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Algorithm Anxiety in 2023: Do we want what the machines tell us we want?
Algorithm Anxiety in 2023: Do we want what the machines tell us we want?

If you haven’t noticed, Instagram has gotten awful lately. My main feed is overwhelmed with recommended posts and videos from accounts I don’t even follow. It is now a mush of videos, ads, and brand promotions. The proportion of stuff I asked for in my feed versus stuff that I didn’t ask for has gotten too low. The problem is that Instagram has gotten too algorithmic.

Algorithmic recommendations are supposed to bring us what we like, but lately it feels more like they only deliver what is most convenient for the platform that they operate on. For Instagram, that means pushing video instead of the photos it was originally designed for. “Algorithmic anxiety” was used by the academic researcher Shagun Jhaver to describe the way that Airbnb hosts tried to manipulate Airbnb’s search algorithm to give their listings higher rankings — they were stressed out because they didn’t really know how they were being evaluated.

But as consumers of content, we have algorithmic anxiety too. We don’t know why we’re recommended a specific thing, or why our feeds are suddenly filled with one theme or another — all dog videos, all crypto tweets.

I’ve been on the internet for the last 10 years and I don’t know if I like what I like or what an algorithm wants me to like.

Of course, there is the argument that consumers have always been the targets of manipulative advertising. A ubiquitous TV ad can make its way into your brain, making you think you need to buy, say, a new piece of technology immediately. But social networks have always feigned to show us things that we like—things that we might have organically gravitated to ourselves. Why, then, can it feel as though the entire ecosystem of content that we interact with online has been engineered to influence us in ways that we can’t quite understand? At times, the computer seems more in control of our choices than we are. Therefore the verbiage Algorithmic Anxiety aptly describes this unique moment in time.

But, What’s the Algorithm Actually Doing?
When talking about ‘the algorithm’, most people are referring to the way in which they receive targeted information on online social networks in the form of recommendations - things to buy, read, follow or watch. And almost every major Internet platform uses algorithmic recommendations in some form. Google Maps calculates driving routes using unspecified variables. Swiggy and Zomato, both, front-load menu items that it predicts you might like based on your recent ordering habits, the time of day, and what is “popular near you.” It can feel as though every app is trying to guess what you want before your brain has time to come up with its own answer.

What is Algorithm Hacking?
Of course, the machines are not perfect. People are writing articles to help others ‘fix’ their (trash) Instagram feeds, sharing tips on how to discourage the algorithm from sharing unwanted information. In the depths of the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial (when you couldn’t escape courtroom clips) explainer articles emerged to help people de-prioritise the content. There were some great responses from people getting sick of seeing them too. People are now turning to the likes of Discord chat rooms and apps like BeReal to buffer algorithm-fed online experiences, where content is provided only by peers.

For marketers and creators, keeping pace with the algorithms has become an endless arms race. No sooner are LinkedIn polls shown to drive engagement than everyone’s feeds are suddenly filled with LinkedIn polls. This leads to LinkedIn eventually down-ranking LinkedIn polls. And on and on it goes. The TikTok-ification of Instagram is the most recent tail wagging the dog, as everyone tries to shift gears to keep up with what will drive engagement there. What can get lost in this constant one-upmanship and gamification is the actual audience. If we’re not careful, we end up creating solely for the algorithms, not the people on the other end.

CMO Survey on the Talent Gap.
CMO Survey on the Talent Gap.

“We will see 20,000 years of progress in this century.” Ray Kurzweil

Stuart Connor Head of Qualifications and Assessments, at Pearson Asia’s first- ever learning symposium in the Philippines repeated what industries are saying to educators. “You’re sending us fundamentally unemployable graduates. We’re having trouble sourcing graduates with key skills. Digital literacy, numeracy, core competencies. Not to mention 21st century skills like adaptability, creativity, critical thinking.”

