STUDY: The Filter Bubble: What Next?

The UK is a divided nation in search of change.

Since the 2008 recession, British society has undergone profound upheaval. The last ten years has witnessed turbulent times for the economy, technology and of course politics. We’ve seen the rise of smart phones and social media. A coalition government, a conservative government, a startling come back from a socialist Labour party and of course, an EU referendum. All of this alongside the longest and deepest period of austerity in UK history. Some Brits have prospered, but most have not.

Brexit and the rise of Corbyn were not votes for stability, they were votes for the outsider. They reflect a backlash against the Establishment. An establishment which is viewed as being out of touch with society.

But why is the establishment so out of touch? And what has created such a gulf between different areas of society?

The filter bubble — a term that has dominated the media industry in the last year or so. But it’s not just the media that operate within a bubble, everyone in the country find themselves in one. And here’s why:

Social media filters our perceptions of people, current events and what we are entitled to. Much has been written about this phenomena, where increasingly our desires shape our beliefs. Amongst the established journalism that informs us, content can be written by anyone- including you and me — and is positioned as equal and as valid as that of researched, professional journalism. We can find anything or anyone to back up something we want to believe. We live in a world where the opinions of everyone are pitted against the experts. Trust in figures of authority has been eroded, one example being the tide of support for Charlie Gard which resulted in a death threats to Great Ormond Street doctors.

Expertise is also geographically shifting to a landscape of peaks and troughs. Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City predicted the shift of expertise to mega-regions ten years ago. This centralisation of work has drained talent and opportunities from around the country. It has dramatically changed where we want to live, and how far we are prepared to commute. London of course benefits not only as a British city hub, but it is still the top dog at a European and global level. This effectively trebles it’s ability to suck the wealth, the best talent and industry from around the world.

This of course skews national statistics, and the remain campaign’s over reliance on such statistics goes some way to explaining why it was unsuccessful — what we are told at a national level feels increasingly detached from what we see in our own back yard. Grenfell is a prime example of this. We talk of London’s wealth, but really it’s the ultra wealthy that skews the average. The statistics don’t reflect the poverty of the neglected that live side by side with the wealthy. The gap between Wealth and Poverty has widened and these numbers just don’t reflect the communities we live in.

These bubbles of news-from-anywhere and hubs of expertise has resulted in a sense of neglected communities.

“Boy oh boy oh boy. We are going to be hung, drawn and quartered if we get this wrong…

…If this is right, Theresa May hasn’t got the massive support from the country she was hoping to get, to allow her to do whatever it is she wanted to do, which she never told us.”

David Dimbleby, Election night 2017

We trust what we can see, rather than what we can hear. British Futures, a think tank, ran a study that looked at people’s attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism. A key finding was that people responded warmly to qualitative evidence, personal stories, photos etc., but numbers and statistics were dismissed as elite, arrogant and manipulated.

“We have to widen both our contact with, and awareness of, those who live outside and beyond our elite. Our elite is narrow and deep, but the throng of those who have borne the brunt of austerity and not shared in the lives we have experienced is wide and even deeper.”

Jon Snow, 2017 Edinburgh International Television Festival

The danger is that brands will be caught in their own echo chambers and stamped as ‘establishment’ rather than being seen to be at the ‘service of the people’. Trending data reveals that the number of people saying advertising doesn’t portray the lives of people in their local area has increased significantly year on year — this suggests that we need to be more thorough in our understanding of local communities, and more overt in our portrayal of them.

So Spark Foundry and Trinity Mirror Solutions got together to understand what people want based on the shape of their community, rather than simply demographics or region. And in busting some of our own marketing filter bubbles, we aim to ensure we understand and reflect a real view of today’s Britain.

In our questionnaire we used implicit testing in partnership with Cog Research to test people’s perceptions measuring both responses, and speed of response

The rules of identity are changing

First and foremost, we have discovered that the rules of identity, the ways we see ourselves and each other is changing.

By not only measuring respondents answers, but the very time it takes them to respond, gives as powerful insight into how we define ourselves on an emotional level. And we have found an interesting pattern, consistent across all dwelling types.

