I’ve been doing a lot of reading in my current employment lul, and as much as I wish it was with carefully crafted worlds of some fantastical place, or a guide to thinking more positively when nothing is coming up roses / how to motivate yourself (if you have any recommendations I’m all ears here), it’s not. Instead I’ve been reading ebooks and articles about things going down in the world of social media, digital marketing and the rise of the influencer. Gotta stay ‘on brand’ right?
One of the things I’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing about more frequently is the rise of bots. Technology is rapidly developing in all areas of our lives – hackable kettles, anyone? – and so is the world of online advertising, so it stands to reason that the two, that is, technology to make things easier, and the graft of being successful in everything, would eventually come together.
And so bots were born. Programs and platforms to ease the steepness of the social media climb, ease the ‘gotta be present at all times‘ nature of interaction on digital platforms. ‘Growth Hacking’ for want of another term. And I’m still trying to work out if they’re ‘friend’ or foe.
First up, the use of bots is different to the practice of simply buying followers. Buying followers is a ridiculous practice, I don’t condone it at all, and it’s blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes. In all honesty, brands looking to work with influences should be stepping away from being bowled over by the sheer reach someone has, and start looking at engagement and ROI/PPC. Even with the new algorithms, it’s very easy to spot someone who has a mass of followers and disproportional engagement in relation to that following on their content. Not so much on written blog posts – since commenting is down across the board unless your net readership is massive – but on instant platforms like twitter/instagram, and to some extent youtube, tens of thousands of followers and low levels of engagement is cause for concern, in my opinion.
Bots, on the other hand, do the legwork for the account employing the use of one. There are various kinds, and not all are ridiculously shady.
You have the ‘rewteet’ (RT) bot – super useful for those running large RT accounts for promotional purposes. Especially when the curator of the account has multiple accounts to run, or a very large following expecting to be promoted/retweeted/recognised and not a lot of time to do so manually.
You also have the bots that check follower/unfollower numbers so you can keep an eye on your social media stats – fab if you’re being plagued by the follow-unfollow-follow-unfollow-NOTICE-ME types, or find tracking your stats in this manner is helpful to your overall strategy for promotion and growth.
You have the bots that schedule your content for you (buffer, hootsuite etc), so that you can have a bit of time away from constant manual promotion.
And then you have the less ‘useful’ bots. The bots that are strap-lined and promoted as ways to grow your following. Often paid-for systems with free trials that go against the terms of service of some of our favourite platforms.
For these sort of bots there are various settings, speeds and actions that you can ask them to perform. At the most basic level, you can plug in a few hashtags and have the bot like uploads in those categories for you. With the recent algorithm changes and the sheer size of instagram as a platform, I can see why people would use this. It’s incredibly time consuming to trawl through your favourite hashtags and leave genuine likes and comments on snaps you enjoy, as well as keeping up with all your other social media, content creation, and daily life. Double tapping a few photos of accounts in hashtags you use regularly makes people more likely to notice, have a look at your own content and follow if they like what they see; but I do feel like it’s akin to casting an absolutely massive net out in the ocean and hope you get a few good responses.
It gets a bit more… not necessarily sinister, but a bit more intense when you consider the other settings. You can choose to interact with the followers of specific accounts and ‘copy’ their followers, set the number of interactions to slightly mind boggling numbers per hour, leave automated comments under photos (which can backfire a little spectacularly, as a hootsuite blogger found out), and the classic: follow-unfollow.
Whereas these actions are less blatant than straight up buying swathes of followers that are invariably buffer accounts, it’s still somewhat annoying for those who don’t use bots. If you’re paying for someone to do the legwork for you, it isn’t exactly organic growth; and although bots aren’t sourcing fake accounts to boost your following, it’s tapping into a grey area if you’re using anything more than the ‘like a bunch of photos in these hashtags’ options.
My least favourite bot tactic, and one that I think should stop immediately, is ‘mass following’. Follow a bunch of accounts, have them follow you back, then unfollow after a period of time. If you’ve ever wondered why massive accounts in relation to your own following follow you out of the blue, then unfollow, it’s probably because they’ve been using a bot that’s flagged you as an account that interacts with a hashtag or another account they’re monitoring. Probably. It’s a tactic I’ve seen across all social media platforms and it’s probably one of the fastest ways to generate reach without paying for followers – people often feel the need to follow back, and then forget to unfollow at a later stage. With bots, and algorithm changes that mean you don’t see a lot of what you want to in your feed, the fact you’re following a bunch of accounts that you don’t necessarily like the content of in order to potentially get a follow back, is less ‘annoying’.
On the other side of things, it’s wildly frustrating.
I’ve been chatting to a few friends to see if our opinions align, and it’s probably obvious to say that they do. One friend even said she’d been to a seminar recently where the speaker suggested using bots to grow reach – which shocked me, if I’m being frank. Industry professionals, or analysts, shouldn’t be encouraging shortcuts which breach terms of service. But where there’s popularity, there is also money, and then strategy to maximise that income, so.
While I can definitely see the appeal of the auto like bot – and from accounts of those who have done the free trials so you don’t have to with combinations of the settings, bots clearly do generate more followers – they still don’t sit right with me. It’s not as overt as the massive spikes in numbers vs lack of increase in engagement that buying a following generates, but I can’t help but feel any gains are slightly less organic. Diluted. It’s a weird one.
If you’re a brand, I definitely don’t think using bots is a wise idea. Instagram has regular crackdowns on accounts that breach its terms of service (even though it has an interesting idea of what that can be sometimes), and if your store or business relies on revenue or reach via Instagram it’s not worth the risk of losing your account.
What are your thoughts on the matter of bots? It’s such a massive grey area – while I’m massively against buying followers and the bot options to auto-comment/follow and iffy about the targeted following thing, I’m less concerned about the auto-like function as it sounds like a really useful timesaver, even though I’d never really consider using it myself.
Let me know, I’d love to have more of a discussion on this in the future.