Here come the tweeting robots

July 23, 2012, 9:00 AM UTC

The Twitterverse hasn’t been entirely kind to United Airlines (UAL). In 2011, the company enjoyed the dubious distinction of ranking worst in social media sentiment among nine major airlines with some 55,000 negative tweets. Things only got worse this spring when United fumbled its merger with Continental’s reservation system. Customers stuck in mammoth phone queues turned to Twitter to air their frustrations, registering hundreds of #onhold complaints in a matter of hours.

In the face of this kind of collective social barrage, what’s an airline — or any company, for that matter — to do? Social media has gone from a novel way for businesses to connect directly with customers to an often sizable drain on marketing and customer service resources. The sheer volume of social conversations can be mind-numbing. Dell’s (DELL) Social Media Listening Command Center — a crack team of more than 70 specialists headed by its own listening czar — tracks in the range of 25,000 posts a day focused on the brand.

Reading, let alone responding, to that many messages isn’t always practical. So to keep up with the burgeoning workload, a growing number of companies are taking a step which to some in the field amounts to purest blasphemy: They’re taking the social out of social media.

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These companies are turning to automated tools that capture and analyze conversations on social networks, prioritizing which messages really merit attention. They’re using auto-schedule and content optimizing apps to assess when and what to post, with an eye toward reaching the most followers while piggybacking on trending topics. In some cases, they’re even deploying virtual agents and sophisticated bots in Facebook (FB) and Twitter streams to automatically respond to consumers’ queries and comments.

“The space is nascent but growing,” notes social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group. “The upsides are obvious: Brands must be able to scale and those that are experiencing an increase in customers using social channels don’t want to leave customers behind.”

The downsides, however, are also obvious. Social media’s cachet is contingent on real human interaction. In the beginning, at least, Facebook and Twitter enabled consumers and community managers to knife through contact forms and automated help lines, connecting with real people in a public forum and often getting near-immediate results. When authenticity leaves the room, Owyang warns in a recent Mashable article, these channels may become “yet another over-branded corporate medium,” losing their primary appeal.

The question becomes, then, are there ways to automate without losing the human touch?

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Maybe. One area where automation has already made significant inroads is information gathering. Automated listening technology to monitor mentions, specific keywords and even geographic origin of messages on social platforms has in fact been around for years, used by ad agencies to track references to clients and in similar roles. What’s new and interesting in this space, however, are tools that intelligently screen these conversations and categorize them based on importance. This next-generation triage technology lets companies cut through the noise on social channels and respond to only the most urgent messages.

Scheduling is likewise ripe for automation. The ability to schedule tweets, posts and updates in advance is hardly novel (Nor are benefits unknown: Companies that schedule yield three times as many leads, according to marketing platform Hubspot). New smart scheduling apps, however, aspire to take some of the guesswork out of the process. Using algorithms that assess when followers are likely to be online and even what they’re talking about, tools send out timed messages for optimum reception (Disclosure: One of the social media systems using this auto-scheduling technology is my company, HootSuite). This sniper-like approach promises to “match what’s being said and time content to publish at the right time to the right people,” writes analyst Owyang in TechCrunch.

Importantly, this kind of auto-optimized content lends itself well to the emerging world of paid social media, i.e. “promoted” stories and tweets. Companies pay dearly for these branded updates injected right into our Twitter and Facebook streams — part of an estimated $5.2 billion spent on social advertising in 2011 — so a tool to automatically forecast reception in advance has obvious value. As explained on Mashable, “Brands will start with content publishing optimization, analyze this content and re-purpose earned content into social ads ala Facebook’s sponsored stories.” This potential to turn optimized tweets and Facebook posts directly into ads promises to remake social advertising and will be significant news in the months ahead.

Then there’s the sci-fi stuff: the latest generation of social bots and virtual agents showing up on Twitter and Facebook. These tools don’t just optimize content; they make it. In their simplest incarnation, Twitter bots are computerized scripts that automatically follow users who use certain keywords. The newest social bots, however, take this to another level — participating in convincing conversations and often drawing legions of followers. Google (GOOG) product manager Greg Marra earned notoriety building @trackgirl, who infiltrated the ranks of hardcore runners, even attracting sympathy messages when she “hurt her ankle.”

Virtual agents, meanwhile, are a bit like the C-3PO‘s of the Internet — programs, sometimes with human-like avatars, capable of intelligently responding to queries, commenting where appropriate, even maturing through interaction. For a look at a pioneering use of an intelligent virtual agent on Facebook, check out the U.S. Army’s virtual recruiter SGT STAR. Similar technology is already in play with virtual chat agents that pop up on websites and, of course, on Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 4S, with its beguiling — if a bit standoffish — concierge Siri.

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Do these kinds of automation have a legitimate role in corporate social media? For certain routine exchanges, the answer is a resounding yes. It hardly makes sense, for instance, for United to respond individually to thousands of tweets about flight delays when a scripted message could be queued up, triggered by the right keywords. The same thinking applies for natural disasters or crisis management or any FAQ-type situation where basic information is needed quickly.

But social media’s real value — what distinguished it from the start from traditional media — lies in creating deeper, personal connections with followers. And here automation of content risks backfiring. When consumers used to turning to social media for real, human intervention and connection end up running up against yet another automated message, the results may not be pretty. At the least, automated interactionsshould be flagged as such by the company, cautions Social Media Today’s Alex Avendano.

For now, companies struggling to find the automation sweet spot might be best served by moderation. The most effective social media tools at present integrate proven automated listening and scheduling functions with features that enhance good old human capital and creativity. The best systems are robust enough to handle the scale of contemporary social media, enabling teams to upsize quickly and easily collaborate. Freeing community managers and marketers from the tedium of processing conversations, scheduling updates and plotting ads, these apps leave more time for the personalized, bespoke interactions with consumers that constitute social media’s DNA.

In the end, this may well be automation’s real role: to make social media even more social.

Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system with nearly five million users, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies. In the trenches everyday with Facebook, Twitter and the world’s largest social networks, Holmes has a unique view on the intersection of social media and big business.