Would you hire an employee who refused to provide any explanation for their decision-making processes? Neither would I. But many organizations do this every day by using and trusting HootSuite's AutoSchedule feature.

HootSuite is an excellent social media management tool with a host of exclusive features; but it offers little transparency with such an important software feature as a predictive auto-scheduler. Considering the value and sensitivity of social profiles, marketers shouldn't depend on an automation algorithm unless they really know how it's built.

HootSuite's AutoSchedule Feature

Many social media marketers use HootSuite to schedule notifications across a variety of social networks during high engagement periods. Social network notifications can be manually scheduled or automated through its AutoSchedule feature. HootSuite's AutoScheduling claims to choose the best time slots to post social network updates, resulting in more engagement from followers. Although many social media pundits have praised this functionality as a "game changer" and "revolutionary," the fact remains that nobody really knows anything about its mechanics.

Here is the press release by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes:

"It's really quite simple--instead of our users manually selecting what time they want to schedule or post their social media messages using our Scheduling feature, they can opt to use our new AutoSchedule technology to optimize and automate the scheduling process. We want our users spending more time finding and sharing content and less time worrying about the best time of day to share it." 

This press release, along with most of the other documentation available, doesn't sufficiently explain how the predictive algorithm behind this popular feature actually works. Surprisingly, auto-scheduling remains extremely popular among social media marketers.

Why would anyone blindly trust a predictive algorithm without having one shred of real understanding its inner workings?

Transparency is Common in Marketing Automation

Algorithm transparency is common--and demanded--in the marketing automation marketplace. Many predictive models have explained the inner-workings of decision-making processes through patents, infographics and blog posts. Tweriod, a popular tweet scheduling optimization tool, recently explained their algorithm in a blog post. Even Google explains its search algorithm in detailed mathematic and graphical explanation, and maintains a blog dedicated to explaining new algorithm updates. HootSuite is an excellent tool for scheduling posts on social networks. However, more transparency about the AutoScheduling algorithm is necessary to allow marketers to understand and take full advantage of this automation tool.

Here are a few questions that HootSuite must answer before, in my opinion, you can trust it with your organization's precious social media properties:

1. What specific digital signals (retweet numbers, login times, posting times) are factors in the decision-making?

Some of the most important signals may or may not be relevant to your social media campaign(s).

2. How long is the data look-back period? 

Relevant look-back periods vary for different social media campaigns. If you're running seasonal or short-term time period-based social media updates, data averaging over the last year wouldn't be very relevant to those campaigns.

3. Does the algorithm detect and filter out fake/spam/autoscheduled social media accounts?

Maybe you only want to optimize for engagement with live users. No matter how often follower lists are cleaned, bots and spammers find their way in. You need to know if the decision engine is smart enough to filter these "users."

4. What specific engagement metrics (Likes, retweets, favorites and comments) is the algorithm trying to optimize?

Different campaigns have different engagement goals. If you're running a sweepstakes, you care about retweets much more than favorites. You need to know if one engagement metric is preferred over others.

5. How much of the algorithm is based on posting times of the optimized account versus posting times of the audience's accounts?

If your prior posting habits are a major factor and you didn't do a great job of tracking your efforts, you'd need to hire a professional at least temporarily to establish good posting habits as a baseline.

One size certainly does not fit all in meaningful social engagement. Marketers need to know exactly how automation algorithms work so the right campaigns can be chosen for auto-posting. Never trust your brand's marketing automation to a black box decision engine--and if you want to use an auto-posting feature, be sure the provider is transparent about how it works. HootSuite's services are valuable, but your brand's security is precious.

Published on: May 15, 2013
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.