Serendipity and Digital Marketing

The Decline of Serendipity in the Pursuit of #DigitalMarketing

Today, let’s talk about something left-of-field…

The Decline of Serendipity in the World and Online

You may not have realised the significance or implications of an underground tug-of-war that’s been going on between Serendipity and Personalisation.

Before going any further, some definitions:

  • Serendipity is the phenomenon of experiencing desirable discoveries by chance when not sought for.
  • Personalisation is the process of tailoring to please the specific preferences of an individual.

For Digital Marketers, we traditionally equate Search Engines with Personalisation and Social Media with Serendipity.

Let’s expand on that.

When building and optimizing for Search Engines, we’re attempting to align/tailor and personalise our posts, content, images, media to our specific target market. With the intention of being found by the people we really want to do business with; because transactions with these people are cheaper, easier and faster.

When undertaking campaigns on Social Media we’re typically “broadcasting” communications about who we are to a massive audience. Your ambition here is to have posts, content, images, media that people will chance upon and “discover” you.

It’s a pretty subtle difference, however there are some interesting changes that have been radically changing the landscape.

How Personalisation Makes Search Engines Useful

Before the wonderful wizardry of Google Search we had to make do with the clunky categorisation strategies of Yahoo and Altavista’s lack of linguist sophistication with semantics. It was a time when searching online was an experience in Serendipity. It was not great!

Search Engines and Google struck on Personalization as a foundation for their technology creating a revolutionary era in access to knowledge and information sharing.

Technologists have now come to recognize just how essential Personalisation is to the “search and discovery” experience.

Even twins in the same family are unlikely to have the exact same information and search needs. So creating an experience that is highly personalized helps people navigate the gigantic oceans of web data and filter out what’s irrelevant to us.

Google filtering out the search results in a language that we don’t understand, or the products sold by a webstore that doesn’t sell in my local currency or ship to our location, is actually helpful.

Personalization has been so deeply embedded in the Google search experience for years now, that it isn’t until you do a Google search using an Incognito browser window or travel overseas that you discover how much Google is controlling your SERPs.

Why Social Media is Abandoning Serendipity in Favour of Personalisation

If you are familiar with Facebook, you’d have noticed how over time Facebook has changed from a Serendipity type platform to one that is heavily focused on Personalisation.

In the beginning everyone who was a Friend would see whatever you shared on Facebook. It was the golden age of Serendipity!

Friends of Friends might share some post about a limited edition widget that you didn’t know was being released and had to get your hands on. Oh those joyous days of unexpected discovery…

Then over the years, Facebook gradually began shifting direction, through –

  • the introduction of demographic programming for Ads and then Retargeting;
  • to changing the distribution algorithm so only a very limited number of your Friends see what you’re sharing;
  • to “active listening” in the Facebook app that triggered advertising; and now
  • a full-scale assault of Personalisation on your Facebook Messenger .

All highly programmed process driven features that are intended to provide better data and insights for programmed targeted marketing.

Interestingly there are still those that fixate on creating social content that will “go viral” without realising that if the platform doesn’t support Serendipity the ability to “go viral” is seriously challenging if not completely absent.

Serendipity quote by Dr Stephann Makri

Those with some exposure to Instagram (a Facebook owned social network) will recognise how the focus on Personalisation has begun to alter the time ordering of the images on that platform as well. What you see in the Search feature of Instagram has already become heavily filtered and no doubt there is more to come.

Facebook isn’t the only social network that is dropping Serendipity though. Twitter is also having a go at Personalization .

The common thread? As soon as advertising becomes a priority, you lose Serendipity and Personalisation becomes the focus.

The more you can specify who gets to see your ads the more Personalisation focused the social network platform becomes.

From a Marketers perspective, having the level of programmatic control and metrics for my advertising campaigns is an incredible boon. Being able to choose individuals at such a refined demographic and psychographic level is absolutely awesome. It saves budget and gets results faster.

The Implications of Taking Serendipity Out of Our Life Experience

On the other side of the fence as an everyday citizen, the steadily declining opportunity for Serendipity is making the world bland, banal and a little creepy!

Travel anywhere in the physical world and you’re likely to see the same franchise businesses and brands – McDonalds, Starbucks, Disneyland, Coke Cola, Prada, Coach and Apple, for example.

Making the world a “small village” has created an environment with shrinking commercial diversity and greater cultural homogenization.

This has taken quite some years to achieve and interestingly is causing an unexpected (really?) backlash – the rise of nationalism and some very interesting political dynamics.

As we know everything digital happens faster.

Within technology campuses and back room programming departments right now, software is being coded that is driving this change online. And it’s being fueled by advertising revenue backed by the desire to be the “Number One” advertising platform.

The major channels (Search and Social Media), through which most of us experience online, have chosen to pursue Personalisation.

The speed at which this will narrow our digital experience will likely escalate rapidly now.

… And it’s something that’s happening without the everyday citizen being able to chose to participate in or opt out from in a meaningful way.

We “the average Joe’s” don’t even really fully understand this stuff, so giving us the ability to optimise or calibrate settings doesn’t fix this.

Enabled by increasingly clever and complicated technology that wraps in Artificial Intelligence (AI), there are some ominous warning signs about the decision to focus on Personalisation to the exclusion of Serendipity.

When you read headlines like “Google Admits They Fully Don’t Understand RankBrain” and “Facebook AI Creates Its Own Language That People Don’t Understand“, you have to wonder at what exactly the programmers are doing.

We Will Miss Serendipity

As our online channels become increasingly tampered with and polluted by programmers, inference engines and AI (that aren’t as smart as they think they are). There will come a time when even everyday citizens will be fed up with the ominous sense of being heavily monitored, silently evaluated, manipulated and “boxed” as a neat understandable set of parameters to be sold to.

There will be a backlash. A backlash that’s probably as “unexpected” as the one we’re experiencing right now in the real world.

“The more homogeneous our lifestyles become, the more steadfastly we cling to deeper values religion, language, art and literature. As our outer worlds grow more similar, we will increasingly treasure the traditions that spring from within.” – John Naisbitt (Megatrends 2000)

The challenge is predicting what that online backlash will be like and how you might protect you, your brand and organization from it when it arrives.

From the perspective of Marketers and Technologists, there is no precedence for how to act and what to do next.

Semantia’s advice in this uncertain environment is to recognise how your customer facing channels are being designed and consider how you might preserve elements of Serendipity in your marketing, engagement and brand story. Talk to us for more 1300 766 328.

About the Author

SemantiaSemantia is a strategic technology services and advisory company. Through its specialty business divisions the company provides a comprehensive range of software development, systems integration, semantic web development, business process outsourcing, digital marketing, online marketing automation, conversion rate intelligence and business IT insights and advice. Semantia collaborates with clients to deliver solutions optimised for business success including increasing performance in sales and marketing, reducing errors and processing times for data & identifying new insights from analytics for leaders to make better informed business decisions.View all posts by Semantia →

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