Is it Finally Time for the Twitter Auto DM to Die?

All Graphics by Lynn Langmade

Twitter Auto DM Pollution and What You Can Do About It

This is supposed to be a quick post (and possibly rant) about Twitter Auto DMs. I hope it’s the first of many posts I write about helpful tips on Twitter and social media in general.

I spend a great deal of time on Twitter and have a decent size following: 12k+. It’s large enough that auto DMs triggered when I follow are becoming a huge problem for me—such a huge problem that I have basically stopped reading DMs altogether because my inbox is so polluted with auto DM spam that I actually can’t get to any real messages from people who are actually trying to make a private, human connection with me on Twitter.

When I see folks, particularly marketers, sending me Twitter auto DMs, I wonder if maybe the reason they engage in this practice is because their following on Twitter hasn’t reached a size that makes auto DMs not only seriously annoying, but also almost impossible to manage. Just imagine what happens if every single person you were to follow sent you an automated DM when you follow more than 1000 people? Can you imagine how quickly Auto DMs in this scenario could clog your inbox and cause inbox fatigue?

And you know what? Simply telling you about this problem really can't do it justice. So I think the best thing to do to really demonstrate how bad these Auto DMs are is to show you by highlighting a few that were sent to me recently. This is really the only way you can see the true horror of it: 

I selected these DMs because they range from the pretty innocuous in the upper left corner to the downright deranged in the lower right corner. One marketer immediately announces she’s triggered an Auto DM and then goes on to thank me “from the bottom of her heart.” And although she’s sending me a “robotic message,” she wants to assure me she truly does want to get to know me. Hehehe. One guy actually forgot to fill out one of the fields in his Auto DM so instead of the user’s handle it says “(users).” The two on the bottom right are absolutely hilarious. This woman triggers an Auto DM thanking me in four words, and then spends the remaining 60 or so trying to ram her FB spam down my throat. But wait, it gets even better. I never responded to her Auto DM, so she then takes it upon herself to DM me for a second time, but this time dropping all pretense of actually trying to engage with me. No, this time she just commands me to “like” her FB business page. Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. So what is the rationale here? When a request fails, use overt coercion to try to get your prospect to respond? Now, imagine these kind of horrific DMs just piling up in your Twitter inbox day after day after day after day.  Ugh.

As a case in point, a week ago, a marketer I connected with through Twitter sent me a DM asking me if I wanted to collaborate with him on a project. That’s right. He was using the DM function for its intended purpose: real communication. The problem was that I almost missed his message because it was buried under hundreds of auto DMs I received that day. Not cool. Seriously. Not. Cool. And if I almost missed this message, how many other messages am I actually missing due to Auto DM pollution? More importantly, how does this affect my ability to meet, interact, and engage with my fellow marketers if I am not replying to real communication that is sent to me because I quite literally can’t find it?

When you ask a marketer who deploys Twitter Auto DMs to new followers why they engage in the practice, what you often hear them say is that they use Auto DMs because they work. Yes, it’s true that people do reply or click on the links in an Auto DM. Of course, they technically work if you count a meager response as working, but does that mean you should engage in the practice? People spam because it works, but that doesn’t make it right. However, what I would actually say in response to these marketers is that even the small engagement you may get from the practice cannot outweigh the negative outcomes of automating direct messaging.

But rather than just ask you to take my word for it or base this post on my own experience dealing with Auto DMs, I created a Twitter poll and sent it out to my 12K+ following which is comprised of 88% marketers, asking this simple question:

As a marketer, what do you do when you receive an automated DM?

Mute, unfollow, link?
Reply, click, or list?
I don’t read DMs

I set up this poll to last for 7 days on Twitter, posted it to my Twitter feed, and received a total of 86 organic responses and 107 total engagements, which included comments. While this isn’t a massive sample size, it is representative and large enough to gain some insight into how marketers generally feel about receiving automated DMs. Not only are online polls better than phone surveys, Twitter polls are completely anonymous, which increases the reliability and accuracy of the responses. In fact, Twitter is actually being used now by political pollsters to predict election outcomes over traditional polling methods

Here is the poll and raw data:

Twitter Auto DM Poll Raw Data

Beyond the responses, the poll also received 9 likes, 6 retweets, and 4 replies.  

What Does This Data Mean for You as a Marketer? 

For starters, only 14% of marketers engage with automated DMs in a meaningful way. That means 86% of marketers either don’t read DMs, ignore them, or will respond negatively to them by muting, unfollowing, or blocking senders of Auto DMs. 86% is a staggering number. Marketers will want to consider again what this means not only in terms of how this behavior is potentially alienating a dominant percentage of their audience, but also increasing audience/follower churn. There are also all kinds of intangible costs, such as the hit to your brand’s reputation and decrease in brand equity. As I wrote in a previous post, brand equity is very difficult to develop and can be destroyed virtually overnight

Are Auto DMs Really that Bad? 

