It wasn’t that long ago that the jury was still out on whether brands should bother cultivating a presence on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Now that the business world knows how important social media is, the next big question it faces is, how do you do social media right?

Companies seem to understand that social means constantly providing fresh content to followers. But some have moved to automation to make this happen.

It’s easy to see the appeal of such applications. Automatic delivery tools such as Hootsuite provide social media managers with a method to post content quickly and easily. Fan page posts and Tweets can be scheduled well in advance and there’s little to no limit on how much content can be scheduled either, which is certainly a good thing given how important it is to consistently communicate with social media users.

Now, those tasked with managing their brand’s social media are increasingly searching for new ways to provide fresh content.  One such method that has gained traction lately, particularly among e-commerce and retail brands, is the automation of fan page content and tweets.

Thanks to the inherent ease in using such tools, we’re seeing brands roll out quite a bit of automated content.

Using automation tools for social can be a useful tactic (in the interests of full disclosure, my company, SortPrice, has an automation tool built into the current version of our social commerce platform as well), but relying exclusively on these tools runs counter to the very concept of brands and individuals connecting via social media. It is, in actuality, not social at all.

Let’s say, for example, that a footwear retailer uses an automation tool to pre-schedule three weeks’ worth of Tweets or Facebook fan page posts that are nothing more than links to different pairs of shoes. Sure, that’s increasing the exposure of the retailer’s product line, but throwing up a different link every day isn’t really going to excite anyone or motivate a majority of followers to actually make a purchase. What’s worse, that kind of content will seem an awful lot like spam to some people, which could actually result in the retailer losing them as fans or followers altogether.

Individuals generally choose to like or follow a brand in the hopes of getting a deal out of it. But when that’s not feasible, brands can still find success in their social media interaction by prioritizing one thing above all others: engagement.

Quite simply, giving users engaging content—material that entertains them, motivates them, or simply solicits some sort of response even if it has little to do with your company or products—is still the best way to attract (and retain) fans. Doing so stays true to the very essence of social media and what makes it so popular in the first place. Unfortunately, that level of vital interaction tends to disappear when brands rely too heavily on automation.

I don’t have any firm numbers on how many companies use automation — it’s not something I track. But I’ve seen an upswing in the practice in general, and it tends to involve companies that are extremely new to social networking and Facebook marketing. Such companies may not have enough experience with social media just yet, making automation that much more appealing to them because of the inherent ease.

The trend isn’t limited to smaller companies per se. I’ve seen some mid-size to large brands engaging in it as well. I don’t believe automation has reached “widespread phenomenon” status just yet, but it is definitely on the increase.

No matter how alluring the ease of automation may be, you still need to put in some time and effort to personalize social media outreach. Using automated content during off peak hours or when you’re crunched for time is fine, but it’s imperative to blend in healthy doses of thought-provoking material whenever possible.

For example, a retailer that sells handbags can create a Google News Alert for any article concerning handbags and automatically feed all of those news stories to its Facebook fan page. Yes, the content is relevant, but it’s not going to do much to spur interaction or responses.

Running jokes or riddles from time to time keeps things light and fun and encourages responses and feedback. You can post open-ended questions or polls about pop culture or current events that also allows for people to weigh in with their opinions. Even sharing funny or entertaining videos or photos can strengthen your connection to users and make them feel they’re more than just a number.

This kind of material is easy to find—the web is chock-full of it—and using it in your social media strategy keeps you on users’ radars and makes it much more likely that they will be receptive to important content like new products, promotions, or sales when you roll it out.

Social media is a two-way street of give and take, and turning users into potential customers is tough if you don’t give them a reason to keep paying attention. So employ balance and pay attention to detail with your content. Doing so could ultimately be the difference between a standout social media presence and a run-of-the-mill one.

Doron Simovitch is co-founder and CEO of SortPrice.com, a shopping search engine and Facebook commerce and marketing solutions provider. Doron has more than 15 years of experience in managing technology and e-commerce and is an expert on all things online shopping and e-tail. You can follow him on Twitter at @doronsi.