Going Off Autopilot: How To Make Authentic Social Media Connections
Social media marketing for your business can make you think that more is better: The more followers you have, the more clients or customers you will have. The more you tweet, the more people will tweet about you. The more direct messages you send to your followers, the more people will do business with you. But how true is any of that in regards to an authentic social media presence?
Technology allows us to connect with thousands or even millions of people through social media. But not all connections are created equal. Online networking can amplify our range of interaction, potentially to global proportions. Our virtual connections grow as a result.
We often turn to automation to try to “keep up” with all of our social media followers and messaging. We may feel it’s necessary. When other people automate their social media accounts, it rapidly increases the volume of data we need to deal with. As we try to keep up, the only option seems like automation.
Most businesses on social media automate to attract and contact as many followers as possible. It might seem like a strange strategy to turn off autopilot and take back manual control of our social media accounts.
The truth is, we can’t keep up with our computers – even with the help of automation. We can’t possibly read all the messages that others are sending, or communicate in an authentic way with each and every person who follows us on social media.
How can you get back to authentic social media that is truly social? How can you connect with your audience in an authentic way, allowing them to get to know who you – and your business – really are?
I propose being selective – don’t try to be everything to everyone on every social media platform. Figure out where most of your ideal clients or customers spend their social media time – even if it’s only one or two platforms. Think about where you might want to be social with your online colleagues. Decide which platforms you’re most comfortable with, or which best showcase your services or products.
There are many ways you can have a more authentic social media presence. Most of my examples will be from Twitter – with a brief discussion of authenticity on LinkedIn – because that’s where I spend my social media time. The principles we’ll touch on can translate to any social media platform.
Don’t Follow Blindly
Automation tools allow your social media accounts to automatically follow others’ based on your chosen parameters, without any real-time interaction on your part.
I was blissfully unaware of this until I started to see a strange phenomenon: People would follow me on Twitter, then unfollow several hours later if I hadn’t yet followed them back. I would get “new follower” notification emails from Twitter. When I got the chance to log in to my Twitter account, I would open up the follower’s profile page with anticipation. I looked forward to connecting with this new follower – only to find out that their account had unfollowed mine, within hours of having followed me.
I didn’t understand what made them follow and then unfollow me in such rapid succession. I wanted to take time to get to know them, but I couldn’t keep up.
I literally woke up one morning realizing the obvious explanation for this curious behavior. People weren’t following my account. Automated services were.
Sometimes, I see the same accounts follow and unfollow mine multiple times, in a strange and pointless little dance.
I keep the same policy I’ve kept from the time I had four followers, forty followers, and over four hundred followers: I choose who to follow, on a case-by-case basis. It may or may not be someone who has followed me first. It may be someone I choose to follow because I think I can learn from them. But each and every time, it is my conscious and deliberate choice.
I might make mistakes. I might miss someone who may have been a great connection for my business, or an interesting professional acquaintance. I might offend people whose accounts I don’t follow back. (Consider how many people automate this process and how many followers most accounts get. If I choose not to follow back, I suspect it often goes unnoticed by the account owners. And many accounts automatically unfollow if they don’t get a follow-back within a day.)
The accounts I do follow represent my individual, specific, dynamic choices – not parameters I fed months ago into a bot.
When I was new to Twitter, I used to Direct Message almost each and every one of my new followers. I saw Direct Messaging as a great way to make a personal connection with people who had followed me. I genuinely wanted to start conversations with followers.
A couple of weeks later, I spotted a headline about how incredibly aggravating Direct Messages are. At first, this really puzzled me. Being new to the Twittersphere, I had very few followers and had yet to be graced with automated Direct Messages. (This post by Melissa Culbertson would have quickly and brilliantly cleared up my confusion!)
I soon came to know firsthand that Direct Messages were the new junk mail.
The more followers I gained, the more I was bombarded with “direct mail”-style Direct Messages. I was “specially selected” for “exclusive offers” so many times, I was waiting to receive a credit card offer with my Twitter handle.
Pre-written, generic Direct Messages don’t make you seem friendlier. But they can give you a reputation as a spammer.
The recipients of those scatter-shot, untargeted, canned messages are not going to think favorably of you when choosing or recommending someone in your field. As Andrew Pelletier recently wrote, “People today want to be communicated with – not messaged at.”
In business, reputation is everything. One of your most important jobs as a business person or marketer is to protect the reputation of your business. People will think more highly of you if you have a reputation for valuing their time.
Most people will see canned messages as junk mail – a waste of time. That canned message will probably be the first – and last – direct contact you have with them.
In the same way, your business’ reputation in the social media world is not enhanced by Direct Message junk mail. Sending the same message to everyone who follows you is simply too crude of a marketing method.
And what is the probable result of this unrefined, automated marketing? Rather than thinking of your social media persona as capable, helpful, or an expert in your field, people who get your automated messages may think of you with mild annoyance – if they think of you at all.
