October 15, 2019

“The Algorithm,” Explained

Colin Reilly

“The Algorithm.” [cue thunder clap, spooky organ music] It’s a term that entered buzzword territory not long ago, as every social network and some of the most popular apps employ them in one way or another, but it is a simple enough concept that gets blamed for way more than it deserves to be. From a social perspective at least, you should think twice before taking it at face value when the term gets dropped in your next meeting as “the reason our content is underperforming.” In this blog, we’ll take some time to establish exactly what an algorithm is, what it means for your social content/ads, and how to think about it when crafting effective creative.

So, what is the algorithm?

Allow me to fall back on the dictionary here: “An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” It’s a rather complicated dynamic decision tree that is constantly being fed new information, and taking actions based on this information. At its core, it is a computer making decisions—so there is no room for nuance.

Algorithms are what make your social feed possible. Every social network uses an algorithm to determine what content shows up in a user’s feed, as well as what ads to serve. From a content perspective, the algorithm used to be simple: It found what was most recently posted, and ordered your feed in reverse chronological order. Now, feeds are organized around the goal of finding and serving the content that it thinks users will “care the most about” (to use Facebook’s explanation) and will get them to spend more time on the platform.

From an ads perspective, the algorithm’s goal is to find the people most likely to take the action the advertiser wants at the most efficient cost, such as viewing a video, clicking a link, or buying a product.

This distinction, between what users care about and your ad objective, is crucially important, and ignoring it is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes novice advertisers make. Let’s try an example: You are a camping supply company, and your customer John Smith loves camping, and cares deeply about finding the best camping gear. John spends thousands of dollars on this hobby every year, but he is a social media “lurker” and doesn’t engage with (i.e. like, share, or comment on) any of your content. You are running an ad for a new tent, and you optimize it for engagement. The Facebook algorithm knows John loves camping, but never engages with any of your content—so John will never see the ad. The algorithm knows it would be a waste of an impression based on the ad objective. You’ve passed over a valuable lead because you optimized for engagement instead of conversion, and John Smith is just one of an audience full of such missed opportunities.

What does the algorithm mean for my content?

Since brand posts and user posts appear in the same feed, they need to be designed to feel native, and like they belong alongside one another. Your ad/post is a mostly interruptive presence in a user’s feed, and users will scroll past it in a microsecond if it doesn’t grab their attention—especially on mobile. Because of the way the algorithm is designed, your content has a very small window of time in which to stand out (or fail to do so).

What the algorithm looks for differs by platform, but how it works doesn’t change. The algorithm will test each ad/creative by serving a few thousand impressions, and compare performance to every post it has ever served. Stop. Go back and read that again. Great. The algorithm is working with an immense amount of information, and with all this context, it knows immediately whether your content is going to make the grade. In this regard, it is likely even more impatient than the average user.

If your content doesn’t get people to stop, look, and take the action you’re optimizing for, the algorithm deems it undesirable. If a post, it will stop serving it. If an ad, it will charge a higher cost to serve it.

Now, recognizing that this all makes the algorithm sound very Wizard of Oz “man behind the curtain,” rest assured that the algorithm isn’t picking favorites. Users are. Consumer reaction is what the algorithm measures. If people reject the post, the algorithm rejects it. If people embrace the post, the algorithm embraces it. Success ultimately boils down to understanding your customer, what content they want to see on social, and how they want that content packaged.

So, first and foremost, always think of the user experience. Make your content as seamlessly integrated into the user’s feed as possible. Talk like a person, and have a consistent look and feel. Be clear about what your content is offering to the user, and give people a reason to stop—what will they get if they stick around? To this end, don’t bury the lede. If you’re running a sale or have a new product to promote, social is not the place for building suspense. Ultimately, if you’re truly thinking user-first, the algorithm shouldn’t scare you at all. This, from YouTube, sums it up nicely:

“Our systems have no opinion about what type of video you make, and doesn’t favor any particular format…Instead of focusing on what the algorithm ‘likes,’ it is better to focus on what your audience likes. If you do that and people watch, the algorithm will follow.”
–YouTube Creator Studio


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Tags: Best Practices, Data & Analytics, Facebook, Paid Media

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