One of the biggest challenges businesses face is finding employees with the right skill set to navigate the seemingly never-ending advances in technology. A new survey of global CMOs by The CMO Club finds that the skills gap continues to exist, with data science and analytics being the skills most in demand.
Three-fifths (60%) of CMOS also say that user experience (UX) is one of their top 3 critical skills gaps (from a list of 5). This is an area that has suffered from a lack of skilled employees for quite some time. SoDA and Forrester research from several years ago, for example, revealed that UX was the area with the biggest gap in talent.
The skills gap in UX has since been overshadowed by other needed skills. A majority of CMOs surveyed say that data science (78%) and analytics (68%) are among the most critical skills gaps in their organizations. This aligns with other research that has shown that for 3 in 5 B2B marketers, analytics is the most difficult skill set to hire for. This is significant given that executives acknowledge that while data has value to businesses, without people who can effectively manage and analyze that data, they are not able to maximize the value of data. The scarcity of talent has likely led some businesses to outsource. Three in 10 (31%) CMOs say they have either completely or partially outsourced their insights and analytics functions, second only to creative (59%) as the most outsourced function. Other research from Merkle also found that 46% of larger companies are outsourcing their analytics to third parties.

Ways to bridge the Talent Gap :
By focusing on these seven ways to manage during a talent shortage, there’s a lot you can do to out- manoeuvre your competition and win the war for talent.

1. Build an employment brand from the bottom up.
Post pandemic, many candidates are going to be looking for more than just a job, and more than just any company.

2. Optimize your recruiting efforts from the top down.
In a hot job market, your recruiting process must be flawless; no bottlenecks.

3. Become a company known for learning and training. Workers have seen entire industries disrupted or nearly wiped out overnight. They want to recession-proof themselves by becoming more valuable.

4. Become a company known for benefits.
We’ve just lived through a year that proves the importance of a robust, innovative benefits program. Employees will be taking a closer look at what you offer.

5. Become a company known for pay equity.
We’re entering a new era of transparency in many dimensions of work life, especially compensation.

6. Make diversity and inclusion a cultural pillar and a business strategy.
One day soon, we’ll look back to this moment and realize the companies that got DE I right went on to become dominant players and leaders in their industries.

7. Modernize the way you develop talent
Attracting and retaining talent all comes down to the growth opportunities you can provide.

According to a McKinsey Global Survey on future labour requirements:

Nearly nine out of ten executives and managers indicate their companies are either experiencing or expecting skill shortfalls in the next five years. To close such a gap, organisations need to first conduct a talent gap analysis, rethink the recruitment strategies and processes, find sources of talent, build reskilling and upskilling programmes, put mentoring programmes in place, focus on internal mobility and work with contingent talent.

The biggest issue isn’t that robots / AI are taking all the jobs. – It’s that there aren’t enough humans to take them. By 2030 there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million, or roughly equivalent to the population of Germany. Left unchecked in 2030 that talent shortage could result in about $8.5 trillion in unrealized revenues. Source -Korn Ferry

How agencies and brands need to work in the future
How agencies and brands need to work in the future

Agency operating models have been traditionally opaque. A go between media and businesses. But today’s marketing needs for businesses are evolving at break-neck speed. Digital platforms, multi- functional teams, fierce competition, and a rapidly evolving media landscape where blurring attribution lines have the potential to confuse the best minds.

In the hustle and bustle of building products there is a clear need to have a specialist partner i.e., the Agency look at the overall communication funnel for brands. Technology has driven the era of collaboration, inclusion, and information parity. The onus is on brands and Agencies to co-habit the consumer landscape to deliver marketing and communication victories.

  1. Transparency
    As a client it is important to share all data points with your Agency. Complete and adequate data sharing is a recipe for trui. Similarly, test the rigor of the data adequacy at the time of deciding your media mix presented by the Agency. The idea is to have no black boxes at the pre-evaluation and post evaluation stage of a communication plan.
  2. Tools and Technology
    There is a trend for all Agencies to dazzle clients with an array of tools and dashboards with a million data points. Technology is the norm today, but we need to be clear how it is making a difference to the brands business. There is no point generating voluminous reports with flashy charts unless they assist decision makers to deliver business outcomes.
  3. People and Culture
    An agency is the co-custodian of the brand with the business owner. Inclusion, innovation, out of the box thinking are people specific and many companies try to institutionalise it. Sometimes, you may not have the best talent or tools required within the Agency for your business. Transparently, suggest a partnership if that is the solution but do what is right for the brand.
  4. Compensation and Evaluation
    The best ideas come from a fireside chat between agency and clients. Invite the Agency to be a part of your team. Not an extension but a core, committed part. Allow them to ask questions and help define the metrics of business success. Value will come from accountability for business growth and not the reduction of fees or commissions.