We all know that the use of social media is growing. With the evolution of technology and the Internet, more and more people have access to social media platforms as a tool for exposure, communication, distribution of information, and marketing than ever before. With the increased accessibility of social media and the volume of users generating and sharing content, comes the increase of social media advertising.  

Social media advertising has become so commonplace that it may not be consciously processed when you scroll past it in a newsfeed congested with hundreds of content offerings from hundreds of sources. But you’ve definitely noticed it before. You might go onto The Iconic website and look at four pairs of boots. After leaving the site, you click onto Facebook, and see an advertisement that displays each of these four pairs of boots, as well as the number of your Facebook friends who have ‘liked’ The Iconic Facebook page. This is the result of an algorithm.

Sponsored content generated by algorithms is not a new phenomenon. Advertisements, to varying degrees, have been placed in users’ newsfeeds for some time now. While advertisements for whatever companies and products were once uploaded in bulk without personalisation, advertisers now have unlimited data on social media users and have developed algorithms to ensure advertising targets users that fit within a certain demographic. These algorithms can track individual users’ online behavioural patterns and show content that will be attractive to a particular user. As a result, the advertisers build brand awareness, encourage purchases, and facilitate brand loyalty. 

And it’s not just Facebook. Algorithms are becoming smarter. Instagram will show you sponsored content from a brand that has paid for exposure to consumers within a specific demographic. If you’re a woman, aged 18-30, and follow a lot of beauty-related Instagrams, you’d be more likely to see an advertisement for fake tan. Algorithms have become so evolved that they can transcend social media – shopping websites such as Amazon will place items they think you’ll find attractive, based on products you’ve previously purchased. 

But what exactly are social media algorithms?

It’s true that social media is becoming increasingly oversaturated. There’s an enormous volume of content to sift through and an enormous volume to consciously process as being important, useful or likeable. Consider Facebook: how many friends do you have? How many brands do you follow? How many brands do they follow? How many brands have algorithms that can track from their website to your personal social media account?

Social media algorithms were created to share content to the most relevant users. So although reach (the number of people within a population who see the advertisement) decreases, the number of relevant people increases. These algorithms ‘weigh’ individual user information and determine what is most important to each user, in order to distribute content relevant to these interests. For example, Facebook uses each user’s information, such as their education, workplace, relationship status, ‘likes’, and so on, to allow for more targeted brand exposure. A person who is ‘engaged’ may start seeing advertisements relating to discounted wedding dresses or pregnancy tests. Likewise, Instagram recently announced that they were changing the structure of users’ newsfeeds, so that the most relevant content would appear at the top (rather than chronologically), likely causing less relevant posts to be missed. 

So although less people might see an ad, it is more likely to be shown to the ‘right’ people. Ultimately, this is more important to a brand in terms of long-term awareness, growth, profitability, and loyalty.

Algorithms filter a substantial amount of content. Google has an algorithm in which a particular search might result in websites being ranked in a certain way, either by relevance or by the company having paid to have a higher ranking. Furthermore, Google also utilises AdWords, which enables advertisers to buy and create ads. These ads appear on Google-owned websites, and are targeted toward demographics through their keyword searches and browser cookies. By clicking on an AdWords ad (known as ‘pay-per-click’), Google receives a percentage of the sale. Ad Sense lets advertisers partner with Google to deliver these AdWords advertisements to their privately owned websites. If you have a blog and want to make a profit from it, you can let Google display relevant advertisements on your blog (in a manner similar to affiliate links.) When a user clicks on the ad (for example, an ad for a winery and a person purchasing a case of wine), each party makes commission. These Google-based algorithms make it easier for advertisers to deliver their content onto multiple platforms, guaranteeing that relevant audiences are exposed to the content through their searches, clicks, and browser cookies, and achieving profit.

Do algorithms make the consumer world more difficult to navigate with the online and real world becoming synonymous? Arguably, algorithms make the consumer world more accessible: advertisements relevant to a user’s individual characteristics – not only in terms of age and gender, but lifestyle and interests – make it easier to find and purchase products, distribute information, and directly engage with brands. From a consumer-orientated perspective (in terms of products that can be purchased, rather than higher ranking content), algorithms do indeed increase the volume of sponsored content but significantly decreases oversaturation and clutter. Simply put, algorithms make the consumer world easier to navigate because products that are important to an individual user are sent to the forefront.

Are algorithms a violation of privacy? It’s understandable that people may be uncomfortable with knowledge that their behaviour can be tracked and predicted through algorithms. Whilst being an active user on social media platforms automatically guarantees that your activity will be monitored through algorithms, there’s no agreement policy on that. Some websites, such as Facebook, have ad preferences, and you can disable certain features of your profile (such as workplace, interest, relationship status, and even tracking from outside websites) to ensure that you won’t receive sponsored content. Accessing the Internet is like signing a permission slip to have algorithms retrieve your data. Although it might be a violation of privacy, it is unpreventable – if you find algorithms to be a problem, the best way to limit its response is to be aware of it.

Algorithms are unlikely to go away any time soon. Marketers predict that more of their budgets will be spent on social media advertising, as long as it produces strong results – whether this be in terms of generating revenue, increasing brand awareness, building communication between their target market, and so on. Marketers will need to find innovative ways to reach their target demographic. Even with sponsored content, marketers need to break through oversaturation, clutter, and desensitization to social media advertising – prepare for algorithms to distribute more revolutionary content to capture your interest and retention. Algorithms will continue due to the success of advertising performance – with more people shopping online (think the soon-to-launch Amazon Australia), it makes sense to advertise on the spaces most commonly frequented.