Heads up! It’s the end of social messaging as we thought we knew it

by Mark Jones

Lying awake at 3am for no explicable reason, I found myself scrolling endlessly through Facebook.

Have you noticed that it doesn’t matter how long you keep scrolling, there’s no end to the number of posts? In the battle of my will vs. Facebook’s ability to keep throwing up curated content from around the world, Facebook wins every single time.

Of course, this is the digital equivalent of reading a book to send yourself to sleep. And yes, I get the whole “blue-screen-keeps-you-awake-and-is-bad-for-your-brain” yada yada. That’s a story for another day.

This is a story about something entirely different. Or to the digitally savvy, history repeating itself.

This story is one of those moments of clear thinking, the light bulb goes on.

Think about scrolling through Facebook. Or LinkedIn. Or Twitter. Or just about any other social platform. You start at the top and thumb down, the eyes darting all over the place. If something grabs your attention you click, hop off the scrolling train and devote a few seconds to a fresh piece of content on the web.

Mind you, that’s only if the website loads quickly. If it takes too long, or the story is immediately boring, we flick back into the never-ending stream of digital consciousness.

I’m no psychologist, nor am I an expert in customer experience design or related disciplines that study the way we humans browse our way through reams of content.

But I do know this – the rivers of content washing through our screens every day is uncannily like a prehistoric digital animal that’s been lurking in the shadows for years: email.

Back in the days when I was a newspaper and magazine editor, I’d scroll endlessly through email, sifting and sorting. At the Financial Review I was getting in excess of 200 stories, pitches and news links each day that required my temporary attention.

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If the subject line was interesting, or I knew the recipient – usually a PR person – then I’d give it a quick look. Three seconds, on average. From there you’d take action or simply ignore it and move on.

And that process of moving on looked a lot like my Facebook feed. Streams of emails that never ended.

So what conclusions are worth drawing from this enlightened comparison? Good question, thanks for asking.

Let’s stay with email to make the point. In the early days, email was a fantastic tool for one-to-one communication. Letter writing on steroids, if you like. I’m dating myself here, but at my first full-time job out of university we used to have to book time to use the PC in the office that was set up with email. Just think about that for a moment, it’s hilarious. Booking time to use email!

As time went on, email matured as a business practice to its current state of affairs: a central repository for all forms of personal and professional communications. It’s the one thing that ties together all your social subscriptions. And it’s also full of junk. Commercial messages outnumber real content from real people by a very wide margin.

It’s a classic problem understood by the signal-to-noise ratio. At some point in time, email ceases to become appealing because the noise (irrelevant, overwhelming commercial content) so heavily outweighs the signal (real content from humans). So we tune out, go elsewhere, or use it in a limited fashion.

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Clearly this same human dynamic applies to social feeds. Facebook et al are working hard to tweak their algorithms to make sure they’re more signal than noise. But equally, they’re aware of an unfortunate byproduct – bias confirmation. That is, if you keep reading Trump stories, then it will prioritise more Trump stories until your entire feed is Trump Central. Believe me, I’m there now and it’s time to get off this scary horror ride. It’s not fun anymore.

Hopefully you can see my point. Social networks are keenly aware of the power they wield when it comes to teasing our eyes with relevant content. The trouble is, money wins. That is, social networks are going the way of email with sponsored content slowly occupying more of our precious digital real estate.

Media publishers, brands and thought leaders the world over know that if you want to get your message at least glanced at, you’ve gotta pay to play. As a brand storytelling agency, we know that all too well. Relying on organic reach to get our clients’ content out in the world is now a fool’s game.

But stay with me for a moment. What happens when social streams go the way of email? Once the signal-to-noise ratio tips out of balance, we’ll go somewhere else.

I’d suggest the see-saw has tipped, and we’re already going back to basics.

It’s stunning to realise the world is going crazy for 1:1 social platforms like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat.

More than 1 billion people currently subscribe to Messenger and WhatsApp. WeChat has 762 million active users. There are hundreds of millions of people using Skype, SnapChat, Line, Kik, iMessage and so on.

And through all this, one stat caught my eye. The number of messages sent monthly between users and businesses on Facebook Messenger? 1 billion.

So there you have it. The world is swinging away from the endless streams of glance-worthy content in social feeds and back to messaging apps, ironically not dissimilar to the way email served us well as a powerful 1:1 communications platform. And yet, even as this switch is underway, the commercial inroads are already well paved.

Is it all bad? Clearly not. There’s a massive global appetite for well crafted, targeted stories. In fact, I believe as humans we’re hungrier for the power of story than we’ve ever been.

The challenge we face, as individuals, marketers, business leaders and agency bosses like me, is a thought provoking one. If you’d like to produce more signals and less noise, that means you need to become a better storyteller.

If the world is reverting to first principles borrowed from email’s days of yore, it’s time to forget old broadcast mentalities – write once, publish everywhere, or spray and pray, or even the old newspaper classic publish and be damned.

The new mentality is best captured by an old favourite – the Mum test. In other words, is this a message I’d send to my Mum in email? To me, that’s the litmus test for highly personal, 1:1 communications.

Sure, it’s a stretch for many brands, particularly if your corporate tone of voice is formal. But the simple retort is, “do you want to be successful, or merely an also-ran?” It’s much easier to fix your tone than spend millions trying to claw back lost, dissatisfied, or in my case, bleary-eyed customers.

Mark Jones is Chief Storyteller + CEO at brand storytelling agency Filtered Media, and host of The CMO Show, a podcast about brand storytelling and the future of marketing.

  • Phil Sylvester

    When I was the EP of a talkback radio show I was asked by an ‘old school’ PR agency to talk to their staff about “how to get your media release noticed”. As an exercise I gave one of the group the sports page to read out loud – you’re the off-air monitoring of the station, another the business pages – you’re the TV news in the background, another the gossip pages – you’re my Assistant Producer, another to randomly ask me maths questions – you’re the host fact checking. The last person I said ‘you’re the EP. Listen to everything they’re saying, I’m going to quiz you and if you don’t get 75% correct you’re sacked. Now take these 50 media releases and place them in order of importance.”
    I got great pitches from them for the next 12 months.

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