Managing a large social media account can be a time consuming task, which is why so many businesses turn to automation tools to help them along the way. Tools like Hootsuite and Sprout Social are common, but the question crosses everyone’s mind; does using these tools hurt reach? Does Facebook somehow identify posts made by these tools and penalize them?
First, let’s look at the basic question; can Facebook detect that you’re using a third party tool? In this case, very much yes. Tools like Hootsuite and Sprout Social use the Facebook API to manage your Facebook page. They call data, and they push data, all through the API. Facebook sanctions the use of this API, which might indicate that the use of such tools is perfectly kosher. So, yes, Facebook certainly knows. But do they care?
A Look At The Tools
Before we determine whether or not Facebook punishes brands using third party tools, let’s take a look at each feature of these tools and whether or not it conforms to the Facebook business guidelines.
Hootsuite lists a number of features for their Facebook and general social media platform. For example:
- Social message management, to respond to and track private messages, as well as public posts. This includes scheduling and engagement tracking.
- Single click responses, streamlining the process of posting.
- Draft saving, which doesn’t involve Facebook at all.
- Bulk messaging through numerous social networks.
- Audience targeting, taking Facebook’s targeting options and displaying them in a different manner.
- Social listening, to monitor trends and keywords, including mentions of your brand.
- Noise filtering, to remove conversations from listening that aren’t relevant.
- Geolocation for social listening searches.
- Analytics, which go beyond what Facebook allows in Insights, using UberVU and their own native tools.
- Collaboration, enhancing the features available to Page Admins and Page Mods.
- Additional layers of security, ranging from permission management to mobile HTTPS.
So, how does this look when compared to the Facebook general guidelines? There’s nothing in there about post scheduling; after all, it’s a feature already built in to Facebook. There’s nothing about saving drafts. There’s nothing about social listening. There’s nothing wrong with expanded analytics – businesses track Facebook URLs using Google parameters and Google Analytics, after all. Collaboration features exist on the platform already, so Hootsuite doesn’t violate anything there. And security, of course, is a priority for both companies.
The only thing that could possibly raise a red flag is the use of bulk message posting, which can be used for nefarious ends by spammers.
How about Sprout Social? Here are some of their features:
- Inbox filtering to manage messages across multiple platforms, filter them, and allow easy responses.
- Brand keyword monitoring, much like Hootsuite’s social listening features. Like Hootsuite, this likely involves more search engine work than API calls.
- Customer profile tracking, including cross-platform messages and integration with other third party tools.
- Management and publication using a range of devices, including mobile. Nothing specifically to do with Facebook, other than perhaps an ad manager integration.
- Analytics deeper than what you find with vanilla Insights. Like with Hootsuite, additional analytics have always been fine.
- Collaboration features, including task assignment, visibility and activity updates.
- Team management and security features. Team management is largely a Sprout Social implementation, not a feature that uses Facebook API calls in any way.
The vast majority of these features are all platform-agnostic. In other words, they don’t have a thing to do with Facebook specifically. The only way Sprout Social interacts with Facebook is to call data, run searches for listening purposes, and to post data. Unless you’re using it for nefarious ends, like for spam, you’ll be fine.
Facing the Facts
So, despite all of the legalities involved, it seems like nothing these tools do violates any of Facebook’s guidelines or rules. Nothing in the Facebook terms of service dictates that businesses can’t manage their pages through third party tools. Still, it’s not unheard-of for a site to penalize users of these third party programs, just because they give an advantage that not every business has.
This is supported by the history of Facebook. The fact is, in the past, Facebook did punish users for using platforms like Sprout Social and Hootsuite. Hubspot’s article from 2012 explains. After a two-week test, they discovered that posts made from tools received significantly less engagement and attention than they did when made personally and manually. This was happening when Facebook rolled out the Timeline for the first time.
Statistically, Facebook was giving users as much as 67% less engagement when using a third party app. They also significantly hurt content published using a third party tool, by 60% or more. The theory is that Facebook was treating “published by API” a different type of post from, say, text posts, links or image posts. This type of post would be weighted much less than other comparable posts.
The Modern Truth
That data is all old and outdated, however. As you will see in the preface for the post when I linked it, this penalty is no longer the case. As of mid-2013, tests indicated that there was no penalty for third party posts.
It’s possible that the issue causing the penalty was a bug in the first place, related to the rollout of Timeline. It’s also possible that Facebook was actively penalizing third party apps before they realized just how essential they are. Facebook has long been pushing to get more small businesses on the platform, and small businesses are the ones most affected by the loss of automation tools. Big businesses can just hire managers to post manually; small businesses don’t have that luxury.
Either way, Facebook currently does not penalize businesses and page managers for using automation tools, and a good thing it is, too; so many people use such tools that if they were to enact such a penalty now, most of the userbase would vanish overnight.