The most surprising thing with this growing move away from social media advertising is that it has taken this long for brands to realise that they can’t control the context in which their adverts appear – and that context can change perception of their messaging.
The real lesson here is not that social media needs stricter controls (an ethical debate), it’s that in the classic Paid/Earned/Owned model, the *only* part brands can fully control is Owned. Many are only now beginning to wake up to the fact that their social accounts are not Owned platforms.
All this should have been obvious for years – every fresh story about an algorithm change destroying business models that were relying on social audiences has been an alarm bell. But perhaps now brands are finally realising that social isn’t as straightforward as they’ve long seemed to believe.
What does this mean for brands?
1) They need more robust, nuanced social strategies. Chucking money at paid posts and adverts doesn’t cut it. It never has.
2) The quality of their genuinely Owned platforms is becoming more important than ever. These are the only places they have complete control over the context and the message.
And it’s also notable that many brands joining the boycott have solid Owned strategies in place…
Promising new Instagram feature here, hinting at another move in the direction of deeper, more substantial content.
Very early stages and a limited release so far, but this seems perfectly suited to structured storytelling – because it appears to be a way of doing listicles, which are, let’s face it, just about the most structured type of storytelling there is. Will be interesting to see how this one develops.
“I haven’t witnessed an update as widespread as this one since 2003,” says the author of this piece. Some sites are reporting 90% traffic drops, with even the likes of Spotify and LinkedIn apparently impacted. This is big.
What exactly has changed is still unclear – a few days on results are still fluctuating too much for detailed analysis – but one thing does seem certain: “there are multiple reports of thin content losing positions”.
This has been the trend with Google for a while now, with the firm recommending “focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”
What *is* good content in this context? After all, “quality” is quite a subjective concept.
Well, algorithms aren’t people, but Google’s long been aiming to make their code more intelligent, and better able to understand context and likely relevance. Keyword stuffing has been penalised for years, as have dodgy link-building efforts. Instead, Google is aiming for near-human levels of appreciation of nuance.
Helpfully, though, Google has also put out a list of questions to help you understand if the content of your site is likely to be seen as quality in the eyes of the all-powerful algorithm:
- Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
- Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
All good questions, and all from Google’s own blog.
The New Statesman has a long piece on the ongoing slow death of the advertising industry, with some fun distinctions between the ad industry (creative, visionary) and the ad business (dull, obsessed with data).
Can you guess which part the person who wrote it comes from?
Of course, the simple response to the majority of the article’s debate about whether high-impact artistic visions or hyper-efficient attempts to ensure relevancy are the best way forwards is:
But while there’s much to disagree (and agree) with throughout, it was this particular passage that sparked a realisation about the real challenge for the marketing industry:
“Now that people carry media around with them everywhere, advertisers have less incentive to create memorable brands. Instead, they concentrate on forcing our attention towards the message or offer of the moment. The ad business doesn’t care about the future of its audience, only its present.”
This, within the context of modern ad microtargeting and algorithms (as well as the general proliferation of TV channels, streaming video, and the decline in newspaper readership), is kinda true – with no clear way to ensure a follow-up interaction, the classic old ad model of trying to get a message in front of someone eight times (or whatever) and it’ll stick is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Even if you succeed, it’ll be by using cookies to track someone across multiple sites, firing the same advert at them so relentlessly that it seems desperate – and obvious.
But the obsession with the fast-paced present also shows how many marketing campaigns continue to utterly miss the point of social media.
The clue’s in the name
Social – done properly – *isn’t* simply of the moment, as much as it’s often dismissed as ephemeral.
To think of social posts as throw-away one-offs, as much marketing does, is like viewing a single frame of a film that’s designed to be watched at 24 frames per second. It’s like the blind men and the elephant – you may *think* you know what’s going on, and how your audience is responding, but you’re not seeing the whole (motion) picture.
Yes, a single tweet or Facebook post *can* work in isolation. It can have impact. A person with a couple of hundred followers can see something they post go viral and reach hundreds of thousands of likes. An influencer can amplify it to the point the original poster can monetise that single moment, or use it as the starting point to become an influencer in their own right.
But the clue’s in the name – social is *social*. It’s about relationships, not one-off interactions. And the internet is the same – again, the clue’s in the name. It’s a network. It’s interconnected. Nothing online operates in isolation.
This is why an approach to online advertising that thinks only about the advert – in isolation – is always going to be doomed to fail. (And yes, if your social media post or article or video or whatever is put out on a schedule to broadcast to your followers – whether you put paid behind it or not – if you have no plan or resources to follow up and respond to the replies, then all it is is an advert.)
Even if you aggregate all your social data to see trends over time, you may *think* you’re seeing the big picture – but you’re not seeing it from the perspective of your audience. You’re lumping them together as stats, when in reality they’re all individuals – each having a distinct interaction with your brand. The long-term trends hide the fact that your audience is not always the same audience – different people will see different posts at different times, and many won’t see some of what you’re putting out at all. This means they’ll all be getting different impressions of what it is you’re about.
I remember when all this were fields…
When I started playing about in IRC and messageboards in the 90s, it took months to be recognised as a regular. When I started blogging in the early 2000s, it again took months to build a following and reputation.
