Beware the Social Media 'Filter Bubble'
A few Fridays ago, I was rudely jolted awake by the news that the nation had voted Brexit. This came as a profound shock to me personally, and seemingly also to the vast majority of those in the media and advertising community and the clients we work with.
Whilst polls had consistently shown it was too close to call, the overwhelming sentiment in the last few days and hours seemed to be that Remain would come out on top. Certainly as the FTSE and pound climbed, the market-makers and speculators who had the most to lose or gain (at least in the short-term) seemed to believe this was the case.
But where was this belief coming from? As the inquest has unfolded over the last few weeks, much of the blame has focused on social media and more specifically the so-called 'filter-bubble' it creates. As social platforms algorithmically reflect back the opinions of the networks of friends, colleagues, personalities and brands that we choose to interact with, they also filter out those we don't, becoming an echo-chamber that reinforces our opinions, perceptions and preconceptions. This effect has been identified and heavily implicated both for the triumph of Leave, and the failure of the establishment and affluent/urban/southern/liberal/privileged community we live within to see it coming.
The news of Brexit also came at time when Facebook announced further changes to their algorithm to prioritise content from friends over that from brands including news brands. Facebook positions these latest changes as part of a continual process of improving the user experience, but it can also be seen as a further attempt to limit the organic (free) reach of publishers, some of whom have built businesses on the back of Facebook's platform.
While this helps Facebook retain users for longer and helps drive revenue through forcing brands to use paid activity to drive reach, it may also further limit the range of opinions seen within the ecosystems that Facebook devotes so much time and energy to keeping you inside.
Similarly, platforms such as Instagram and Twitter no longer simply display a chronological feed of posts (interspersed with paid ads), but now default to algorithmically-governed feeds that prioritise those you interact with most often. This will inevitably narrow the range of content you see within these environments.
There are obvious implications here, both for brands and for all of us.
Firstly, don't believe that the only version of the truth is what you hear reflected back at you by the networks you connect with. While it might sound like everybody loves (or possibly hates) your brand or latest campaign, in reality most people probably don't actually know, or care, about it.
Secondly, it pays to know what people are talking about on the platforms they use. Most big brands now have access to 'social listening' tools that enable them to aggregate and understand the emotions and sentiments being expressed on social platforms. This allows them not only to react to and address things that relate directly to their own brands, but to tap into the wider mood and tailor messaging accordingly. In the current turbulent atmosphere for example, it may be that this is not the time to be launching edgy, complex or challenging campaigns. In times of uncertainty people tend to look for reassurance and familiarity – brands that can provide this might find they benefit.
For those that aren't listening, now might be a good time to start. If you aren't listening to, and engaging with, your audiences in the places where they spend their time, you can't know what is being said about your brand, nor how you can influence the conversation. After all, recent events have shown that the wider sentiment might be a very, very long way from 'the truth' as you see it.
This article first appeared in Digital Marketing Magazine on 19/07/16