Twitter trended recently with the ‘news’ (later denied) that Instagram was going to start filtering people’s streams so that instead of seeing posts in the order they were posted, they would be filtered with an algorithm.
Instagrammers were up in arms. Twitter trended #turnonnotifications as Instagrammers encouraged their followers to opt-in to hear more from them once the filter kicked in.
Instagram denied that they were, at least this week, planning to switch off the stream.
But, regardless of the timing, brands need to realise that filtering is inevitable for every social network, and embrace it.
Why? Two simple reasons.
Users are overwhelmed
People are overwhelmed with information. Facebook could show you an average of 1,500 separate posts when you open your newsfeed. But those posts won’t be of equal quality. In fact Ogilvy’s ‘Why people share’ research showed more than 77% of people think that the majority of social content is just average or poor.
In the early days of a social network, when most users only have a few friends on the platform, a straight feed of what all of your friends are doing can work well. Brands find that this is a golden period, when all of their content gets good engagement rates.
But over time the volume accumulates to unmanageable levels. And so engagement falls. For instance Forrester found that average engagement on Instagram fell 47% in 2015 alone.
As a result, social networks have to provide filters to help people see the information that matters most to them.
This happened first on Facebook; today a typical piece of brand content only reaches a consumer less than 5% of the time. Gmail and other email providers also brought in filtering years ago.
Now Twitter is going filtered, having been almost overwhelmed by bad content. And it’s only a matter of time until LinkedIn and Instagram follow.
Social networks need to make money
Social networks want to make more money from advertising.
Advertising is currently the only revenue model that most social networks are considering. Indeed, most have entirely given up on subscriptions and other sources of income.
Allowing brands to buy their way through the algorithm, with lower prices for the best performing content, encourages brands to align their behaviour with consumer preferences.
It’s a win-win: filtering raises cash, improves the experience and, with Facebook having done it years ago, is a tested path. Brands shouldn’t be afraid to go down this path now.
Brands, and, yes, Instagrammers are wasting their time complaining about this tide. It’s coming in and nothing they can do will stop it. However, there are three smart ways to adapt to reap the benefits.
Take advantage of the micro-targeting abilities of social networks
Instagram’s parent, Facebook, allows brands to target people with an astonishing variety and depth.
Do you want to target fans of The Wire who live in Berwick and own a dog?
How about people with a new Samsung phone who are lookalikes for your most valuable customers? Or customers who have visited your website, watched a home cooking video on Facebook and are just back from holiday?
Brands have been slow to realise that if you match content with targeting you can be highly relevant to groups who you simply couldn’t reach before. The potential returns are massive.
For British Airways we targeted British expats who lived in North America, with a quirky film encouraging them to come home for the British summer (‘Bring your factor 1 suncream’). This group, scattered in ones and twos, would have been impossible to address previously. But something specifically customised and targeted got huge engagement because it was relevant to them, in a way that most marketing simply isn’t. Over 400,000 watched it - 85% of whom were in our target group, with a substantial number of sales resulting. In fact it would have been 100% if it hadn’t been for some of them sharing it with their non-expat friends.
Be honest about the quality of our content
Good quality content lowers the cost of paid advertising - both because Facebook provides reach at lower cost if your content gets good feedback, and because you will get some free reach from people sharing your content.
The good news is that micro-targeting makes it much easier to always produce content that is relevant. Give that fan of The Wire who lives in Berwick a blogpost that links the two. Show somebody with a new phone a smart feature that they might have missed. Or show them more cooking videos if that’s what they liked last time.
Brands like Maersk Shipping have shown that if you focus on your niche, you can build up a strong relationship with the people that matter to you, even if you’re never going to be competing with fashion or celebrities.
But how much of brand’s content is like that really? A quick check of brands in my newsfeed shows that content is rarely adapted to targeting, apart from one brand doing a fairly poor job of targeting men over 40.
Fix the measurement challenge
Measuring returns from social is easier than ever, but far too many brands are still obsessed with vanity metrics like Instagram Followers or Likes. Brands that start measuring meaningful metrics like sales, leads and changes in brand affinity quickly find that they need to substantially change their approach.
The good news for brands is that focusing on impact rather than reach can dramatically increase their returns, by reducing costs on pointless content. Better targeted content that more people enjoy watching and reading will benefit all of us - marketers and our customers.
Brands don’t have to fear changes across social channels, but they do need to act now.
Investing now in a strategy that delivers impactful content to the right people will enable brands to not only reap the dividends but also to stay ahead of the competition.