The Abuse of Automated Direct Messages (and How to Avoid It)

The automated direct message horror stories are as sad (or funny, depending on your sense of humor) as they are common.

Remember Microsoft’s Tay, an AI teenage chatbot designed to learn from the people “she” was talking to? Like any good kid, she began parroting those Twitter users she was around the most — turning her into a racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic jerk.

Or remember the blogger who replied to the random DMs he received for weeks to see whether the brands that sent them would ever respond. All his “hellos” were ignored. He didn’t get a single reply from a real human.

A Bad Reputation Deserved?

Although excuses are few for Tay, misuse of automated DMs has wrongly built a bad reputation for the technology.

At the heart of that reputation are cold, generic reply messages. Some brands automate a response for each new follower they receive on social channels, going only so far as to say, “Thanks for the follow.” (It’s this sort of response that leads people to unfollow you just as soon as they had added you.) Others — the brands that put a bit more effort into their responses — focus on promotion rather than add any real value to the recipient.

But when done well, automated DMs can be useful and engaging. How should you leverage them in the right way? Follow these four tips:

1. Deliver immediate value. With DMs, people always want to know what’s in it for them. Make sure to offer something of clear value.

Lenovo uses direct messages to promote Lenovo Tech World, one of the Chinese tech company’s flagship events geared toward IT decision makers. To drive attendance, its social team tells IT leaders that they can get the latest product demos at the event. Recipients see the value of attending the event and, therefore, understand the value of the DM.

2. Ask permission to send an email. Instead of launching into a pitch, try sparking a conversation — that’s what consumers want, after all. Ask for an email address before sending information they might find useful.

Heinz Marketing used Socedo’s automated DM function to engage Twitter users without being pushy. It read: “Hi Jim, can I send you a copy of our inside sales best practices guide? Thought it might be valuable based on some of your recent tweets. Let me know which email address to send it to!”

The message doesn’t just hit on a need — it also makes clear how the company intends to fulfill it while respecting the recipient’s boundaries. Ask people to opt in. Don’t be presumptuous — not everyone wants to hear from you.

3. Tell people why you’re invading their space. Don’t leave consumers wondering why they got your message.

Kollecto, a fine art curation startup, looked for people tweeting, “Wish I could buy art,” “Went to an art museum,” or “Visited an art gallery,” to identify potential art lovers and collectors, then sent: “Hey Chris! Saw your tweets on art. If you’re interested in collecting, check out our Art Collecting School program.”

The message is specific to the person, stating why it was sent and how it relates to his or her interests. Taking the time to narrow your audience allows you to add context.

4. Keep it real. No matter how respectful or personal, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s still an automated DM. But write like people talk. Keep it natural, conversational, and consistent with the platform.

If a message looks like spam, the person will consider it such. Avoid hype and jargon. Consumers already know that you think your product is “amazing’ or “revolutionary.” Otherwise, why would you sell it?

What approach do you take to automated DMs? Have you seen success with it?

Aseem Badshah is the founder and CEO of Socedo, a demand generation system that helps marketers discover, engage, and qualify leads through social media to increase revenue at scale. Aseem has been a leader in the social media marketing space for more than eight years. Before Socedo, Aseem founded Uptown Treehouse, a marketing agency for Fortune 500 brands focused on social media.

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