SXSW: Hootsuite on why social needs a human touch

Acting robotically on social is only going to harm your brand

Russ Martin March 12, 2015

Social is tough to scale. With massive audiences and new social platforms constantly emerging, it’s easy for marketers to lose sight of the reason they’re on social media in the first place – to build relationships.

For brands, the temptation is to automate feeds and scenario plan until they know exactly what to say, no matter what situation emerges. Jeanette Gibson vice-president of customer experience and community at Hootsuite, is an advocate for a more human approach.

On Friday, Gibson spoke at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas about adding a human touch to social media. Ahead of the talk, Marketing spoke to her about what kind of community managers brands should look for, empowering employees on social and why brands should never automate their responses.

Here are five takeaways from Gibson.


As they struggle with managing social media at scale, Gibson said many brands are falling prey to the idea that automation is an easy way to publish more content. The trouble, she said, is that automating responses and scheduling posts without being there to respond to comments makes social followers feel disregarded.

When a consumer receives an automated response, she said, “They feel horrible. It’s kind of like getting an [automated] email, when someone emails a brand and gets an automatic response back they feel like they are not viewed as though they matter by the brand.”


Instead of responding to a customer with a copy-and-paste reply, Gibson suggested linking followers with commonly asked questions or complaints off-site, either to a piece of content that gives them a detailed response, or to an owned community or forum where they can find responses already provided to similar questions.

“Drive some of those responses into communities,” she said. “For example, to a support forum where they see the question has already been answered and enable peer-to-peer interactions between customers.”


Giving social the human touch requires the right person have the keys. The community manager who runs social media for your brand should be nurturing and responsive by nature, Gibson said. Finding the right social staff to handle customer inquiries and complaints is key to building relationships online, she said.

“They’ve got to be approachable and cool-headed, but also empathetic and able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes and to really champion the customer voice.”


Gibson sees a distinction between social media managers, who work on content production and brand campaigns, and community managers, who manage the day-to-day relations between consumers and brand accounts.

While social media managers are useful as strategists, Gibson also recommends brands employ community managers, especially large companies that have private communities for customers. By investing in community managers who focus on customer needs, she said brands can build stronger bonds with their social followers.

“The job of the community manager is not to be selling product, it’s to be nurturing and building relationships,” she said.


“Employees are more vocal now than ever,” Gibson said. “They’re also more empowered. They have iPads, phones and laptops at work.” For brands, that’s a big opportunity. If a company has a positive culture and employees feel happy, they can be positive ambassadors on social media, which puts a human face on the brand.

Making employees feel like they’re part of what the company’s doing is the first step to turning them into an ambassador, Gibson said. She also recommended making it easy for employees to share company content on social media.

While employees can increase a brand’s reach, there’s also a big risk involved in turning over ownership of your brand to everyone who works for the company. To alleviate some of that risk, Gibson recommends setting up clear guidelines for how to participate in company initiatives on social media, keep in constant communication about policies and lead by example, with executives, HR and the social media team showcasing best practices.