A few weeks ago, I began seeing troubling bits of news in my Twitter feed about Ferguson, Mo. After watching an escalation of news in my Twitter and Facebook feeds over a matter of hours, I was baffled by the absence of the news as a trending topic. , and apparent absence from my feed on Facebook. How could everyone I know (and follow) be watching the events in Ferguson, and have it still not surfacing among trends on social networks?
Marketers and social advocates know that #Ferguson MATTERS, and has the potential to affect outcomes for the people in and around that city. The central point of everything I have learned in the past few days is that algorithms have consequences – and not just for marketers.
There was a longer-term discussion over many days prior to the event taking hold in my own feed, so why didn’t #Ferguson get surfaces nationally as a trending topic? Because there was a longer term discussion over many days prior to the event taking hold in my own feed. Twitter’s trending algorithm depends on a methodology called “term frequency inverse document frequency,” which rewards spikes in traffic, engagement and textual content. Essentially, the rather slow national buildup in discussion penalized #Ferguson, while it rewards short term events such as the Video Music Awards that have rapid spikes times around a specific event.
On Facebook, -Ferguson appeared to not have taken hold at all. I recently stumbled across a Slate article (in my Twitter feed of course) by Luke O’Neil who observed, “Facebook is the place to share ice bucket videos, while Twitter is the constantly refreshing stream of news from Ferguson.”
O’Neil attempted to baffle Facebook’s algorithm by blocking everything that came into his feed. His observations are fascinating. Facebook continued to show him things about which he indicated he was not interested. He added, “According to, Facebook’s algorithm, birthdays, weddings, newborns, and new jobs are what Facebook insists we want to hear about.”
In the past few days as I watches watched these trends play out , and accelerate towards their critical mass, I have had some similar observations. Facebook continues to inundate me with Ice Bucket Challenge videos, while Twitter has been consistent with a stream of to follow the issues in Ferguson related issues. Both platforms have begun to see a backlash. I hear complaints from my peers on the saturation, and fatigue in these topics. These trends tell us a few critical things as marketers:
1. Trending topics on Twitter matter, but brands NEED to pay attention to the news in their feed and follow a diverse audience. In my opinion, brand marketers whose posts and promoted content entered my feeds during the height of the Ferguson escalation were missing the mark. Their promotions were annoying and the content were was ill- timed, .unwelcome and invited annoyance. While it is important to pay attention to trending topics, it is even more important to pay attention to the voices of your audience and understand what is happening in their feeds so as not to insert yourself into feeds where your content will be ignored or cause ire.
2. Facebook looks for positive and personal news. Facebook makes this assumption based on behavior and algorithmic filtering, so marketers need to fall in line with this understanding.
3. A single channel strategy can be (and typically is) a terrible mistake. With only 29 percent of our friends’ posts appearing in our news feed combined with algorithmic filtering on Facebook, Ferguson would not have surfaced nationally as quickly, or maybe even at all, if we had only looked to Facebook for instance. (However, Twitter and Reddit did a remarkable job of allowing this news to reach interested parties.)
And for what it’s worth, Facebook’s newsroom posted an article about the Ice Bucket Challenge this week, but has remained silent on the other trends – notably the #Ferguson content that still abounds without an official comment.
Content transparency and agnosticism is important in the success of social networks. Freedom of consumption is important, as important as the freedom of press and speech in cases like #Ferguson. I hope Facebook learns something from their mistakes and that we increase understanding of how these filters work.
Account Director, Social Technologies
Originally posted at WOMMA.org