Saturday, 19 March 2016

In defence of the Instagram algorithm

angry mob simpsons


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on change, and how it's the only constant in life, let alone social media. It seems that I didn't do a very good job of promoting it in social media circles (my bad), because people are still losing their shit about platforms changing.

This week's instalment? Instagram announced that they'd be applying an algorithm to their feed.

In their own words:


'You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds. As Instagram has grown, it’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.
To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. 
The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order. 
If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in. And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.
We’re going to take time to get this right and listen to your feedback along the way. You’ll see this new experience in the coming months.'

Sounds reasonable to me, what about you?

From the social media fallout that greeted this announcement, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd just told the world that they'd just built Skynet, and that it's now fully operational and self-aware. There was hand-wringing in the Guardian. There was a petition. A PETITION. 182,000 people have signed it so far. The UN have debated it. They haven't. I made that up. Sorry.

Look: I get it. I do. People don't like change. But in life, change happens. As somebody who works in social media, I have to put up with this shit every week. Algorithms change constantly, and yes, there should be a legitimate concern about where this leads with regards to many people's interactions with the web, and how we can freely access information.

But Instagram is changing this algorithm so that you see more of what you care about, and that will, like you, change over time. I am not the same person that I was five years ago. I have different tastes and interests, and I'm not in the business of routinely pruning my Facebook page likes - there are too many of them. So the Facebook algorithm really helps me. If there are posts from pages in my feed that I'm not dwelling on, or clicking on, then Facebook puts them lower down in the feed, and puts the shit that I am interested in (friends, family, anything related to Southampton Football Club or Angry People in Local Newspapers) at the top. Great! Saves me a lot of time.

I have been on Instagram long enough to follow a fair few people. Some of them are more relevant and important to me than others. Some of them are important to me now, but may not be as important to me in a few weeks/months. I don't want to have to constantly unfollow brands that are no longer relevant to me - it's a time-suck I can do without. That's the beauty of what an algorithm can do for you. It responds to you. It gives you a more personal experience, not a less personal experience, on the most personal piece of tech hardware you have.

It's important. That's why there's credence to the Dunbar's number theory of us having a cognitive limit to the amount of relationships that we can maintain (between 100-250).

Jay Baer tells brands that you shouldn't collect fans and followers like you collect baseball cards. As humans, we eschew that. We love to follow. Social media has allowed us to binge on our interests - and that's okay. But likes and loves are weighted. They run on a spectrum. They change like the weather. I love my partner, and I really like astronomy. Therefore, I'd like to see posts about both when I log into my Instagram profile, but I'd like to see posts from my partner first. An algorithm will help me with that. I won't miss what she's put up there anymore. We can share more fun moments on there.

At the moment, when I log into Instagram, the first thing I can see is a picture of Noel Clarke, that he hasn't taken, which means next to nothing to me.

A photo posted by Noel Clarke (@noelclarke) on


Sorry Noel, but I'd much rather see a picture of what my friends and family, or Southampton FC are up to. An algorithm would help me with that.

Ultimately, as with most algorithms that govern social networks, you control what you see. If you don't like what you see, stop 'liking' it. That's how you change it.

So before we all get high and mighty about the effect that algorithms have on our social networks, let's not chuck the baby out with the bathwater. I would argue that Facebook's algorithm has made the platform more useful than Twitter over the years.

Our loves and likes are like the weather. Algorithms can help us manage that more effectively. The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. William Arthur Ward said it, and I have to say, I agree with every word.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Snapchat, Instagram, Marketing and the God Complex



Have you ever heard of a concept called The God Complex? Basically, at it's core it's a way of thinking that allows for blanket methodologies to be applied to whole fields and concepts. Tim Harford sums it up really well in a TED Talk that he gave on the subject - the story being how one man, Archie Cochrane, managed to convince the prison guards at a Nazi PoW camp that by by changing the medication, he could cure and prevent a horrible disease afflicting prisoners on the camp.

How did he do this? By trial and error - something that some in social media are scared to admit pays dividends on new networks.

Take this article in Forbes, for example, where contributor Mark Fidelman argues that there is little value in using the network for marketing purposes yet. Respectfully, I think he completely misses the point.

