. The other lesson in this one is that you need to always meticulously check application settings for any tool you sign up with. And, if you do happen to forget you signed up for a service, hopefully you've booked a task in your calendar to review the apps you've permitted to access your account so you can take advantage of the power that is revoking access when required.

Good automation does exist in social media and it can produce valuable results. However, many shortcuts have been given the label "automation" in error. The truth is there's no shortcut to successful marketing. 

Your turn: What bad automation tactics did I miss? Throw in your two cents below!