Opinion

Piercing the algorithmic bubble: brands need serendipity to grow

With the world becoming increasingly predetermined by computers, pre-set ideas of what is popular and algorithmic learning, it is the responsibility of a brand to ensure serendipity prevails, says Neil Dawson, CSO at SapientNitro Europe.

Brands need to find ways to create serendipity in an algorithmic world
Brands need to find ways to create serendipity in an algorithmic world
The evolution of the digital space in response to this has led to our experiences being increasingly pre-processed and personalised, whether via search or programmatic or customer experience management

Serendipity is variously defined as ‘the occurrence or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’ and ‘the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident’. It is the art, or maybe the science, of delivering pleasant surprises. It is a powerful way of making people happy, making life richer, inspiring stories and advocacy, and creating new behaviours and preferences. For brands, this makes it a powerful engine for driving new users and loyalty.

We all implicitly recognise this, and it has always informed the way brands behave, especially in retail where autopilot shopper behaviour is an ongoing challenge for supermarkets – as evidenced by the gorilla suit experiment in Sainsbury’s ‘Try Something New Today’ IPA Effectiveness paper. The challenge is that brand marketing is becoming increasingly (but unconsciously) biased against serendipity.

Lazy brains

This is the unintended consequence of the beneficial impact of the digital world where filtering for relevance has become ever more necessary to avoid our ‘lazy brains’ becoming overburdened by an abundance of choice. The evolution of the digital space in response to this has led to our experiences being increasingly pre-processed and personalised, whether via search or programmatic or customer experience management. Technology reduces the perceived wastage of traditional mass marketing. So we mostly get what we want (‘status quo relevance’) with minimum effort, but don’t know or get what we’re missing outside our own invisible personal bubble of algorithmic filters (‘new / potential relevance’). Serendipity is diminished.

Ultimately growth depends on extending reach and expanding the pool. And brands also risk foregoing the benefits of serendipity to enrich people’s lives and reap the rewards

This is driven by a strong short-term commercial logic and may be a very efficient way of ‘fishing the pool empty’. But ultimately growth depends on extending reach and expanding the pool. And brands also risk foregoing the benefits of serendipity to enrich people’s lives and reap the rewards.

The majority of a brand’s marketing should be ‘status quo relevance’ focused, but we need to understand and start developing ways of addressing the anti-serendipity bias that comes with it.

Anti-serendipity bias

This is an emergent problem and it’s mainly pure-play online service brands that are exploring the power of serendipity. One example is Spotify, which introduced a new approach to music discovery by acquiring Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform. Echo Nest combines multiple filters to analyse music on both an audio level and a cultural level. The former deepens our music discovery by giving us more of the same, while the latter broadens our music discovery.

Hitlist uses Chrome extensions to offer serendipity in travel. Whenever you open the browser its Wandertab shows you a stunning picture from an amazing place as well as how much it costs to go there. There’s even a new company, Surprise Industries, ‘a community of Surprisologists’ passionate about offering surprises as a service to people. Their mantra is "we feel most comfortable when things are certain, but most alive when they’re not".

Serendipity in its purest form may not be reproducible in the digital space. As soon as people start to ‘choose’ serendipity (e.g. shuffle music playlists), their experiences can no longer be seen, strictly speaking, as truly serendipitous. Nevertheless, it’s worth brands thinking beyond the ‘immediate relevance’ bubble to experiment with states of ‘controlled serendipity’.

There are several ways of doing this. One solution is to filter only a certain percentage of our digital experience based on relevance (e.g. 80%), while the balance (e.g.20%) remains unfiltered and diverse.

Another example is algorithmic. Instead of only filtering according to relevance, different criteria – such as whether something is ‘challenging’, ‘important’, or represents ‘other points of view’ – could be applied. These criteria can vary according to platform types and their purposes.

Regardless of strategy, controlled serendipity can be valuable in ensuring that users are exposed to as many distinct experiences as possible, and commercially relevant in an overcrowded marketplace, where brands can only grow by attracting new users via unique, memorable and unexpected user experiences.

It’s time for every brand to consider the anti-serendipity bias within their core activities, to ask ‘what’s our Serendipity Plan?’ And to then allocate an element of budget – say 10 or 20% – to support activities that make the algorithmic bubble permeable and promote the discovery and surprise that drives growth.