  • Britishness means something. Despite the raging nationalistic outlook, the term ‘Britishness’ is progressive and culturally defining. It’s not only the highest in terms of importance to identity, it’s the term people are quickest to select. Essentially, people don’t even need to think about it — it’s a given.
  • The North/ South divide means very little any more. We pondered over the term at great length and far fewer people agreed with it than we might have expected. The slowness in response suggest the emotional attachment is not as strong as often thought.
  • Postcode too means little. Communities are more than just our surrounding streets.
  • Global and European levels are higher for Londoners than the national average, which are on the whole quite low.

However, we believe the most important insight is that nationality and region, which are so widely discussed, are selected at much slower rate than My City, My Town and My Village. People recognise that their identity is inextricably linked to their local community.

Community is often referred to as a catch-all term, however our research suggests that community has a very different meaning and can be manifested in different ways depending on where you live. This naturally has big implications for what is required of brands in order to better reflect and be part of someone’s community.

When brands understand what communities have and what they lack, they can contribute in the most impactful way. For a programme that works well in a city might not deliver to a suburban community, much less a rural one.

Cities excelled delivering experiences of discovering new things and taking on new challenges. Yet they scored much worse on creating a feeling of belonging or comfort. Rural communities in many respects delivered the opposite. And towns were far more likely than both villages or city centres to say community spirit has declined; (29%) compared to villages (15%) or city centres (18%).

So when we tested what community initiatives would appeal the most, the results made sense. Open and hungry for new experiences, city dwellers were wanted free stuff & entertainment. Villages on the other hand wanted grass roots initiatives that they could actually see make a difference and which they could get involved in. And for the suburbs, they wanted information which creates a sense of pride back into their area.

Brands breaking the filter bubbles

In practice, here are a few examples that we think have really delivered.

Sally from Cumbria told us that she lives 30 miles from the nearest mainline train station. So a car-sharing platform like Liftshare could make a big impact on communities like hers. Liftshare has won £25,000 in funding from Nesta to collaborate with community transport services in Norfolk. The initiative is aiming to improve access to support services for those who are socially isolated in some of the UK’s rural regions.

When it comes to championing community spirit, John Smith ran a campaign to find the UK’s best landlord. The Trinity Mirror team were in the office reading applications until long into the night as so many people contributed. Making a fuss over places that are inclusive and central to our local communities champions people that represent the brand on the ground.

And, since Brexit, there has been a mandate by government to decentralise many of the arts but Hull was ahead of the game and in securing the UK city of Culture they are encouraging tourism, a vast range of activities and entertainment to bring like minded people in the Hull area together as a real celebration of their local culture.

To end, we would like to point to some broad principles that appear to be paramount in bursting our stereotype filter bubbles, and making people feel that we are representing their local communities.

Five Final Thoughts

Explicitly geo-target through dynamic creative messaging. We often geo target areas with relevant messaging but don’t make it obvious that we have done so. However, by spelling out ‘Manchester’ ‘Cambridge’ ‘Brixton’ we are subtly demonstrating to people that this activity is directly relevant to them.

As we mentioned earlier, personal stories cut through in a way numbers and generalised statements don’t. It is hard to care about a brand’s reason to believe. It is much easier to care about how that brand helped Judy, or Mike, or Nathan and who may be able to help me. We need to be cautious that we are telling stories — personal stories — not just talking about how brilliant we are in theory.

The more we live out of our office bubbles, the more we think that everyone looks, thinks, consumes the same as us. Corporate initiatives such as Spark Foundry’s ‘adventures’ introduce the team to many different contexts, venues, activities than they might ever attend on their own.

At a more professional level, Trinity Mirror it goes without saying, have 2000 reporters on the ground every day.

In order to care about communities, people need to be part of building them. One lady we spoke to said, “for a community to thrive, it needs me and it needs my neighbours. The belief is if we build it they will come. Not so. People are more fragile than that.” People need to feel needed.

And we have found that across the board, people don’t feel that they contribute to their local communities. So initiatives that involve people on the ground should be stronger and have greater longevity.

Lastly, we need to recognise that just by being part of the community doesn’t automatically earn you preference. Half of consumers (49%) are sceptical of big brands who say they want to help local communities even though six in ten (62%) believe big brands should do more.

The assumption from everyone we have surveyed and spoken to, is that if brands want their custom and be part of the communities then they do in fact need to contribute too. Like every citizen, brands too need to earn their stripes in the community to gain loyalty and love.

This was a presentation for Spark Foundry London in 2017

Londoner, Researcher and avid Reader.