If you’re reading this, you probably got to it through an algorithm. That’s really common these days – and it’s a trend with a surprising dark side.
Either you came here through a social media link, or you found it via a search engine. In either case, the algorithms that determine who sees what on those platforms played an important role in getting you here. Those algorithms are playing an important role in all of our communications. Such an important role, in fact, that it seems they’re giving rise to some hugely significant second-order effects.
This post delves into those effects and their implications for communicators. It’s also the text, more or less, of a talk I gave at the DMX conference in Dublin today.
But first, here’s a story.
This is Henry Ford. I love this picture. Look at him. So confident, so happy. And why shouldn’t he be? He’d just perfected mass production and he was about to unleash something that would change the world.
That something, of course was the mass-produced car.
He wanted to make cars so cheap that any one of his factory workers could afford one.
And he did.
The Model T was a huge seller. When they launched in 1908 they sold over ten thousand within a year, a record at the time. For the first time in human history, rapid mechanized personal transportation was within the reach of every family.
The first-order effect of Ford’s innovation? Mass mobility.
But there were other effects.
Henry Ford may never have imagined that, but the very fabric of many modern cities would have been impossible without widespread car ownership.
And Suburbia was just part of those second-order effects. There were others.
There was the decay of inner cities as the affluent emptied into the suburbs.
There was gridlock, and pollution, as they commuted back in.
There were communities divided by the very roads that united others.
And there was social isolation as the commuters worked in office parks and shopped in shopping malls, and street life withered.
All of these were second-order effects. Any technological innovation, when it is sufficiently widely adopted, will have them.
OK, so we’re communicators. Why the history lessons? Why am I telling you all this? What has it got to do with communication?
Well, what about the second-order effects of our online communications technology?
Whether you’re a journalist, a writer, a marketer or a social media strategist, if you’re a communicator of any kind, you live in the world these guys built. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey (and many others) created the search and social media system that brings us most of our information these days.
And it really does bring us most of our information.
Trend 1: Algorithms define our information flow.
Check out these findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer research:
Algorithmic, peer-driven media – search and social – is now the main course of our information diet. Two of the top three media sources we use are determined by our behaviour.
(And these figures are global, and all-ages. For that all-important European/American millennial audience everyone is chasing after, TV doesn’t even figure.)
Search answers our questions. Google’s algorithm, PageRank, has been getting better and better at this. Now it’s even teaching itself, through machine learning.
Social media shows us content that our friends are sharing. Facebook, for example, is optimized to show you things you’re likely to like, or emotionally respond to.
This means that, increasingly, people are only seeing the information they want to see.
So, in an age when most of us have limitless access to information, most of us are seeing a narrower and narrower range.
And here’s where things get interesting.
In the USA, we’re looking at the possibility of a Trump vs. Sanders presidential race.
In France, the Front National is on the rise.
In Poland, the government has gone to a far-right populist party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice).
Even in politically-correct Sweden, the Sverigedemokraterna, the nationalist party with roots in national socialism, are polling close to 30%.
When was the last time you saw a political opinion different to yours in your Facebook feed?
And things get even more interesting when you look at how trust varies across sources:
Hang on, there’s something funny going on here.
Back when I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of Sesame Street. The muppets there used to play a fun game for five-year-olds; they’d show you a bunch of things – three different fruits, say, and a tennis ball – and sing a song about how one of these things was not like the others. You’d have to guess which one, shouting shrilly at the TV in your piping little toddler voice.
Well, one of these things is not like the others.
Traditional, Owned, Online, and Social media are places where people create and publish content and information.
Search engines aren’t.
They just show us what we’re looking for.
And we trust them.
More than we trust the other four sources of information.
The upshot of this is crazy. If you find a news article through an online search, you’re more likely to trust it than you would be if you just went straight to the news organization’s homepage and found the same article there.
How can this be true?
Well, there’s a very well-known psychological fallacy called confirmation bias that explains this nicely. You’re more likely to believe information that agrees with whatever you already think.
You’re more likely to distrust, or simply ignore, information that doesn’t fit your prejudices.
