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Algorithms or Creativity

A.I. gets smarter every day. It beats our chess masters, our GO champions, and even our doctors. In some cases, it’s the stuff of nightmares. In others, it feels more benign. A.I. is a blanket term for all the ways robots outsmart humans at similar activities. I’m going to focus on A.I. in the context of our social media marketing efforts. Facebook, the OG social platform, is where most people spend their social dollars, so that’s where we’ll spend our time.

Recently, I’ve been reading about how social campaigns should focus on creative alone and leave everything else to the algorithms. People should stick to the storytelling and leave all data heavy efforts to A.I. On the surface, this doesn’t seem controversial. Digging deeper, the black and white nature of the argument is more problematic.

This either-or narrative creates a closed argument and ignores all the moving parts of a social campaign. Here are the two issues I want to tackle in this post:

  • Taking an overly simplistic perspective of a complex environment hurts the conversation
  • Algorithms are great, but we risk a lot by idolizing them

Oversimplification Hurts

As social advertising becomes more accessible to more people, the word creative has become interchangeable for content. Posting something to a Facebook page doesn’t make it creative, but it does make it content. It may seem semantic, but when people claim creative is the only thing that matters, they’re really talking about content.

A creative idea evolves from the business problem you’re trying to solve. Content is the real-world manifestation of that idea. The argument isn’t that creative is the only thing that matters, but content is. Content is tangible. It’s what people see, experience, and interact with during a social campaign. Whether you’re nimble and small or structured and large, a LOT of work goes into it.

On the other side of the campaign, we then rely heavily on Facebook’s metrics to help us understand whether or not a campaign was successful. Nevermind all the internal inconsistency in Facebook’s measurement system AND the fact they change what they measure, the results are just data points. They require interpretation. Metrics can tell us what changed on the audience side, but can’t judge the creative merit of the content. 

Slay Your Idols

Algorithms are programs. Hyper-sophisticated programs, but programs nonetheless. An algorithm takes inputs, puts them through a rigorous mathematical model, and spits out a prediction. It can’t understand why it’s doing what it’s doing and in many cases neither can we. In fact, researchers now look at how people feel about algorithms and study concepts like algorithmic fairness. The results don’t paint a happy picture

Enter Ryan Banks (randomly pulled from the original article). He’s identifies as a dropshipper and dropshippers rely heavily entirely on Facebook’s algorithm to ensure they make a return. He claims that changing his ads to incorporate hi-res product shots completely turned his campaign around. All else being equal, this would is a win for the content-is-the-only-thing-that-matters approach. 

To be honest, I can’t know the before and after, so I have to make some assumptions. Since he asked for hi-res product shots, I assume his original content included the low-res versions. If he had the access, it’s odd he didn’t use the better quality ones in the first place. Odder still, he called a hi-res version of the same thing ‘better creative’. This is what’s being used as real-world evidence to showcase that we’re superior storytellers than the robots.

“A creative idea evolves from the business problem you’re trying to solve. Content is the real-world manifestation of that idea.

And why stop there? Ryan couldn’t know that putting hi-res product shots into Facebook ads would deliver great return. It was a gamble. We may be good storytellers, but why assume we’re any better at picking content than an algorithm? Go for volume and call it a day.

The almighty algorithm argument divests us of half of all our responsibility and puts it on the algorithms instead. It’s an illusion though. Saying we’re only responsible for content doesn’t make it so. We can’t pick and choose based on what’s convenient for us. At the end of the day, the people in charge of the inputs are still setting the algorithm in motion.

Think For Yourself

Social media algorithms and A.I. continue to evolve and will only get better at predicting human behaviour. A lot of what’s already out there seems like sci fi, and it’s only getting wilder. Who knows? Soon Facebook’s algorithm might look at your content and transform it in surprising ways. We’re not quite there yet, but close. In the meantime, it’s still up to us to be responsible about the whole campaign process.

A great creative idea can lead to great content, which is a game changer for a business. This isn’t what’s being called into question. The idea that it’s the only thing that matters devalues the other pieces that go into campaign production. Moreover, leaving campaign set up and execution to the algorithm goes beyond abdicating responsibility. It makes us short sighted and renders us incapable of thinking critically about the algorithms performance.

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