And that’s months of multiple posts a day. Multiple replies to comments. Discussions. Following commenters back to their own blogs and reading *their* stuff. Getting a sense of how they thought.
This was all pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook – but post-IRC, and after messageboards, MSN Messenger and the like had become passé. We’d encounter each other on other people’s blogs, in their comment sections, and notice we were talking about the same things through trackbacks, RSS aggregators (after 2004 or so), checking now-defunct sites like Technorati, IceRocket and the like to find other people talking about the same thing (because Google was still rubbish for realtime search back then), and occasionally directly emailing.
Looking beneath the surface
The public face of blogging was our individual blogs. The individual posts. But those were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the starting points for interactions between blogger and reader that in some cases have lasted years. Some of the people I met virtually through my various blogs have become real-life friends. Some discussions inspired people to take up blogging for themselves, or to pursue different careers. Some of those interactions even led to real-world, paid work (as they did for me – which, in turn, led to my transition from print journalism to digital, and from there to my current role developing multiplatform, multimedia digital marketing strategies).
All these deep, lasting, sometimes life-changing relationships started with a connection around shared interests – just as, today, algorithms try to match adverts to people who may be interested in them. Superficially, to anyone looking from outside, those initial interactions in the comment sections under individual posts would have looked like that was all there was. If you’d looked at the stats on our blogs, the numbers would have looked *tiny*.
But the *real* story was the ongoing conversations and subconscious assimilation of each others’ ideas. The discussions and collaborations that stretched over months, and led to the short-lived rise of group-blogs, real-world meet-ups, grand plans that (in my case at least) never quite came to fruition. It was about the relationships and trust we built up over time.
The *real* impact took *years*, and in some cases was more significant than any of us ever imagined when we first put finger to keyboard.
How humans work
We’re all humans. We latch onto stories. We need big ideas. Emotional connections. Things to inspire and entertain. Things that speak to our gut instincts as well as to our heads. We’ve all read Daniel Kahneman, and know these heuristics are classic marketing creative territory.
And yes – as we’re humans we can also be manipulated if we’re targeted with the right message at the right time. Some of us will be more susceptible to some messaging than others. We will all have slightly different interests, meaning you can’t speak to us all in the same way. So a data-driven approach makes sense to try and finally give some clarity to John Wanamaker’s classic “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted” conundrum.
But where big idea creative can attract attention, and data-driven targeting can increase relevance, what’s still missing for many brands is the follow-up. The vital thing that comes next.
In some cases this is where CRM comes in – but I can tell you from my blogging and chatroom days, in most cases being overly keen to initiate a conversation is going to have precisely the opposite response from the one you want. No one wants a pop-up window asking if they want help the second they land on a site any more than they want cookie notifications or requests to turn off their adblocker. Overly keen CRM = instant bounce, often with feelings of mild violation and anger. Not great for the start of a relationship. There’s a reason Microsoft killed Clippy…
My point? Let your audience go at their own pace
The reason the brief Golden Age of blogging (from around 2003-2006, by my reckoning) led to so many strong, lasting relationships is that those relationships were able to be built at our own pace.
There was no realtime chat. There was no “unread” notification to put pressure on us to respond unless and until we were ready. We all gradually built up archives of work that our readers and fellow bloggers could all check out at their leisure to get a sense of who we were and what we stood for. We linked to our past work – and each other – where relevant, showing how our thinking was developing over time, and allowing others to follow our trains of thought at their own pace to catch up and join in the conversation.
So when you encountered an unfamiliar blog or blogger – which was frequently – you could dip your toe in, test the water, and go back and check the context before engaging only when you had an idea what you were going to get involved in.
It was a slower-paced, more civilised way of communicating online that the likes of Twitter seem to have permanently destroyed with the constant need for instantaneous responses to everything.
But today’s pressure to living in the moment and make instant decisions is deeply offputting. It’s not how people like to work. It’s not how any successful relationship has ever been built. It goes against all the instincts of the high-pressured world we’re now in, but today’s emphasis on the hard sell and call to action – not just the obvious “BUY NOW!” but also the more subtle “CLICK HERE TO…” and “FIND OUT HOW…” – may give a short-term nudge but not a long-term engagement.
Engagement – true, lasting engagement – comes through recognition, familiarity, and trust. This can only ever be built over time – often a long time. It will never come through a hard sell, and rarely through a single call to action.
Rather than worry about big ideas vs targeting, what the marketing industry really needs to learn how to do is revive the art of the soft sell and the long tail. That’s the more human way of building relationships that last – but to work it needs a significantly more nuanced understanding of how people will be interacting with you than I’ve seen from pretty much any modern brand marketing campaign.
Every interaction with every part of your brand’s marketing campaign may seem like a one-off to you, but it’s part of a series to your audience. It’s all connected – but one bad experience could break the chain.
This means you need a truly integrated combination of high-impact big ideas and detailed data and longer-term storytelling and archives of the earlier bits of the story so people can catch up and targeting to the people who’ll be most interested and a true understanding of how people – and the internet – actually work.
No one said it was easy. But some things take time.
