July played host to 2017’s SAScon held at Manchester’s Contact Theatre of which a few of us were lucky enough to attend. Standing for ‘Search, Analytics and Social Media Conference’, the event showcased thoughts and discussion around the latest digital marketing techniques and technology.
Personally, I listened to 13 different speakers talk about everything from ginger balls to an 88-year-old grandmother called Baddie Winkle. One presentation which stood out to me was Knocking on the Door of the Echo Chamber by James Lowery. Being responsible for a lot of the social media marketing we do here at Fifteen, this wasn’t one I was going to miss.
Firstly, a bit of context in the form of a little about James himself. He specialises in search marketing. Being impressed with his employment history and experience I could tell he was going explore something interesting. He had me at ‘echo chamber’.
James went straight in at the deep end with some politics talk – you guessed it, Brexit. We were all shocked, right? When the results were in, many were dumbfounded. I was actually in a muddy field at Glastonbury of all places, where I awake to a substantially drunk and probably high woman ranting things such as “What have you done!?” and “You’ve messed up everything!”. Granted, I quote her more politely than she was in reality. I admit I was also surprised by the referendum’s results we were greeted with on yet another grey and damp morning at the world’s best festival.
Accessing social media via my phone – something the hippies of ‘70s would frown upon for sure – my news feed was also reflecting the way raving lady and I were feeling, the shock that in fact, we were heading for Brexit. As James puts this on his blog QUUMF “How could x happen, everyone, I know thinks Y. Like me.” That is, everything we had seen within our social media bubbles (my colleague Mark has written a great blog on this also) had reinforced our political opinion. Essentially, from a marketing point of view, Facebook had done its job incredibly well, making you feel like you fit in and most of all right.
This is because, social media platforms apply algorithms to its content based on particular facts about you and what it learns about your behaviour, before exposing you to the stuff they believe you will be interested in. This has become known in the digital marketing world as an ‘echo chamber’ – unfortunately, nothing to do with Harry Potter – but immensely fascinating all the same.
The Echo Chamber
This media ‘magic’ had worked during the referendum leading to headlines such as “Social Media Echo Chamber Causing Political Tunnel Vision”. This was found to be true from a study by Demos think tank. Alex Krasodomski-Jones, who was involved in the study, stated: “The existence of echo chambers and the idea that we are increasingly seeing things that we agree with, things that we like, things that we might buy, challenges some of the fundamental principles democracy thrives on.”
Many see this as a narrowing of a political and cultural existence, making it increasingly difficult to explore other opinions and values. Krasodomski-Jones explains the media “are using only these algorithms to feed us with stories that are completely tailored to us.” Whilst this is great for social media in terms of personal relationships, making you feel secure in your views, it also creates a somewhat false impression for people that their opinions are more widely shared than in reality.
For myself, my Facebook feed was further being echoed around a Somerset valley making the news of Brexit even more unbelievable. Sheffield University Cognitive Scientist Tom Stafford explains “Homophily, where we hang out with people like us, is an ancient human trait, resulting from our basic psychology. That applies to segmentation of media as well.” So, there we were, blisters from welly boots and glitter in our hair, consuming the same music, being collectively outraged, feeling altogether let down by our country. When in fact human instinct and media exposure had echoed, and thus intensified our views.
What does this mean for marketers?
For social media marketers, these algorithms are greatly valuable. Take, for example, a business who wishes to sell fast fashion. You target adverts and posts at 18 – 25-year-old females interested in fashion. Your content then gets engagement from your audience, who are sharing it with like-minded people helped, furthermore by social media algorithms exposing your content to those that are seen to be interested, resulting in even more engagement and so on…
What does this mean for consumers?
However, for consumers of such content, these filters can mean they are limited to what they are exposed to. They may one day like a post of a witty slogan on a t-shirt by the same fast fashion business and they are opened up to a world of quote t-shirts and boho dresses. They may become bored and frustrated or they may become a fanatic – this is then a whole other challenge for marketers.
It’s like having a library that only stocks books by one author… you would soon venture to another town, to another library to read something else. Or only eating chocolate based food – yes it can come in many forms – dark, milk, white, melted, in a cake, in a tart, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate fondue… but it is all still chocolate. I love chocolate but even I would need to change that up at some point.
We then have those people who perhaps do things like share a meme and believe it ‘makes a difference’. Content then shared for the purpose of raising awareness or changing people’s minds is then only presented to those who already share your ideology and thus are probably already aware of the issues or share your point of view.
You have probably seen it happening on your own newsfeed, a village wants to stop a motorway being built through it. Sure, posts are reaching fantastic engagement rates but from a highly-engaged minority, not outsiders being made aware of the situation and actively trying to help.
No need to panic…
Of course, there is value in sharing content with your followers but it’s about learning how this will be presented and who to. Is this your target audience? What is your aim? For those in digital marking this can prove a huge advantage or an annoyance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not something that digital marketing hasn’t had to deal with before – cutting through the noise and standing out from the crowd. As I am sure a Brexiteer would have done if they had shouted about their view that early Glastonbury morning.