He describes Snapchat as a ‘deficient, substandard social app’. Let me pick up on that first point. Good social networks and apps are built with their audience in mind at first - not marketers. You can’t see the benefit of it? Well, shucks, that’s your bad - 200 million active users do. And they’re on there, chatting away and keeping an eye on what savvy and relevant brands are up to. So whilst it may be deficient to you, I’m afraid that you might just have to suck it up and take part.

He then complains that, like Instagram (400 million users), Snapchat is ‘hard to convert’ on, and that there are no simple means to to move someone off the platform into a purchase cycle. That is ridiculous. Firstly, he makes the assumption that this is the only reason brands use Snapchat and Instagram. This is content marketing 101. You lead with what’s valuable to the end user, and create goodwill. The conversion may not happen on Snapchat, or Instagram - but it may happen somewhere along the line. If you’re marketing is integrated, then that person might be following you on other platforms. They might see your product posted elsewhere. They might see your product in a shop or on Amazon, and then purchase it there. They may even Google your product and then visit the site through there. Good social media is part of a marketing mix, not the be-all and end-all. Have you asked your audience how they make their purchasing decisions? Maybe you should - you might be surprised.

He also complains (I swear this is trolling), that it’s difficult to get new followers, and have people following you. I refer him back to my previous point - have you integrated Snapchat into your company’s marketing mix? Are you thinking of it’s unique place within that eco-system? Why not use those platforms to make your audience aware that you’re on that network? Here’s an example - my Snapchat.
Ben Stroud Snapchat
Why don’t you give me a follow for lots of fun updates and nonsense?

There you go.

Also - stop complaining about how hard it is to grow your audience. We know - and the overwhelming majority of people in this sector just get on with it. They’ve built up 100k followers on Myspace, only to see them flock to Facebook, rendering the numbers on there useless. They’ll flock elsewhere at some point too. That’s the nature of social media - as I said in an earlier post, you have to embrace change - it’s the only constant in this world. Stop complaining about how hard it is to grow your Snapchat audience, and get on with finding a solution.

Every social media platform is different, and should be treated as such. Benchmarking a relatively new network against older platforms with more traction is a prime example of The God Complex - a complete unwillingness to experiment, to use trial and error, to be willing to take a chance. The complete opposite of the mentality Archie Cochrane set out to challenge.

I would wager that the person who wrote this article has set out to achieve what they wanted from it - namely to generate some controversy, and some business by appearing to be a straight-talking social media pragmatist. But he should be careful. Fortune favours the brave. Not being brave enough to test the waters on a network is at best naive, and at worst colossally arrogant.

I feel it’s important to highlight this. I feel that sometimes we social marketers are too quick to apply a blanket ‘A vs B’ approach to analysing different networks, and deliberately overlook the nuances of a network to try and appear as if they have a universal metric for all networks of this kind - which is like prescribing paracetamol for every ailment and injury under the sun.

I’m afraid, in this case, Mark Fidelman has got it dead wrong.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Social media word-of-mouth: you have to own it to earn it

Homer Parrot

So you've got your all of your shit together on your main social media channels. That's great. Well done. Your Twitter looks brilliant - it's growing. Your Facebook looks beautiful. Your Instagram and Youtube offerings are so slick and clean that you could eat your dinner off of them. You respond to people when they get in touch with you. People get in touch with you because they know where to find you.

That's great - you're roughly 25% (if that) of the way to being a truly social business. Sorry to break it to you. If it's any consolation, I felt the same way too when the penny dropped.

Let me break it down for you: You've got a great product, and through some excellent marketing, other people know about your product. They know what it is. They're contacting you about it. But are you earning that little extra bit of goodwill? Are people recommending your products to other people on social media. Because that, my friends, is the next frontier.

If you're basing your social media strategy on waiting for your customers to come through the door, to come to you, to follow you, then your missing out on a whole lot of love on social media. Yes, having a great-looking shop-front and friendly staff (I love a good bricks-and-mortar analogy) is a good start, but that is exactly that: a start. The next bit is the hard bit - earning your social media props, almost unprompted, from your adoring public. Full-on, moon-landing, Buzz Aldrin in the back of a car in his spacesuit levels of adulation.


Here are a three quick and dirty tips to get you started on the road to getting some good earned social media from your audience:

1. Make it easy for them: your audience have better things to do that talk about you. It's true. Do you think that I spend my whole day telling people about great products and services? I don't. I'm not a walking billboard. But I hope that means that when I do mention something, people sit up and take notice.