So if you’re the type of person who might go to Google and type in a search like “Is Barack Obama a Muslim” you’ll find plenty of ‘evidence’ showing that he is.
Many of us would scoff at the very idea of doing a search like that.
Many of us wouldn’t.
Most of them are planning to vote for Donald Trump this November. They’re shouting shrilly at the TV too, spilling their beer all over the place, telling their friends on Facebook how biased Big Media is.
Are you scared yet?
You should be.
Because if you’re a communicator, this is just the beginning.
Widespread algorithmic content delivery is just the first of four trends shaping modern communications.
We’ve already seen how algorithms are defining our information flow, restricting the variety of opinions therein. There are three other changes:
- Trust is moving away from elites
- People are protecting their attention
- Digital behaviour is fundamentally changing the decision process
Trend 2: Trust is moving away from elites.
We’re seeing that more and more, peer and expert networks are more respected than official sources.
In general, people trust peers and experts more than official representatives of a company. This means authenticity is becoming more and more important – and consequently so are communications mediated through personal relationships.
Social media, by and large, aren’t considered a trusted source of news and information. But stuff that’s shared by your friends, and your peers, is considered trustworthy.
And they’re likely to be people like you. With similar opinions and interests.
Trend 3: People are protecting their attention.
As the volume of content we’re exposed to rises, people are being more selective in what they see.
The rise and rise of adblocking is a symptom of this.
Content is infinite. Attention is worth money. More and more, people are focusing their limited attention on the content they want to see.
We can no longer reach people effectively by interrupting their content experience through advertising.
We have to give them the content they want to see.
And it has to be good.
Trend 4: All this is changing the decision process.
Whether you’re spreading an idea or selling a widget, social and search-driven content dominates the early part of the process.
- AWARENESS: before they’re even in a buying mode, people gain ambient awareness about trends, ideas, products and services from others in their social media ecosystem.
- CONSIDERATION: People use search engines to find specific information when considering a decision or a purchase.
- INTENT: For more involved decisions, people commonly seek advice or testimonials from previous or similar users via social media.
- DECISION: Decisions are usually made before people engage with the official presence of a company or organisation.
- ADVOCACY: Once they’ve engaged people broadcast their experiences if they have a high emotional valence (positive or negative)
When considering taking an action or making a purchase, people on average do 12 searches before engaging on a specific brand’s site.
Today’s buyers might be anywhere from two thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out to a seller.
So not only are people getting most of their information generally from search and social algorithms – but in the buying journey, these trends are magnified still further.
If you’re not appearing in the awareness or consideration phases, before people are looking for you, you’re missing out.
So where does this leave us?
We live in media bubbles. And they’re hardening.
Like a soap bubble in a Calgary winter, our once-fluid media horizons are crystallizing into an algorithmically-defined landscape of beautiful thoughts and opinions, all similar to the ones we already have.
In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an article in the Atlantic called Is Google Making us Stupid? He later expanded it into an influential book, called The Shallows. His contention is that constant access to entertainment and information, and the distractions built into digital technology, are sapping our ability to think deeply, concentrate, and learn.
I think deep engagement is still very much possible.
You’re still here, after all.
It isn’t the shallows we need to worry about.
It’s the narrows.
We live in a world where some of the most powerful and sophisticated communications systems ever devised focus their power on showing us things we will like.
In this world, how will we be exposed to new points of view?
To challenging ideas?
To difficult, but necessary truths?
Or (to turn this around) how can companies, brands, movements and organisations reach people who don’t care about them yet – but should?
Your social media accounts are preaching to the choir.
Your customers are googling your competition rather than going to your website.
How are you going to reach them?
You have to advance across the entire media landscape at once.
Here’s how we see it.
The media Cloverleaf.
I’m a digital strategist at Edelman, and this is how we see the media ecosystem. We call it the Edelman Cloverleaf. It’s important because it helps us plan our activity in a way that counters the bubble effect that I’ve just been describing.
Media, brands and influencers: these are the three overlapping groups of content creators.
The category includes traditional and digital-native news organizations, content and digital experiences built by brands, and individuals wielding personal influence at scale.