The filtered feeds of Facebook (and LinkedIn) are the things I dislike most about them, the unfiltered most recent first approach of Twitter what I love about it, so this possibility that Twitter’s going down the algorithmic-filter route worries me – and not just because of recent concerns voiced over how algorithms can affect net neutrality and news reporting.
I very much hope Twitter at least retains the option of turning on the firehose, though I fully get the need to tame the chaos with some kind of algo or filter to pull in new users. Not everyone can get to grips with lists and Tweetdeck – too confusing for the newcomer.
Now don’t get me wrong: algorithmic filtering has its place. One of my favourite apps is Zite, and I was an early adoptor of StumbleUpon (well over a decade ago) – precisely because of their ability to get to know my interests and serve me up interesting content from sources I’d usually not discover by myself. For Facebook to offer up this kind of service, with its vast databases of its users’ Likes, makes perfect sense (though I’d still prefer a raw feed, or category feeds, so I can split off news about the world from news about my actual friends – a new baby or a wedding is not the same as a terrorist attack).
This is why I love Twitter – it is raw, unfiltered. And at 140 characters a pop, it’s (more or less) manageable. Especially if these old stats are still accurate, suggesting the majority of Twitter users only follow around 50 other accounts. If you end up following a few hundred, you’re already a power user, and likely know order them via lists. If you end up following a few thousand, then frankly you no longer care if you miss a few things.
Could Twitter be improved with a bit of algo? For sure. Why am I only ever shown three related accounts when I follow a new one? Why isn’t MagicRecs built in?
But the fact is we’ve already got this option on Twitter – it’s called the Discover tab. And I never use it, because it somehow manages to feel even more random than the raw feed. The problem isn’t a lack of algorithms, it’s a lack of intelligent algorithms, intelligently integrated.
* assuming you don’t read anything else about clickbait today
This article focuses on content produced by content marketers, but applies just as much to regular publishers who are constantly trying to ride the latest wave of social media fads to suck in a few unsuspecting punters with low-rent, instantly-forgettable clickbait. Short, cheap, trend-driven / fast-turnaround content may well help you hit short-term engagement metrics, but will long-term kill audience retention:
“The internet is ballooning with fluff, and bad content marketing is to blame. In our obsession with ‘engaging’ our ‘audience’ in ‘real-time’ with ‘targeted content’ that goes ‘viral,’ we are driving people insane… When a publishing agenda is too ambitious, people can’t afford to shoot anything down… They’re under too much pressure to fill… slots”
I particularly like the concept of “click-flu” – the sense of annoyance and disappointment you get (both with the content and, more importantly, with yourself) when you click on a clickbaity link, and the page you end up on fails to deliver on its hyperbolic promise. The resentment builds and builds – and over time, leads to hatred of the people who lured you in time and again.
If you make a big promise, as so many of these “This is the most important thing you will see today” clickbaity headlines do, you’d damned well better live up to it.
Well worth a read on the Feguson riots, and how different social media sites (notably Twitter vs Facebook) served up news about them:
“Now, we expect documentation, live-feeds, streaming video, real time Tweets… [Ferguson] unfolded in real time on my social media feed which was pretty soon taken over by the topic…
And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.
Nada, zip, nada.
This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now?—?seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.
But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.
Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?
Would we even have a chance to see her?
This isn’t about Facebook per se—maybe it will do a good job, maybe not—but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.”
It’s a continual worry – how to ensure we see what’s important? Though, of course, the concept is nothing new – the algorithm is just an editor or an editorial policy in a different form. It’s something I’ve written about before when it relates to the EU, focusing on a BBC editorial policy that fails to cover EU affairs in mainstream news most of the time, and then serves up extremes.
This kind of human editorial determination of the appropriate news agenda based on perceived audience interests is arguably no massive degree different from a Facebook algorithm determining what is important based on how it interprets user interests. If anything, there’s a strong argument to be made that Facebook knows its audience better than any editor on any publication or TV show ever, due to the sheer quantities of data it possesses on its userbase.
But then what of *importance* – who determines this? Who overrides the algorithmic or standard editorial policy assumption? Is there a chance that an important story will get buried because a bit of code doesn’t see it as significant? Yes. But the same is true of any number of important news stories that human editors don’t pick up on, or choose to bury on page 23 because they don’t think their readers will be that interested.
As so often, the web may be a bit different, but there’s nothing that *new* here.
Upworthy have released the code they use to track user engagement, with a nice bit of methodology explaining what they’re tracking and why they care:
“In the age of ever-present social media, our collective attentions have never been spread thinner. According to Facebook, each user has the potential to be served 1,500 stories in their newsfeed each time. For a heavy user, that number could be as much as 15,000. In this climate, how do you get people to pay attention? And, more importantly, how do you know they’re actually engaged?
“Clicks and pageviews, long the industry standards, are drastically ill-equipped for the job. Even the share isn’t a surefire measure that the user has spent any time engaging with the content itself. It’s in everyone’s interest — from publishers to readers to advertisers — to move to a metric that more fully measures attention spent consuming content. In other words, the best way to answer the question is to measure what happens between the click and the share. Enter Attention Minutes.”