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.