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The Great Marketing Tool Debate - Social Media Scheduling

There is a plethora of social media scheduling tools, but which one will work best for you? We put Buffer, Agora Pulse, Hootsuite and Sprout Social to the test.

by Sasha Kinch in Social Media, The Marketing Lab

Social Media, The Marketing Lab

Scheduling social media posts is one key way we can all be a little more efficient with our time spent on social media. The key benefits of scheduling are that you can:

  • Plan your updates in advance
  • Think through your themes so they flow nicely (rather than having to do so on the fly),
  • Be updating more regularly, thereby increasing the chance of you reaching your target audience when they’re online.

So it makes sense then that the question of which tools to use become really important.

Before we go any further, it’s worth mentioning that some people speculate that reach is affected by using scheduling platforms. Firstly the tools we’ve chosen and tested below have all got excellent reputations and have built relations with the social platforms themselves.

That said, it’s even more important than ever when you’re scheduling updates to schedule the right updates to the right people on the right platforms. The organic reach on scheduled posts is much more likely to be diminished due to poorly thought-through scheduled post, than because of the platform used! And in the extreme case, we’ve seen instances of some users may bulk upload 7000 tweets over 7 hours, which is clearly a bad case of quantity over quality – a recipe for disaster.

In short, scheduling makes lots of sense, but common sense should always prevail in choosing the right content, on the right social network, at the right time, to optimise engagement.

Some Tips?

  • Adhere to the stats that the platforms provide. Take the time to understand your users and your audience. Remember, your facebook audience might be a subset of your customer profile, so pay attention to what they respond to, and the times they respond.
  • Different wording is better for different profiles. Duplicate content across the different platforms can really reduce the effectiveness of that message. For example, tweets tend to be succinct and shorter tweets tend to perform better. However, Instagram and Pinterest lend themselves to longer descriptions.
  • Timing for different posts is also absolutely essential. Post the right content on the right channel based on when your community is online or active. Don’t use these the platforms as a soap box. Think before you post or schedule.

Now that you know how to schedule, which tools should you use? Well it really depends on what you are looking for.

Agora Pulse

Agora Pulse is a social media scheduling tool to rival Hootsuite. Agora Pulse started as an app for Facebook, and quickly moved into a tool where you can monitor your social media in one place.You can manage, schedule and post your content to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+ and Instagram.

In addition, it also offers competitor analysis and apps for Facebook competitions. It has great, unlimited reporting, influencer and keyword search functionality and you can export the reports to a powerpoint presentation. It also has a great social media listening tracker.

We tested the Enterprise version as well, and the reporting was a key aspect that made Agora Pulse incredibly attractive. The testers disagreed on user interface, some of us loved it, some of us didn’t like it so much. The calendar interface caused the disagreement, but it does seem to be more about personal preference.

How do you use it?

Like Hootsuite, how you set up Agora Pulse is key. Once you have added your social media accounts, set up your keywords searches etc. Then you connect your social platforms and you can monitor and post from the app itself.

Features

  • Mobile app (IOS / Android)
  • Schedule content multiple social networks including Instagram
  • Chrome plugin
  • Easy to read/visual reports
  • Team collaboration
  • Content scheduling calendar/planner
  • Social media listening
  • Advocate and influencer tracker

In addition, it has excellent advert monitoring functionality and a community flagging tool.

What’s Great

  • Offers great reporting included in the price, so no need to pay extra to get reports like Hootsuite
  • Monitor keywords and locations
  • Identify influencers and flag users that engage with you the most
  • Preview and customise your updates to suit your selected social network
  • Offers individual profile inboxes for each social network. So you can clearly see what tasks you must address.
  • Allows you to make tweaks on your updates to suit a particular platform. eg. add in 1-2 hashtags for twitter, but none for FB

It allows bulk scheduling, but you can edit each network look and feel, which is really great. Comparing it to Sprout Social, the reality is you can do everything in one place such as ad management and community management.

What’s Not Great

  • Our testers disagreed on the the user interface, some disliked it, others loved it. It is no worse than Hootsuite, which many would consider hard to use.
  • Cost is a significant consideration for Agora – it’s certainly too pricey for many who might just be getting started.
  • There is an issue with Twitter being a little “laggey”. Some of us found this, some of us didn’t.
  • You also can’t schedule video posts.
  • Lastly, while reports are aesthetically beautiful and great to share to a client, they can be a bit lightweight at times.

Who is it for?

Agora Pulse is great for small/medium sized business with a social media focus (and a budget).  It’s CRM features, reporting, user collaboration functionality and ad monitoring (if on the Medium package or higher) are handy features.

In reality, it is good for anyone of any size if you have more than one platform to monitor. Working on the enterprise package also has a really great support system.

From an agency point of view, if you start with Agora, and build from there, it is good, particularly if you count it as a management tool and reporting tool. You need to be able to justify the cost.

Cost

Agora Pulse is expensive in comparison to a Hootsuite Pro account. Prices start at €49 per month for 5 profiles to €299 for 30 profiles.That said, it is one of the cheaper management tools from an enterprise level. At €10 a profile this can be built into the cost of the sale.  But if you know the price and are prepared to spend it, many would consider it real value for money, particularly due to the superior reporting.

