We’re all living in a social media bubble, and it’s a brand’s job to pop it

Filtering is a worrying byproduct of social media's complex algorithms but it could present brands with an opportunity to burst through the bubble, says Stewart Gurney, chief strategy officer of PHD Australia.

Over the last year or so we’ve being increasingly warned about the dangers of ‘echo chambers’. How the bubbles of filtered information we surround ourselves in give us a limited perspective of the world and can result in things like Trump, Brexit or worse: a general apathy to bigger societal issues.

While this is obviously worrying, there could be an interesting upside.

As consumers continue to chase what’s relevant, and surround themselves in these cocoons of information that reaffirm their world view, brands could start stepping in to provide counter perspectives. The role of mainstream advertising could evolve to smash these echo chambers.

As brands strive to combat the threat of being filtered out, they will have to find more interesting and polarising things to say, moving from messaging-based ads to purpose driven communications.

In his book The Inevitable Kevin Kelly identified twelve technological trends that continue to have a profound effect on our world. One of these trends is filtering.

Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable

As Kelly observes, we live in a world of information and content overload.

Every 12 months we currently produce approximately eight million new songs, two million new books, 16,000 new films, 30 billion blog posts, 182 billion tweets and 400,000 new products. These numbers are only increasing and at an exponential rate.

With so much of this ‘stuff’ readily available to us we will increasingly look for ways to navigate this expanse.

One way we do this currently is with the help of recommendation engines. These algorithms suggest movies we might like based on movies we’ve watched previously, people to follow that share our opinions and even news articles that discuss the topics we are the most interested in.

The benefits of this type of filtering are easily addictive. Who doesn’t love Spotify’s discover weekly playlists or a Netflix recommendation.

However, the dangers are evident. It’s easy to fall into an ‘echo chamber’ or a ‘filtered bubble’, egotistically spiralling into an ecosystem of similar content that does nothing but reaffirm your world view.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than on social media. Through recommendation engines and like-minded networks we have built social communities where 90% of the people we connect with or get opinions from, think in a similar way to us.

The societal implications of this are significant.

We run the risk of existing in bubbles. Oblivious to the plight and point of view of others with little or no exposure to bigger issues or conflicts that aren’t seen as ‘relevant’.

As Mark Zuckerberg once (allegedly) told colleagues: “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now that people dying in Africa”. Our addiction to wanting to know what’s happening to immediate friends and followers takes precedence over bigger, arguably less immediately relevant issues.

Pretty scary stuff, but what does this have to do with advertising?

I think advertising could and should, start to be used to help burst these bubbles.

Firstly, from a media perspective, this trend forces us to find more of the relevant people, have more one to one conversations and talk to them in the most optimal way to prompt immediate action. We need to find ways to not be “filtered” out.

The other big implication is that is it forces brands and advertising to find more interesting things to say and do.

At its best good advertising is provocative, disruptive and helps spread ideas at scale. Scale is important here. In a brands attempt to connect to as many potential purchasers as possible, it has the opportunity to transport ideas and shake us out of our filtered echo chambers.

The recent Clemenger work for Airbnb is a brilliant example of this. Humanising the issue of marriage equality at scale, in a way that perfectly complements the brand proposition and vision.

The most compelling thing about this campaign is that it create an opportunity to galvanise action. It’s not just another brand ‘badging’ an issue, but giving consumers the ability to showcase support and get involved in the cause. The campaign encourages you to go online and purchase a limited edition broken ring as a badge of support.

While other brands have done work around marriage equality (and I massively applaud their efforts), what sets Airbnb apart is its bravery to amplify this opinion via mass media.

It’s not just targeting the gay/lesbian community, with small activations at Fair Day or targeted comms on Facebook. It’s bravely stating its point of view to all its potential consumers. Risky move but, highly compelling.

Dove is another famous example of a brand standing up for an injustice but doing it in mass media. What’s brilliant about Dove is that ‘real beauty’ really sits at heart of the brand.

It’s an enduring promise and is not just a campaign or tagline. In Australia the current manifestation of this is the “What is your daughter searching for?” campaign, which uses search behaviour to highlight the enduring negative perceptions that young girls have about themselves.

Like Airbnb, this commentary is backed up by an ‘action’ component. The Dove self-esteem project provides tangible resources and education for teachers and youth leaders to help actively combat these issues.

I’m not advocating the rise of overly politicised advertising. There’s nothing more infuriating than a brand realising its ‘purpose’ by badging a recent issue.

There are loads of important issues out there, especially in Australia: immigration, gender equality, equal pay to name but a few. But brands that simply theme their advertising around these issues, rather facilitating genuine action, are arguably doing a disservice to the cause.

Filtering is an inevitable trend. It’s going to continue to happen and will have implications for the information and content we are exposed to and, more importantly, want to be exposed to.

I think filtering has the potential to elevate the work. Allowing brands to stop ‘telling’ people stuff and ‘badging’ things and actually allow us to create advertising that can make a tangible difference.

Stewart Gurney is chief strategy officer PHD Australia.


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