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“Bots” has become a four-letter word in the wake of reports about the black market for fake fans and followers on popular sites like Instagram. This is a shame because marketing automation is supposed to be a good thing. It’s supposed to provide an opportunity to save time and improve results by using data and technology in ways a mere mortal never could. But when it comes to social media and influencer marketing, the dark side of automation is rising.

Many marketers use bots on Instagram to follow people and “like” and comment on their behalf with the intent of growing their followings and increasing engagement rates, even though Instagram frowns on the process. Those marketers are overlooking a crucial shortcoming: Bots don’t understand context.

Using a bot to field simple customer service inquiries is one thing, but expecting it to comment appropriately on a post is another entirely. We are pushing bots further than they are ready to go. Sometimes the language just feels awkward, but other times it can be downright insulting or inappropriate.

Bots aren’t ready to be your proxy

Instagram has battled bots for years. Back in 2014, the app eradicated millions of fake users in a now infamous purge, causing celebrities to lose millions of followers overnight. Instagram says fake accounts only make up a small fraction of its user base, but they are there.


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Brands can employ bots to inflate their fan bases or as part of digital ad fraud scams, but, obviously, not all bots are bad. Google uses bots to index the internet, and bots field routine questions on the websites of digitally mature companies.

Indeed, automating simple tasks can be a critical business decision. Think of automated phone systems. When you call a business, you don’t get a person on the phone — you get an automated attendant that asks callers simple questions. If the bot can’t handle the request, it can usually connect the caller with a real person. This saves companies time and money, mitigates dropped calls, and prevents customers from hearing the nearly obsolete busy signal.

But this is very different from what brands are asking of bots on social media. Interpreting free-flow text and commenting appropriately is far more advanced. Sometimes it works out, but other times, it is glaringly wrong, and that can hurt a brand.

Bots behaving badly

Using Instagram bots is fairly simple. Users connect their Instagram accounts to the bots and select the length of time the bot will run and what they want it to do (e.g., like, comment, or follow). The user then selects generic comments for the bot to choose from, such as “Wow!” or “Love this!” Users can also choose emojis and hashtags for the bots to utilize, which tend to be things like locations (e.g., #Brooklyn, #beach), descriptions (#brunette), or trends (#wokeuplikethis). Then the bot scans Instagram for posts relevant to the selected hashtags and completes the engagement phase by liking, commenting, or following.

It is difficult to find hard stats on how many brands and influencers use bots, but it happens often, especially among smaller brands or up-and-coming influencers who may have limited resources. But it is risky. Bots can say the wrong thing or, at the least, some weird things.

Here is an Instagram user imploring people to stop using bots after she received multiple inappropriate comments on her post about her miscarriage:

And in this instance, a bot comments on a woman’s picture of her sick son: “Interesting! Where was this taken? :)”

For brands, building a robust social media presence requires authenticity. You need a strong brand voice, and you need all of your social media activity to reflect that voice. Comments like “Wow!” don’t sound genuine, and when they are used incorrectly, they reflect poorly on the brand. Additionally, not all users will realize they are dealing with a bot. They may think it is a brand representative choosing to make an asinine comment on your company’s behalf. Not to mention that using bots violates Instagram’s API terms, which state: “Add something unique to the community. Don’t use the Instagram APIs to replicate or attempt to replace the functionality or essential user experiences of Instagram.com or any of Instagram’s apps.”

Be careful in deciding how and when you employ bots for business purposes. By all means, use automated tools to do things like aggregate third-party content and help with data analytics, but hold off on employing bots to take over your Instagram presence. They are not ready to effectively replicate real, human interaction, which makes it risky to have them represent your brand.

Rich Kahn is the CEO and cofounder of eZanga, an online marketing firm.

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