If you want to have an authentic social media presence, and be noticed, you need to do things differently. If the majority of business people on Twitter are using canned Direct Messages, be the one who stands out from the crowd because you do not.
How can you be authentic on social media? Knowing that it takes a little more time than social-media-on-autopilot, you start by being selective.
Find Your Ideal Customers
Why waste time and effort trying to sell your products or services to someone who will never want them? Not everyone who follows you on social media is doing so for legitimate reasons. Why honor someone whose only goal is to collect more followers? Why try to connect with people who are just using Direct Messages to spam you with junk mail?
Automation is like a fire hose. It indiscriminately soaks everything in its path, whether it’s on fire or not. Wouldn’t you rather market like a high-tech, high-precision laser beam?
You can laser-focus your authentic social media marketing by targeting your communications at people who actually might want to hear from you. They might be colleagues or potential clients. But if you don’t take the time to identify them, you could gain thousands of followers without making any real connections.
Once you’ve identified them, though, it’s not time to sit back and let the automated sales pitch take over.
Contact the Chosen Few
Of the “ideal customers” you’ve identified among your followers, carefully select just a few to Direct Message.
You will connect with, and reach, more people by being authentic. And you’ll build business relationships via social media. Your “chosen few” may be pleasantly surprised to get a direct, authentic message – so pleasantly surprised that they may respond and have a genuine conversation with you.
These conversations can build connections. These connections can create relationships. These relationships might lead to partnerships or collaborations with colleagues, or contracts and purchases from clients and customers.
Since authentic social media allows for two-way conversation, don’t use it as a junk mail dispensary or a billboard. Think about how you can connect with your followers. Find out what you have in common. Consider how you might make your communications more authentic and relatable. And, since you’ll only be contacting a select number of people directly, you can take a little more time to put thought into your messages, and to listen carefully to the replies.
Customise your Communications
If you have the choice to talk to someone you barely know – a complete stranger – or someone you’re somewhat familiar with, which would you choose?
Before you even introduce yourself via Direct Message, you can start getting to know your potential connection by browsing their posts on the social media platform where you encountered them. Even taking five minutes to do this can give you a pretty good idea about who they are and what their purpose on social media is. You may even get a feel for their opinions on important issues.
Most social media profiles already connect you to other facets of your followers’ online presence. With a few simple clicks, you can usually:
- Go to their websites
- Visit their other social media pages
- Read posts from their blogs
- Look at their LinkedIn profiles
Not everyone has optimised their profiles with these linkages. But a quick search of a follower’s business name, perhaps in conjunction with their personal name, will yield results that will help you to get to know them better.
Consider this part of your customer acquisition cost. Or, if the follower is a fellow professional in your field, think of it as networking.
Connect with Humour
If something in someone else’s profile strikes you funny, laugh with them. Tell them how it tickled you. Contribute to the joke. This doesn’t always work out – I once read a very colourful about.me profile for one of my new followers, with a great story about the running argument he and his wife had regarding hummus. (She adored it; he was a holdout.) I was all ready to Direct Message him on Twitter and add my hummus-loving vote to the discussion. Alas, his Twitter bot had already unfollowed me. Another potential conversation ruined by automation – the chance to connect taken away before I even had the opportunity to say, “Hello,” and “Hummus rocks the house.”
Nonetheless, humour is still one of the best ways to connect with people. If they share a funny story or just an amusing tidbit, it’s a conversation starter. You may find, after joking with them a bit, that you have a lot in common.
Ask a Question
Questions are fantastic conversation-starters. Most people enjoy talking about their business or their work.
If you’ve taken a few moments to familiarise yourself with someone’s work, you can probably think of one or two questions you’d like to ask them. This shows your interest in them, while at the same time letting them get a glimpse of who you are and how you think about things. Part of being authentic means revealing a little bit about yourself. You don’t have to mix in details about your personal life; that wouldn’t be appropriate in many cases. But you can mix in some of your personality, if you keep it professional.
Asking your follower a specific question gives you both a great opportunity for one-on-one interaction.
Participate instead of Advertise
I’ve joined several LinkedIn Groups with cautious excitement – hoping for a genuine exchange of ideas, interests, and concerns with my professional colleagues. I am sorry to say that several of them are dominated by one or two people (or businesses) who seem to believe that group membership equals unlimited billboard space to advertise their goods and services.
Having an authentic social media presence means sharing your knowledge and opinions. It also means sincerely listening to others.
If you read an interesting article about your chosen field, and you’d like discuss it with fellow professionals, great! Go ahead and post it as a new discussion topic. If you want to get your colleagues’ opinions and advice about an industry question you’ve been wrestling with, then bring it up in an appropriate LinkedIn or Facebook group. You can even post your own work in a group, as we writers sometimes do, provided it’s relevant to the group’s purpose and chosen topics.
