As a brand, are you at the mercy of these algorithms? Must you succumb to clickbait and sensationalism to stand out? Whispr Group will cover parts of this in their upcoming webinar on optimizing communication strategies. But it’s also the topic of this article because many marketing- and communications departments are struggling right now.
The new world is complex — and noisy
ESG (environmental, social and corporate social governance) is making the landscape extremely complex to navigate. And external interest groups are applying tough pressure on many brands. The Covid-19 pandemic isn’t showing many signs of slowing down as many countries are battling with both second and third waves of the disease.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the techlash is becoming more and more prominent. The much discussed Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is raising questions about the divisiveness of online algorithms – and how polarisation and mental health issues might be one of many outcomes.
Being a brand in 2020 hasn’t been easy — and we should brace ourselves for whatever 2021 will have in store for us. In this age of algorithms, what will work? And what won’t?
An abundance of editorial space
The algorithms surrounding us are based on user behaviour, but our user behaviour is constantly adapting the algorithms. We don’t actually know who’s in the driver’s seat at the moment. It’s something of a pavlovian, chicken-or-egg situation. We do know however that both search engines and social networks are desperately aiming for that golden algorithmic mean somewhere in-between maximising ad revenue on the one hand, and maximising user engagement on the other.
Today, editorial space isn’t scarce anymore.
Academically, these types of contextual constraints are bundled together and named media logic. The media logic of the algorithmic online landscape is different from traditional media logic in many ways. In the traditional mass media landscape, there were only so many large “campfires” for the audience to gather around. There were a few television channels, a few radio stations, a few newspapers. This made the largest campfires extremely valuable. A single weekly television show could gather millions of viewers. But that was then, a bygone era.
Today, editorial space isn’t scarce anymore. And the algorithms will take care of all the heavy-lifting amidst this never-ending mass of online information. Thanks to the internet, we find ourselves in a world with an almost infinite amount of editorial space. The algorithms are our new campfires.
The battle for slices of mental bandwidth
The media logic of the algorithms is dictated by how users – according to historical data on human behaviour – will decide to distribute their precious seconds of attention. In other words: Today, mental bandwidth is the limited resource — not editorial space. And this is, of course, why we must adapt our strategies if we wish to get our messages across to an online audience. It’s this attention economy that will dictate which marketing and PR strategies will work. And which ones that won’t.
Examples of new marketing strategies
This new paradigm has a series of really weird effects. Effects that are often counter-intuitive, to say the least.
Riding the wave of engagement: an algorithm will show your brand message based on your previous performance. The formula is therefore to continuously post more and more engaging content over a long period of time. If you suddenly put out a message that is below your typical standards, the algorithms will punish you by diminishing your reach the next time you post. The secret is to get a little bit more engagement with each and every new brand message you publish, like riding a wave that slowly builds.
Some influencers have successfully ridden this wave of engagement from only getting a few reactions at first, to end up with an online audience in the millions in just a few years.
Going for the ultra-niche approach
Since the algorithms have created an online landscape where the winners take almost everything, it’s paramount for a brand to find a way to dominate a specific niche. One way for a brand to better the odds of succeeding is to position its marketing and PR messages in smaller and smaller niches – ultra-niches.
Rehband, a Swedish/German manufacturer of medical support equipment for all types of sports, found Instagram success in deciding to focus on the CrossFit community – and from there moved slowly onto functional training and obstacle course racing. It might seem counterintuitive at first glance, but it seems better to be a key player in a small community, than to be no one in a large one.
Being niche-specific will ensure that you build a behaviorally homogenous audience, an audience that the algorithm can predict more easily.
Coherent strategies based on consistency
Almost all successful social media channels run by superstar influencers are highly consistent in both their frequency of output and their type of media. And all of that output is spectacularly coherent in terms of tonality and quality. In 2021, brands should take note. Anyone can launch a website, start a podcast, or publish videos on YouTube. But it takes anyone years of consistent output to both build a loyal audience and find a unique tone of voice.
When anyone can start their own podcast in five minutes, five years of coherent effort will make all the difference.
Whatever type of brand message we publish, we’d be wise to remember that it takes 10,000 hours of consistent work before any of it becomes good enough to cater to an engaged mass audience on the regular. An example of this is a Swedish communications platform that has been publishing their podcast Passion for Communication (in Swedish) since 2015. And now, after five years of consistent effort, it’s actually starting to become an essential listen for anyone in the Swedish communications industry. When anyone can start their own podcast in five minutes, five years of coherent effort will make all the difference.
Strategically attracting homogenous audiences
If you suddenly shift your strategy, the algorithms will quickly hide your brand messages, and force you to start over with trying to build a new audience that fits your new strategy. If you put a message out there, anyone subjected to that message will either react (click, share, comment, like etc) in some measurable way. Or they will not.
If the audience is too big and too diverse, there are simply too many users that won’t react to your message. Bots and fake followers are the worst, of course. All “non-reactions” combined will actively diminish your brand’s chances of online growth. Brands must actively weed out ghost followers. Brands must actively attract only engaged audiences. This new media logic becomes extremely clear in email marketing. Having subscribers who rarely interact with your brand messages might destroy your sender reputation with important email servers.
Focus on winner-takes-most
With so few and precious seconds of user attention to compete for, second-placers reap only very small rewards compared to the winners. Scoring a “viral hit” here and there is always nice, both for moral and for quarterly metrics reports, but the algorithms will almost always push your brand back to its median trajectory virtually immediately. When planning for marketing and PR strategies in 2021, you must make sure that you always “go for gold” in the long-term – or that you prioritise something else instead.
Algorithms will reward being focused: in 2021, marketers and communicators should take notes from developers who base their work on “sprints”. You focus on one single objective and you get it done before you move on to the next objective. The same is true for getting brand messages across. There’s very little upside for mediocre or sporadic brand messages in the algorithmic media landscape.
To quote Yoda, one of my favourite characters from Star Wars: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Models for harvesting inbound signals
At times, the audience will come to the brand. They might seek you out through word-of-mouth, through search engines, or through social media. Exactly how this audience finds you is important, but it’s secondary to how you manage to keep them coming back for more. Strategies designed to attract users to a destination under the brand’s control (like a website, app, email list etc.) typically outperforms strategies designed to get your message in-front of users looking for something else.
In 2021, a brand just can’t afford not to make the most of these inbound signals. These audiences aren’t “already won” but rather “first-in-line to be dazzled”. As anyone who has been successful in negotiating the online media landscape of today will tell you, you won’t be able to succeed alone. No matter how big your brand is; you’ll need the help of an engaged audience to grow. You’ll need an audience to punch through the noise.
A new set of marketing strategies for 2021
Getting your strategies right from the start is more important than ever. The first-mover-advantage is a myth. There’s only a first-to-get-it-perfectly-right-advantage. Specialised growth hackers will typically search for their “product-market-fit” ferociously first before they even try to scale the brand online. Have you been able to find your message-market-fit?