We undoubtedly live in a period of unprecedented levels of content creation and dissemination. The internet puts the power of the publisher in the hands of everyone with a computer or a smartphone and whilst there is reasonable debate about the value of the much of the content being produced, the volume is undeniable.
It is partly in response to this – and partly for commercial (or possibly other more scary reasons) reasons – that search and social media giants create ever-more complex algorithms that show users a fraction of the content that they could be seeing.
The history of search and social bubbles
At the end of 2009, Google started serving up content based on what its software thinks you are most likely to click on, not what is trending. And certainly not what might challenge the user.
Social channels – most notably Facebook – are a long way down the road of doing the same thing. In the case of Facebook, there are dual motivations for doing this. Certainly the social network wants to show users the posts that they think are most likely to generate an interaction. That is most often content that the algorithm believes is similar to the content that the users has already engaged with (and remember that Facebook does not have a ‘dislike’ button for a very good reason). Instagram is now promoting images that it’s computer-brain believes the user will like, not the content that was most recently posted. Twitter is doing the same.
Bubbles in politics and your business
In the recent European Union referendum in the UK, one of the abiding themes was that it seemed everyone’s social feeds were full of like-minded individuals, reinforcing the messages that ratified each user’s position. Certainly there was the odd dissenter, but in the main, if you were planning to vote ‘remain’ your timeline was full of others suggesting they would do the same and visa versa. I believe that is why many in the ‘remain’ camp were so shocked when the ‘leave’ voters gained a majority.
Away from politics, what does this mean for brands? Well, if your job is to engage with people who are not already fans of your products or services, then the search and social network bubbles are a challenge. If a potential customer is only being fed content that he or she has already engaged with, your content will be less likely to be seen. If you are trying to sell a new concept – a technology or innovation that is going to change people’s lives (or at least improve how they perform at their chosen sports) – then you have an even tougher job.
How do you burst the bubble?
For many brands the obvious answer is to pay for advertising to get outside of the search or social media bubble. But there is an obvious tension there between the advertiser’s desire to be seen by as much of their target audience as possible and the networks’ desire to keep feeding users with content that they will click on. And no one outside of those networks knows where the bias sits and how much it would cost to truly break out of the bubble. As Eli Pariser theorised in his excellent book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You;
In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs-and because these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us.
One option for brands looking to engage new audiences (and obviously one we favour) is to work with people who don’t have algorithms. Bloggers, vloggers and social media super-users – people we collectively refer to as influencers – have a much more transparent filter in place. If you are engaged with them and they like your products or services, they will tell their audiences about what you make or do. If you are not engaged with them, they probably won’t. Add to that, the fact that social networks and search engines are not penalising influencers in order to try to extract advertising revenue from them and the chances are that your messages have a better chance of getting outside of the bubble.