“Algorithm” is hardly a brand new buzz word for online marketers, but it is an enduring one. Some of the most exciting advances in online marketing are related to algorithms, with social media algorithm advances chief amongst them. Here is why social media algorithms are poised to become your brand’s new best friend.
What is an Algorithm?
An algorithm is basically a set of commands that a computer follows in order to get a certain outcome.
Route-finding algorithms are the backbone of your navigation system when you are driving, for example. When you watch a 3D animated film, the play of light over the figures in the scene is determined by an algorithm — it is not added to the scene manually. Your automatic transmission car adjusts gears, speed, and gas via algorithms. When you play a game of chess against a computer, the computer is using an algorithm to determine its moves.
Algorithms and Social Media: Continued Evolution
Algorithms are also the backbone of social media platforms. While they have many different uses, the most important one for marketers is their role in serving users the most engaging content possible.
You have probably noticed that some social media platforms are no longer showing feeds in strict reverse chronological order. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are among the heavy hitters that have abandoned strictly chronological feeds in favour of algorithm-generated curation for their members. Reddit, an online content aggregator with social media features, uses user upvotes as part of the process for determining what is on the “front page,” but that is only one of the factors its algorithms take into consideration.
Essentially, the site collects data regarding a user’s activities on social media. What posts do they “like” or “favourite”? Which other members do they reply to more often? What types of products are they clicking on?
Properly analysed, this data allows the platform to “learn” to predict what users would like the most to see first in their feeds. This allows for the creation of an algorithm that sorts information as its posted into a feed customised to that user’s personal likes and preferences.
The end result is the user having a social media experience that is, ideally, perfectly tailored.
The initial effect of this on advertising was not a positive one. Marketers had come to rely on attracting users to add them to their social media, and then scheduling their posts for the highest visibility. With a strictly chronological feed, this strategy guaranteed the most views.
Of course, this type of scheduling was no longer a successful strategy, because brand posts were not being shown at the top of the feed based on when they were submitted. Instead, they had to compete with user generated content and entertainment oriented content.
Some experts speculated that this would make advertising on social media much, much more expensive. How else could you guarantee getting to the top of a user’s feed? Brands, they feared, would have to start paying for the privilege.
Luckily, they were wrong. As it turned out, social media algorithms are not the enemy. And they are not even just a neutral entity. They are actually great for brands.
Brands and Trust
Ask any marketer what aspect of the brand/consumer relationship they most want to strengthen with their campaigns and you are likely to get “trust,” or a variation of it, as a response. Loyalty is built on trust, and brand loyalty is the marketer’s Holy Grail.
While there certainly are marketing campaigns built around “spamming” consumers, these are the exceptions to the rule. In general, marketers are striving to deliver the content that users do want to see, and they have the resources and motivation to do it.
In fact, marketers are more motivated to create great user content than nearly any other source, simply because engaging customers is, quite simply, their only road to success. Unlike entertainment content, they can’t pass the buck (literally) to advertisers, because they are the advertisers.
In this fast-paced era, when consumers demand content tailored to their personal preferences, and when trends manifest and dissolve as quickly as a viral video makes it big and disappears, marketers have responded:
They are creating content that is more consistent, more engaging, and more tightly tied to brand identity than ever before, because it is the foundation of building consumer trust and that is the first step toward brand loyalty. Neither their response nor their competence have gone unnoticed.
How Algorithms Support Brand Trust
As Google CEO Eric Schmidt has famously said “Brands are the solution, not the problem.” He is referring to the problem of false, inconsistent, and contradictory information making the rounds online.
Several years ago, when Google and Yahoo were discussing an ad deal, content creators and advertisers alike were worried. Would the two behemoths monopolise the market, ratcheting up ad prices and creating their own content to push independent editors and publishers out of business?
Schmidt said no, and time has proven him right.
There are two reasons that algorithms and brands go hand in hand, from a social media platform and search engine perspective.
First, as we have already outlined, marketers are highly motivated to create great content. Social media platforms and search engines are just as motivated to deliver great content. Already, you can probably see why neither social media platforms nor search engines like Google have a desire to bury marketing campaigns. In fact, algorithms are built to serve relevant marketing because of this.
But that is not the only reason. Just as social media algorithms analyse what statuses you have liked, what photos you have favourited, and what profiles you have searched for to deliver you great content first, they also analyse what brands you like.
And that information is extremely valuable. It is valuable not only because it helps them tailor your feeds, but because it helps them improve their algorithms. It is not simply a matter of which brands they already know you like — it is also a matter of finding new brands based on what the algorithm already “knows” about you to see if you will click. Whether or not you do, you have provided them with another valuable data point that helps them determine whether or not their algorithms are working.
Algorithms are not the enemy. Social media platforms are incentivised, in several different ways, to cooperate with brands and their marketing campaigns. It is a change, for sure, and one which marketers will need to adapt to, but it is one which, in the end, will likely result in better consumer engagement.