Yes, they are. Twitter itself has a proscription against automated DMs. Although Twitter’s “Automation Rules and Best Practices” says that “with express user consent” automated DMs are permitted, Twitter actually maintains in these guidelines that “generally most automation is detrimental to the user experience and frequently results in blocks and suspensions.” That’s right, beyond the poll I ran that clearly shows you will hemorrhage 12% of your following, Twitter itself has gone on record as saying that the practice not only results in blocks, but could actually get your account suspended.

While there is some debate about whether Auto DMs are spam, there shouldn’t be. Twitter identifies the practice as spam. And beyond the practice itself, Twitter also “discourages” including “links in the body of an automated Direct Message” specifically to prevent spam and protect users from “malicious activity.”

Furthermore, beyond the resulting 12% follower churn, you need to consider the impact of 73% of your audience likely ignoring your carefully crafted Auto DM. As data-driven marketers, our whole job is to test different tactics to see what works. We try to replicate and double down on what works and immediately discontinue tactics that don’t work or don’t work reliably. What constitutes “working?” Well, we should consider any marketing tactic a “success” when a conversion results and a practice something we should double down on when the conversion is reliable or dependable. If you are hoping for a prospect on Twitter to reply to your DM or click your link, but 73% of them are failing to convert and are ignoring your DM, this should be a serious cause for alarm.

The Rise of the “Personalized” Auto DM 

I run marketing communications for a high-tech enterprise software company. I recently had sales reps from a startup come in to demo their product who claimed to be able to help us achieve ROI from social media and promised to transform our Twitter presence into a demand generation powerhouse. I asked the sales team from this company to demo their product primarily to learn how their solution was able to do something effortlessly that is so difficult for even the best social media marketers to do.

Well, if I didn’t think there was any worse practice you could engage in as a marketer than spam, I was wrong. There isn’t anything worse than spamming innocent people—except, oh wait, there is: spamming people under the pretense that you’re being genuine. That’s right, we’ve now entered the era of a new breed of Auto DM—what I will call the “Personalized Auto DM.” The technology that enables the “personalized” Automated Direct Messaging is changing the entire Twitter game for marketers.

These solutions essentially leverage information gained from a user’s Twitter profile and then cross- references it against data from their LinkedIn profile to create an Automated DM that looks deceptively authentic or real. In the old days, the tell-tale sign of a traditional Auto DM was that the DM didn’t refer to you by your personal name, but by your Twitter handle. In fact, one of the only ways I was honestly able to weed through all of the spam DMs in my inbox was to just ignore any Tweet that referred to me by my Twitter handle. However, that is no longer possible. Any DM from someone I follow is now immediately suspicious because there is no way for me to tell when someone I recently followed is spamming me or trying to communicate with me.

Wow. Just think about that for a minute. What does it mean when marketers are making it impossible for people to communicate on Twitter or are potentially shutting conversation down completely because of deceptive practices? As I discussed in another blog post, this will have the same dampening effect as trademarking hashtags on social media. Ultimately, all marketers will lose as these solutions get widely deployed because trust will be completely eradicated on Twitter.

Ironically, the same company who demoed this product also wrote a blog post actually extolling the virtue of the Auto DM precisely because it cuts through email inbox spam: 

By sending a personalized DM at the right stage in a customer’s journey, you’re not just showing a strong social media presence—you’re also piercing through the noise of inbox spam to reach customers as individuals, on their terms, in specific times of need.

One tip they recommend is to actually add in the “customer’s name” into DMs to make them appear more authentic. Oh yeah, they really recommended that.

Not too surprisingly, marketers who are using these platforms are seeing phenomenal response rates on Twitter. And it may be true that Auto DMs provide marketers with 10x CTR over email. For instance, the CTR for email is roughly 3%, but about 30% for DMs. However, this click-thru-rate does not account for the fact that the average email unsub rate per email delivery is less than 1%, whereas the Auto DM mute/unfollow/block rates are at least 12%. In short, Auto DM practitioners are getting great engagement not because they are doing great marketing, but because they are deceiving their prospects. 

What Should You Do Instead of Sending Auto DMs? 

Well, you should respect your audience and not spam them. The second and most obvious thing is to do something really crazy and, oh, I dunno, start being “social” on social media. A prerequisite for being “social” is being human, not a machine.

Here are the 5 activities you can start doing today to increase engagement with your followers:

  • Send authentic and legitimately personalized DM to your followers thanking them or providing real value to them
  • Reply to tweets from those you follow to start a conversation
  • Retweet your followers’ tweets to show your appreciation
  • Tweet their content and mention them
  • Send out a #FollowFriday tweet recommending others follow them

In short, use Twitter and social media to engage with your audience in meaningful, authentic ways that will help to build the necessary trust to develop a relationship with your followers and prospects. Start giving before you try to ask for something.