Most forward-leaning brands have social media teams using social listening software to aggregate, filter, sort and manually respond to conversations. These platforms have become essential for brands to know what their customers are saying about their brand—at scale.

And while this is a good start, brand marketers should be doing more to drive engagement and business outcomes at scale in social media. Automation, while often seen as a dirty word in social media marketing circles, can help.

Automation and one-to-one marketing

To drive greater levels of engagement, social media marketers should reply at scale with content in response to specific actions. We call these triggers. The triggers could be people posting about a certain person, keyword, url, hashtag, photo or topic. And the content could be anything from utility marketing responses, to behind-the-scenes video, to points, promo codes, contest entries, concert tickets and more. You get the idea: Any digitally deliverable thing can be sent right back to people.

While the merits of this approach are manifold, it’s the use of automation that often creates challenges for social media marketers. To reply in real-time and at scale with content in response to triggers, marketers need social media marketing automation software. They need the ability to listen for certain actions and automate responses to people who trigger them.

Yet I know that automation can be a scary word for social media marketers. After all, many of us grew up in the field as community managers—as people tasked with creating, managing and growing relationships with our customers—which at first blush appears anathema to automation.

The email parallel

However, before you give up on the idea of automation altogether, let’s think about how email evolved. I don’t think anyone would deny that email has evolved to become the workhorse of one-to-one marketing, and yet how many marketers spend their day emailing people individually? They simply don’t. Instead, they use automation and data insights to deliver personalized email at scale to their customers. And, it works.

For example, Safeway creates individually tailored emails with different versions of deals based on customer opt-in choices and their shopping habits. Safeway’s email program produces a 224 percent higher click-through rate and a 330 percent higher click-to-open rate than the industry average. And this is just one example from many of how email automation coupled with data insights is delivering higher engagement and loyalty for brands.

Automation and social media

“This is great for email, but social media automation software just isn’t mature enough yet.” This is another concern I often hear. However, social media marketing automation software has evolved to reach the point that email automation has.

For example, social media automation tools have the ability to segment users and send the right content, at the right moment, back to the right person, all in real-time. And all of this can be done through the use of complex rules such as influence score, frequency, language translation and geo-fencing.

Social media automation has evolved to effectively handle the level and sophistication of automation brand marketers need.

Indeed, the next evolution of social media marketing will be to take a page from email and apply automation to further engagement and one-to-one marketing. For example, Marriott, a leader in this space, uses automation to reward customers active in social media in real-time.

Even further still, Marriott uses our platform automation to send social media users different rewards and different messages based on campaign criteria, owned CRM data such as anniversary and tier level, or social data such as follower count or geo-fencing, sending the right message and reward, at the right time, on the right channel.

Become more strategic

The last concern I hear from social media marketers about adopting automation is more personal; many are afraid that automation will somehow take over their job and sideline them. To address this concern, let’s look again at the evolution of email marketing.

Automation has allowed email marketers to become even more strategic contributors to the business. Rather than sidelining them, email marketers have embraced automation—email automation technology is used by 82 percent of business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies—and according to the Data & Marketing Association, more than one-half of its surveyed marketers anticipate that their company’s spend on email will continue to increase.

No one would deny that automation has benefited email marketing, nor would they venture to eliminate email from the greater marketing mix.

In much the same way, social media automation has the ability to help social media marketers become even more strategic in their business contributions. Automation not only helps deliver responses at scale in real-time, but it can collect important data points to help these marketers continuously improve their processes and communications, delivering in a measurable way greater engagement with customers and prospects.

Just like email, social media automation is not an all-or-nothing prospect. Email marketers still have the ability to—and do from time to time—email people individually. Similarly, social media marketers still have the ability to manually moderate and respond individually to their community members. The difference is that they will be able to spend more time on strategic activities, saving the one-to-one communications for those instances where it makes strategic business sense.

Currently, only 5 percent of a social media marketer’s job is automated. Yet automation has the power to drive greater customer engagement at scale while giving brand marketers important data insights to further refine their efforts.

More and more brands are beginning to embrace automation as the next evolution of social media marketing, finding that automation isn’t a four-letter word, but rather a boon to building business-impacting customer relationships.