Moving along, there are features on Hootsuite that us testers still prefer.

Hootsuite

Often referred to as the heavyweight champion of social media scheduling – if you want to do it, Hootsuite can do it. It is a fully-featured tool that gives almost every possibility of activities for a social media management team or agency. In essence, it is great for managing multiple accounts in a single interface. The biggest drawback with Hootsuite is on the reporting side, where it can become costly quickly. The analytics are robust, but you really do have to pay to get them.

Note also that Hootsuite integrates really well with apps such as Pocket and Feedly Pro. This means you can save, organise and share content from its dashboard. Hootsuite apps are amazing for publishing from your wordpress site, integrating with mailchimp or looking for influencers via Riffle. There are 100s of free and paid apps a marketer can use.

Hootsuite continues to be top of it’s game in social media management. Scheduling is replicated in other tools, but the management of multiple streams in single interface is big differentiator. Analytics are relatively good too, although at Pro level you don’t get access to all reporting

How do you use it?

Once you get the hang of the user interface (which may not be that intuitive to first time users), it is easy to use and very scalable. It is perfect for managing large volumes of social content that needs to be shared across a plethora of social channels.

Integrate your Hootsuite account with as many social media accounts as possible, so you can monitor multiple accounts simultaneously. It is also possible to monitor specific interactions e.g. hashtags, keywords, newsfeeds, competitor feeds.

Key Features

  • Monitor multiple accounts simultaneously
  • Monitor specific interactions e.g. hashtags, keywords, newsfeed, competitor feeds
  • Hootsuite also facilitates scheduling and bulk scheduling by uploading excel files of updates and times/dates
  • Content suggestions are also included but a little generic – leans toward US centric content
  • Hootlet is a browser plugin which allows you to easily share from across the web onto Hootsuite
  • Analytics are robust, but you don’t get full analytics unless paying for the highest package

What’s Great

  • The ability to grow into the platform
  • Good value for $9 per month, which includes some analytics but not full suite
  • Includes Instagram posting option, although not very slick execution due to limitations on Instagram
  • There are great educational resources at Hootsuite University

Essentially the scalability of Hootsuite Pro is great. You can monitor all sorts of things, hashtags etc. Also note that they are quick to add new functionality as soon as it becomes available (e.g. Instagram as soon as the API opened up).

What’s Not Great

  • Hootsuite can be tricky to use, and can take a while to set up all the “streams”, but once you are all set up, it does work well. It is almost difficult to not have the streams once you get used to them.
  • Their support is not great, but they do have live chat which has improved things
  • Our testers found that Hootsuite’s bulk upload feature is a real pain and doesn’t work wonderfully
  • The content calendar isn’t great
  • Auto-schedule is limited compared to Buffer as it forces you to push to all the channels at the same time, whereas Buffer can separate times per channel.
  • Costly to get access to the fuller suite of reporting. Also with the reporting you can’t click into a specific data point and see the tweet/post that created that data point
  • Finally, you can’t schedule video posts

Who is the platform for?

Free, Pro & Enterprise plans are for very different stages of social media management. The free tool is a lot more basic than Buffer’s free tool. Pro & Enterprise are considerably better. The free version is very hidden, and they set you up doing a trial of Pro.

Buffer

Buffer is a nifty social media scheduling tool. You can write a bunch of posts at one time, choose which social profiles to send them to, and then Buffer will spread them throughout the day or week so that you don’t have to be at a computer all the time in order to have a social media presence. You can also attach a photo, video or animated GIF to any of your posts. Not a big fan of the buffly shortlink, but once you pay you do have the option to customise.

It is very easy to set up an account and very easy to start scheduling. You kind of forget that you are using a platform – it’s THAT seamless. Basically, the free version is one of the best free versions out there. You just get a lot of value. Perfect beginner interface. It helps you make the difficult decisions.

Features

  • Chrome Plugin
  • Auto-Schedule Calendar
  • Multi-Channel Schedule
  • Analytics
  • Content suggestions (premium) – but they’re generic. Hootsuite tried these as well, but not great.
  • Buffer has created an Image-editing tool, Pablo, which makes it super easy to create great graphics quickly and easily for social publishing
  • Super easy to create fit-for-purpose graphics
  • Buffer respond – new customer service platform. But it seems a bit inconsistent with what buffer is – in that it would be something a big organisation needs. Possibly its bet to get into the enterprise space.

What’s Great

  • It’s easy to use
  • It’s ideal if you are managing a single account on multiple platforms
  • The Chrome plugin is excellent – if you are reading something online that you want to share, you click the button and BOOM. You have a post to schedule – it pulls in the image and title (which you may want to edit) and schedules as per your previously set calendar. You can also quickly resize images, add text and even embed your logo with Buffer’s image tool Pablo.
  • Buffer retweet is also nice for resharing high performing content.
  • It does as much of the work for you as possible.
  • We also loved the buffer blog too – excellent resource.
  • Newly introduced “respond” product for customer service social media management.

