In filters we trust: how filters are changing the way we consume content

For anyone still smarting from the disruption that digital has brought to the media industry, sit tight. If you’re thinking that digital has wrought carnage on the traditional media channels of old, wait until you see what it is about to do to itself.

Digital was supposed to be the great leveller, the chance for the consumer to have the last word for a change. The way to truly unite the many. The key to unlocking the locked down broadcast world of old. And to be fair, it did. Trouble is, it hasn’t learnt where to stop.

With readily available digitised content now vastly outstripping demand, the same consumers filling the hard drives of the world with poorly written blogs, badly framed photography and video, and amateurish loop-laden audio, have re-engineered the problem they sought to solve in the first place: what to read, what to listen to, what to watch, where to go?

It’s a curious condition of the human race that what makes choice difficult is too much to choose from in the first place. And hence we have found ourselves surrounded by, influenced from, and at the mercy of filters, both analog and digital. 

With too much choice, filtering has become so mainstream we seldom stop to appreciate the bias it brings to much of the digital media we consume. From the songs Pandora plays you, to the books Good Reads and Amazon select for you, to the movies you will or won’t watch dependent on what Metacritic or IMDB dictate, to the newsfeed on your Facebook wall, filtered content is all pervasive. And with good reason. Why waste time building that perfect music playlist when Pandora will do it for you—and probably do it better than you had you agonised over what the perfect follow-up to Miles Davis’ ‘I waited for you’ would be (FYI Pandora says it’s ‘In a sentimental mood’ by Coltrane). Filtering has, it must be said, become spectacularly good at serving up exactly what we like.

And that could just be a problem.

With ever-increasing reliance on apps, websites and crowd approved content, the opportunities to discover new brands, bands, authors and opinions outside of our filter bubbles diminish. Far from democratising the media and the content we consume, digital media and the rapid explosion of content it has enabled has splintered the market into more genres and tribes than we even knew existed 20 years ago. 

It’s created a very fertile market for apps like Zite that filter news, opinion and trends based on what it learns you like over time. So popular has Zite’s filtering service become that its predecessor (of sorts) Flipboard has acquired it to improve its own filtering services. And for every Zite that gets merged into an existing platform, there are dozens more appearing on app stores and through web services almost daily. Can’t decide what to wear, what to buy, drink, eat, listen to, watch or make? Somewhere there’s a filter that can help you get more of what you’re comfortable with. And venture capitalists seem to have very deep pockets to fund them. This stands to reason because with so much demand led by so much available (and growing) content, it’s a fair bet that the market’s need for filtering isn’t about to dissipate anytime soon. 

Which means what for the future of the media industry? Who knows. Prognostication has delivered precious few accurate predictions over the last 20 years but there are a few pointers that are worth considering.

Reaching consumers isn’t going to get any easier. It is almost certainly going to get increasingly difficult as they retreat into ever-stronger filtered environments. Hence the power of a fully integrated communication strategy and creative idea that is relevant at every consumer touchpoint will increasingly define successful brands. With fewer opportunities to reach consumers in a meaningful, contextual way, every opportunity has to count.

While digital media will continue to define what the market consumes, reality will always remain where the market lives. So real world experiences and campaigns that can leverage digital channels to extend their exposure stand a better chance of breaking through digital barriers created by content filters.

Filters are good at guarding consumers from unwanted interruptive communication from brands and people they don’t care about. But broadly speaking, they do have a chink in their armour: they tend to favour humans over corporates and brands. So a key content strategy for brands could well be ‘Be more human’. And that in itself, wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all.

  • This column was originally published in the July/August issue of NZ Marketing
  • Greg Whitham is head of digital at Ogilvy. 

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