This is where content and ideas come from.
Search, social and curators: the three types of technology hubs where most content discovery now starts.
These dominate the digital day and include social networks, messaging services, search engines and personalized news curators.
This is how content spreads.
Any one of the publishers can be active on any platform, or a combination of them. So you have news organisations with YouTube accounts, brands with Facebook profiles, and individual influencers with personal websites.
So what exactly sets each category apart? Let’s take a closer look at the three kinds of publishers.
The defining feature of influencers compared to the other two publishers is the origin of their authority.
Influencers are individuals. They have a personal relationship with others.
This is true if we’re talking about a noted political advisor, or a YouTuber with millions of followers. If the individual person of the influencer were to disappear, their influence and trust would disappear with them.
On the other hand media organisations and brands have an organisational relationship with their audience. If an individual journalist or editor were to leave a news channel, for example, that channel could still convey trust and influence. (Conceivably, the BBC could fire and replace the entire staff of, say, News at Ten, and that programme would remain a trusted source of news.)
Famously, every company needs to be a media company now. But there’s a difference. Along the right hand side, the difference between Brands and Media is in the role of content in the function of the organisation, and therefore affects the role of editorial integrity.
In Media organisations, media content production is essential to the organisation’s function. In Brands, the organisation exists to do something else, and content production is an adjunct. (If Red Bull stopped making cool videos, they’d still be a drinks manufacturer, but if the BBC stopped making media content, they’d essentially cease to exist.)
Note that Brand here doesn’t necessarily mean only commercial organisations; by this definition, any corporate organisation qualifies – NGOs, government agencies etc.
Where this gets interesting is where the categories overlap:
See, there are actually six categories, and success in today’s media environment means understanding and working with the right mix of partners across all six.
- Influencers: Individuals whose opinion can change the behaviour of a defined audience.
- Brand/Influencers: Individuals whose authority is tied up with a connected brand.
- Brands: Organisations with a primary purpose other than the creation of media content.
- Media/Influencers: Individuals whose authority is tied up with a connected media brand.
- Media: Organisations whose primary purpose is the creation of media content.
- Brand/Media: publishing operations run on behalf of brands.
Picking the right partners is about more than just working with whoever has the widest reach.
The right partner intersects with targeted reach, brand values and message.
You also have to work carefully – and differently – with partners in each section to make sure your message is getting through effectively.
So what does this look like when you do it right?
Well, here’s a good example from one of our clients, Xbox UK.
Our challenge was to make sure the launch of Forza 6, the console’s flagship racing game, was a popular success. Now, Xbox has a hard core of superfans who follow the brand’s activity and releases with great interest. We knew that they’d get the news – because they’re in the Xbox media bubble. And that’s great – they’re huge fans.
But we needed to make sure we were reaching new and potential customers, too. A game like Forza is a system-seller. Loads of people would buy an Xbox One just to play it. How can we make sure we’re reaching people outside the gamer media bubble?
We knew we couldn’t just reach out to hardcore gamers. So we set up a stunt with a difference. We took four influencers (both gaming and car-focused) out for a spin in the back of a racecar . . . on the Top Gear test track. They played Forza 6 in the backseat of a Bentley, driving the very same car around the same track rendered in an Xobx One, while the Stig drove the car around the same track in real life.
For broad reach we also invited some mainstream media along, ensuring that we’d get broad coverage across a number of media bubbles.
This activation broke Xbox out of the hardcore gaming audience.
Each publisher’s content was connected to and built on the others, creating a coherent landscape of content that punched through the barriers to reach wide and various audiences.
This is what it takes to cut through media bubbles today.
Media bubbles are hardening.
It’s not enough to set up a social media channel or two, or build a company website.
It’s not enough to have a press outreach plan and issue some releases.
Only if you are planning in an integrated and strategic fashion across all parts of the media ecosystem will you be able to penetrate media bubbles and have an impact on the minds you need to reach.
Or – better yet – will you be able to create your own media bubbles and attract a community of interest to them.
That’s what we do at Edelman.
But that one is a story for another time.