Marketers need to pierce through filter bubbles

Personalisation, old companion and sidekick

Personalisation has a long and distinguished history among marketers. Direct Marketing personalisation techniques range from the simple “Dear [FirstName] It’s Your Birthday!” to complex database extrapolations allowing for an automated letter to include customer purchase history (“As someone who purchased 3 of John Grisham’s books in the past…”)

With the advent of Internet Browsers, personalisation became more intricate, allowing marketers to collect detailed information about customers’ behaviour and choices online and to subsequently display context-sensitive matching adverts. Eventually, growth in personalisation capabilities ushered the SEO and SEM age – allowing marketers to pinpoint customers according to their geographical location and using specific keywords extracted from content they consume and exchange.

Early December 2009, pioneering online organiser Eli Pariser read a post on Google’s corporate blog. It didn’t look like a ground breaking or life changing post and many readers probably missed it, among Google’s various daily administrative announcements.  Pariser, and a handful of others, did notice the post – and it got them thinking. The headline said – “Personalized Search for Everyone.” Investigating further, Pariser found that as of that day, Google would use fifty-seven ‘signals’ in order to learn about users, including where they logged in from, which browser they were using, their search history – notably the page-links they opted for on their search-results, and page-links which they’ve rejected. Redeveloped, this last facility (hiding behind Google’s age-old “I Feel Lucky” button) serves to predict which pages users are likely to choose to visit in the future. In turn, this ‘prediction’ is used by the engine to serve pages users are likely to want to see.

Introducing filter bubbles

“Most of us assume” says Pariser in his book “ The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” “that when we google a term, we all see the same result […] Now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular – and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.”  Pariser argues that the Internet is quickly becoming a personally identified-and-consumed world in which people’s personal experiences are defined by automatic, independent machines, which he terms “filter bubbles”.

As companies and organisations try to match their products and services to customers’ wants and needs, customers become trapped within a bubble of content in which all information that is not deemed of interest to users is filtered out. The danger in this system – says Pariser – is that we only encounter information that does not challenge our views and opinions. The filter bubble, he says, introduces three dynamics we’ve never dealt with before. Firstly – we’re along in it, it is a single person’s bubble. Even if we share beliefs with others, the bubble is filtered specifically to our own needs.

Secondly – the filter bubble is invisible. Users have no idea why Google shows them the results they see.  The third – and most intriguing dynamic, is that users do not choose to enter the bubble. When people switch on a news channel or read an online newspaper, they are “making a decision about what kind of filter to use to make sense of the world. It’s an active process” says Pariser. They do not make the same kind of choice with personalised filters, who simply “come to us” so that we have no way to avoid them.

Filter bubbles – Like or Dislike?

The most pertinent question for marketers is, naturally, how filter bubbles affect the relationship between customers and their chosen brands. Will customers become suspicious and untrusting; will they keep looking constantly behind their digital shoulders?

As it often happens, not everyone thinks – like Pariser – that filter bubbles spell doom for people’s free choice online. Blogger James Samuel, for example, argues that – once people know that their searches may be biased in any way, it is up to them to find new ways to look for information. “Knowing [about filter bubbles]”, says Samuel “it behoves us to broaden our scope and actively search for news and information that stretches us beyond […] those that match our current world view.”

Samuel and others believe that, far from manacling customers’ ability to find and use the product information they require, filter bubbles may in fact force them to become more discerning as product users. Current regulations are likely to come in handy for customers wishing to assert control over the information they see online. These regulations enforce, for example, the insertion of an “AdChoices” tag to indicate that an advert is based on behavioural data. Other regulations – like the European Union’s “EU Internet Cookie Tracking Law” effectively requires that users give permission for cookies to be inserted in their computing device. These – and other regulations – will necessitate a major re-think regarding advertising and SEO issues, as they affect all industry players, from giants Google and Facebook, to the world’s smallest content carriers.

What type of “filter bubble bursting” methods can marketers use? 

Knowing the limitations they face, marketers will be called to expand the reach of the dialogue they have with customers. As they aim to address their target market, marketers would do well to remember that every channel has its own filter bubble – email has spam filters, Facebook has EdgeRank and Google has PageRank (and a few hundred other algorithms). It’s no longer as simple as choosing a channel and sending a message out.

Ideally, Marketers should find new ways to speak directly to their users – If, as the popular saying goes, each marketing device – be it an advert, link, image, insert, article, email missive, interstitial etc. – is positioned “one click away from extinction”, then it is up to marketers to up their game and add to the message they deliver a deeper sense of commitment to, and responsibility for, the people for whom the message is intended.

#personalisation#direct marketing#filter bubbles#adchoices#cookie tracking law

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