Very insightful thoughts on the industry in general.

What’s not great

  • The free model allows you schedule 10 posts max, which is understandable.
  • It doesn’t work fantastically if you want to share to too MANY different accounts.
  • Also, if you are trying to manage a lot of different accounts it can become a little unwieldy.
  • And in terms of reporting it’s not comparable to Hootsuite or Agora.

Who is the platform for?

Those getting started with scheduling, and managing multiple social assets for a single account. Small businesses, anyone new to social media and single users

Sprout Social

As a social media management tool, Sprout Social is easy to use, straightforward and intuitive. You can schedule, monitor and analyse all in one place. While the tool provides a great workflow for sorting and managing social interactions, it does not have the ability to view multiple social media feeds side by side on one screen. Multiple feeds and pricing are the major drawbacks of Sprout Social. There are a number of tools out there which can do similar things but come at a cheaper price tag. Having said that, trial this tool in your organisation and find out if it fits your needs.

How does it work?

  • Connect social media networks to your account and start scheduling posts and responding to comments
  • Sprout Social management dashboard organises information around 6 distinct categories: messages, tasks, feeds, publishing, discovery and reports.  The messages screen displays social interactions on SM networks such as Twitter mentions, retweets, new followers, DMs, replies to followers; FB comments, wall posts, PMs; G+ posts, comments and Instagram comments.
  • You can filter which social interactions to include/exclude in the Sprout Social’s messages feed. On the messages screen, a user can easily reply to social interactions or assign a task for replying to another team member.
  • The tasks screen displays all open and closed tasks. It can be filtered by predefined types of tasks such as general, leads and support.
  • The feeds screen shows public updates from your LinkedIn connections, the accounts you follow on Twitter and RSS feeds from the blogs you follow. You must be Feedly user in order to enable RSS feeds.
  • The publishing screen is dedicated to scheduling updates on Twitter, LinkedIn personal account and business pages as well as FB and G+ business pages.
  • A user can select a specific time and date in the calendar, queue an update to predefined posting schedule or allow Sprout Social to decide when is the best time to post the update in the future.
  • The calendar view is convenient to see how far ahead the updates are scheduled.
  • There’s also an opportunity to install a browser extension that allows sharing pages open in a browser without going into Sprout Social’s publishing screen.
  • The discovery screen allows mainly managing Twitter accounts. It shows your followers, Twitter users you interacted with and mentioned you. You can also filter and unfollow the accounts you are following by accounts with little or no activity, irregular usage and no-follow-backs. The smart search feature allows searching for Twitter accounts and updates based on keywords and location.
  • The report screen provides Twitter, Facebook and Instagram reports.
  • In addition, reports on social media team members’ performance are available.
  • It takes only a click to generate a report.
  • You can start from comparing your Twitter account against the competition.

Features

  • Automatic update queueing (Sprout Queue)
  • Filterable social interactions feed
  • Twitter profile and keyword search
  • Browser extension for publishing
  • Social media analytics reports
  • Integration with support applications Zendesk and Uservoice – integration with Feedly

It has auto publishing or smart publishing. The system figures out the best time or you can define the times.

What’s great

  • Sprout social has a clean design that is easy to use.
  • It also works well for teams with extensive control over user permission levels.
  • Sprout Social is pretty similar to how you manage the team in Hootsuite, different user levels, comments, assign actions to different members.
  • You can also easily generate reports with explanations and it has a unified filterable stream for social interactions.
  • You can integrate bitly.
  • The reports are limited in themselves, but you can create as many reports as you want. This makes it useful for agencies.
  • This is not a freemium model.

What’s not great

  • Coming from a multi-stream platform like Hootsuite, it is harder to use. But this is probably personal preference.
  • On the reports, they are NOT customisable.
  • There is no integration with Youtube and Pinterest.
  • It is also too expensive for SMEs, the cheapest plan starts at $59 user/month.
  • Finally, there is no ability to have multiple side by side feeds at the same time.

Cost

Up to 20 profiles is inexpensive, and worked well for a small agency. But if you went higher than that it was coming in at about €1500 for more profiles. In the agency world, Agora would win out based on price and reporting.

Who is it for?

Large organisations with social media teams. It is too expensive for small organisations.

Conclusion

Choosing the right social media scheduling tool really depends what your requirements are. The heavy hitters are definitely Agora Pulse and Hootsuite, and the testers couldn’t agree on a clear winner. Buffer is still great, just lightweight. Sprout Social wasn’t a favourite of anyone’s, but certainly useful to compare.

The Testers

Felicity McCarthy, Founder of Sparkdigital.ie

Laurynas Binderis, E-commerce Manager at Online Office Supplies Retailer Needa.ie

Greg Fry, Social Media Strategist, Content Plan

Sasha Kinch, Digital Campaigns Executive, Independent News and Media, read her blog here.

Tristram Dyer, Head of Social Strategy at Leading Social

Maryrose Lyons, Founder of Social Media Agency Dublin Brightspark

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