This is a fact: according to Nielsen, 84% of consumers say they either completely or somewhat trust recommendations from family, colleagues, and friends about products. And when it comes to B2B, that number rises to a whopping 91%. So make sure it's easy for them to recommend you: ensure that you have sharing buttons placed strategically around your site, and make sure that customers can leave reviews on your products or services - good, average or bad.

2. Make it easy for yourself: here's the good news - your customers are probably already talking about you online. This could either be brilliant, or terrible. Either way, you probably don't know yet, unless they've mentioned you directly. There are lots of ways that you can tap into this information. Social media listening tools like Brandwatch and Sysomos have access to millions of listening points, and you can use boolean (I love that word) search to refine your searches.

Additionally, make IFTTT your best friend. It's a triggering site (not in the 'scares the shit out of you' sense), which allows a multitude of different platforms to talk to one another in a way that benefits you. I'm going to write a full-explainer on it next week, so I'll pop it up here at soon as I have it. In the meantime, get to know it. In addition to this, make sure you've also made friends with the advanced search functions on Twitter - they're actually not bad.

3. Give them an incentive: according to Software Advice, more than 50% of people are likely to give a referral if offered a direct incentive, social recognition or access to an exclusive loyalty program. So what are you waiting for? This is gold-dust. These people are literally asking you to be part of a loyalty program. They're asking to be marketed to. They're asking to hear about the coolest stuff first. That's an incentive for creating one for you. If you make it easier for them to share this information with friends, colleagues and family via social media, this is the closest thing to an open goal that you can get. Look into creating an early-access/sneak peak program as soon as possible. Make sure that you are sourcing active social media users. Their mentions are gold-dust for you. Make them feel special.

I hope you've found these tips useful. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I want to crowd-source as many tips as possible, so please feel free to leave your own tips below.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Social Media: still not engaging? TOUGH LUCK: you no longer have a choice

old man yells at cloud


We've all been there, as social media professionals. You're sat in a meeting, and across the table there's somebody in a suit, looking you up and down like you're a red rag and he's the bull. You finish explaining your social media strategy for the year to them, and generally, people seem quite happy. Except for this dude.

'Any questions?'

Quick as a flash, he asks 'What's the return on investment? What's the ROI of social media?'

This is a direct challenge to you. How do you react?

For years, I'll be honest, I didn't have the best answer. I'd mumble something about engagement, and happiness, and innovation, and hope that I'd done enough to get away with it. Be honest: we've all done that. It's not that our ideas are bad, or not fully-formed, it's just that sometimes we haven't done what our maths teachers used to beg us to do: show our workings. It's okay to have the answer, in fact it's what you're hired for. But if you can't walk people through your answer, you're in trouble. To be a good social media pro, you have to take people with you. To be good in business, you have to take people on the journey with you.

But that doesn't mean you have to take the easy route. When you're challenged on social media, sometimes it's okay to rise to it.

Want to know what the answer is?

'Because you no longer have the choice not to.'

Face facts. Social media, messaging apps, dark social, content marketing - it's here, and it's not going anywhere. We can no longer hold up our hands and say 'our customers aren't on social media'. It's bullshit. They are. Saying that your audience isn't on social media is like saying nobody in Canada owns a toilet. They do - and they're probably sat on it checking Facebook, Snapchat, Medium, Tumblr, Twitter, the full caboodle.

(As a side note, I'd love to know how much the sales of toilet books have dropped since the advent of the smartphone - I bet they've gone down the shitter, so to speak.)

So, what you should be asking, and what the guy who challenged you should be asking is: what do my customers want on social media? How can I give them a return on their investment they've made by following us? How can I create content that benefits them?

You have no choice but to take an active part in these platforms. You do have a choice in how you approach it - and it shouldn't be self-centred. But you no longer have the choice on whether you can engage.

If the first thing you think when it comes to social media for your business is 'what's in it for me?' You're doing it wrong. But if you're reading this article, it's not too late. I implore you: don't be the dude in the meeting asking what the ROI is on social media activity. Ask how the strategy is going to work - ask about the platforms being used. Challenge, by all means. But bear in mind that the time has passed for asking about the ROI of social media for us it. We should be asking what the ROI of our social media activity is for our audience. If you can provide a good enough answer for that, then there's a pretty good chance that things could work out pretty well for you!