But if all you really want to do is print an advertisement, go with Google AdSense – not Google+. Being authentic through social media means presenting your professional self, not your ad copy.
Post Genuinely and Judiciously
At one point, when I was trying to grow my Twitter following, I was posting four times a day. While I think this – along with careful use of hashtags – helped to grow my following, it took me about an hour a day (or three or four hours a week, if I could block off the time to batch-schedule my posts for the week).
Soon, I got too busy with other work to keep up this posting schedule. I sometimes only got around to tweeting once a day, or even every other day.
I’ll admit that I harbored a slight fear that my followers would fall away as soon as I didn’t keep up my posting schedule. I quickly learned, however, that my followers stayed stable.
The experience of slowing down my posting made me ask myself a critical question: What was the point in spending an hour or so each day – or even three hours a week – scheduling tweets, if all I was doing was watching the number of followers increase?
I rarely got authentic messages from people on Twitter. I got a lot of automated messages, but few that were actually written to me specifically. Worse yet, the more I worried about growing my following by increasing my number of daily posts, the less time I seemed to have to connect and communicate with my followers.
The time I’d once spent reaching out to followers via customized Direct Messages was getting eaten up by a heavier posting schedule.
As an experiment, I tried one of those automated tools that would pick my posts for me, based on the categories and parameters I chose. I skimmed through the proposed tweets, opted not to post any of them, and deleted my account on that service. None of the proposed tweets I read captured my personal style, and several of them were frankly items I wouldn’t have tweeted. Either I didn’t find them interesting, or they contradicted my position on various issues. In other words, they didn’t represent me or my brand.
You don’t want to cringe when you read your own feed. Automated tools may post in your name some material you would have never chosen to post. It may be diametrically opposed to what you support or believe, or simply very low in relevance or quality. The only way to be sure that your social media feed is authentically “you” is to pick the posts yourself (or let a trusted associate do so).
We’ve all heard cautionary tales about inappropriate celebrity tweets, and how one ill-chosen word can land your online reputation in the trash heap – which only emphasizes the importance of choosing your own posts.
You may not be able to post as frequently without automating. But what is better: Fifteen mediocre posts a day, or five memorable ones? Do you want to be known for quantity, or quality?
The staggering volume of posts we receive every day works for us in an unexpected way: It frees us to take time to be more authentic.
How can you post more genuinely?
- Post about what you care about.
Just because something is trending within your industry or niche doesn’t mean you’re compelled to post about it. If you think it’s so big that you’d be seen as out-of-touch if you don’t mention it, then consider posting. But you shouldn’t feel the need to post about what is popular if it really doesn’t interest you. There will probably be many posters in your field who will comment on trending topics; you might garner positive attention by offering your followers a fascinating alternative to the hype du jour.
- Forgo the “Easy Button”.
Sometimes articles have built-in, preselected phrases to tweet. Even though this is a time-saver, I prefer to take a minute or two to write the tweet myself. Tens or hundreds of people may retweet the preselected phrase when posting about that article. Few if any others will phrase their tweet exactly the same way I would.
- Use your image-ination.
If you like playing with images, and you’re tweeting or posting about an image-less article, use your imagination. Have fun finding or modifying a copyright-free image to suit the article you’re posting about. You’ll add your personal touch in a way that might be intriguing to others. I’ve gotten favorable comments and sparked conversations just by being creative with the images I post.
- Get up close and personal – and invite your followers to follow suit.
Twitter is a great place to casually mention enjoying your own brand of locally-roasted coffee at breakfast…and encourage your followers to share in turn. More visually-oriented platforms such as Instagram and YouTube provide interactive, “behind-the-scenes” peaks of down-to-earth, authentic you.
Brands like GoPro and Activision enriched their own authenticity by embracing homegrown videos of influencers wearing their body cameras, or playing their games. Inspire your followers to share their walk in your (virtual) shoes – or even their walk without shoes, as social enterprise TOMS asks their fans to do once a year.
Authentic social media is largely about creating community. Honesty, transparency, uniqueness, and reciprocity are all important ingredients in this recipe.
Authenticity: More Powerful than Automation
The Internet can be used like direct mail – for one-way, generic, disingenuous, and forgettable messages. Yet that is only using a small part of its potential. Since the Internet gives us expedited, two-way communication with virtually anyone, why not carefully choose who we want to build relationships with?
Choosing authenticity over automation means choosing quality over quantity. It means getting to know people, and letting them know us. It means cherry-picking your connections, forging relationships, and nurturing them with sincerity.
Sometimes, it means riding in a horse-and-buggy down the Information Superhighway – only to discover, paradoxically, that you may be going faster than the supercharged sports cars around you. And chances are, you’re truly enjoying the ride.
We’ve talked about several ways to turn the tide and reclaim authentic social media for real social interaction. What are your thoughts on being authentic on social media? Are there ways to be authentic that we haven’t mentioned here? Bring on your comments, and let’s talk!