Home Marketing Instagram and TikTok Are Making All Businesses Look the Same

Instagram and TikTok Are Making All Businesses Look the Same

Here's Why Companies Need to Escape the Tyranny of Algorithms. The new book 'Filterworld' uncovers how companies adapt to the whims of Big Tech--and why that's bad for business.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Is social media eroding your company's ability to differentiate itself and win customers?

While platforms such as Instagram and TikTok can be vital for businesses to find audiences and grow, their reach comes with a downside: Companies may feel pressure to tailor their branding to online trends. This can lead to the loss of hard-won visibility if a platform's algorithm changes.

In the new book Filterworld, Kyle Chayka reveals how algorithms created by Big Tech companies have come to affect every aspect of our lives, from which movies people stream to the kinds of businesses that thrive. Want to drive customers to your coffee shop? Spaces with pendant lamps, raw wood, and sunlit corners look appealing on Google, which might result in more foot traffic. 

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The result is a homogenization of design and culture. Everything from store layouts to restaurant dishes is put through what Chayka calls a "physical form of search-engine optimization." 

Chayka spoke to Inc. about the pressure small businesses feel to cater to the whims of algorithms--and why he views it as a losing strategy in the end.

You describe a phenomenon you call AirSpace, in which businesses conform to the dominant aesthetics on platforms like Instagram and Airbnb. How did it come about?

I was traveling a lot for work, and I started to notice that in any international city there was always one kind of generic coffee shop with a minimalist interior, reclaimed wood, wi-fi, avocado toast, and latte art. I coined the term AirSpace to refer to the homogeneity of these spaces that were totally disconnected geographically, but were connected by this new geography I was noticing on digital platforms. All of these cafes looked the same because they were following each other on Instagram, copying each other's aesthetics, and following the generic style that ended up being promoted in Instagram's algorithmic feeds. 

Cafe owners I talked to all felt like they had to market themselves to the Instagram-era consumer. You see the same kind of pressure to adapt to an algorithmic feed in all sorts of businesses. You see it in how hotel rooms are decorated. At a doctor's or dentist's office, you see these very Instagram friendly, millennial-coded medical spaces. Businesses are really forced to move through these platforms because that's where consumers are. Algorithmic feeds and recommendations shape so many of [consumers'] financial decisions from what restaurant we order food from to where we rent.

How is this affecting marketing strategies?

The Internet has become so overwhelmed by recommendations that you either adapt to them or you can't reach your audience. There's no other option besides paying Instagram to get the word out to your fans. You have to adapt to Google SEO in order to get discovered online.

A lot of targeted advertising is really bad because it relies too heavily on reaching the people who you think will like your thing. To me, the best way to do it is to use the algorithmic feed to show off what's good about your business or your products, rather than trying to game the system.

Third-party cookies are being phased out. Will that affect targeting?

Algorithmic feeds are really based on data surveillance. They all work because these platforms can watch every action we take, everything we click on, or on TikTok, every video that you even pause on for a microsecond of time. It's beginning to be more difficult to do that. In the book, I argue that this ecosystem should be broken. It's become too overwhelming, too immersive, and too manipulative of the consumer. There's a disgust that happens on the consumer side when something is too optimized for a feed. We're moving out of filterword in part because consumers are tired of how things work, and also because of data protection rules changing.

I think it would actually be a good thing if businesses can access a little less of their consumers' data. It forces you to find spaces where advertising is more relevant. In the past, we had a lot of human gatekeepers and tastemakers, who often worked through the media. Newsletters have arisen to provide more human connection and I think that's good. But it's difficult: How do we use the scale of the internet but not lose our identity in the process?

Big Tech companies change their algorithms all the time. How do companies deal with that?

A big message from social media companies was that if you build a fan base on a platform, you will have access to them. That turned out to be kind of a lie. Instagram, for example, made it much harder to reach all of your followers. In the mid- to late-2010s, you could build up a Facebook Group and get really good reach for a while. Then Facebook throttled them and you had to pay for a promotion to those people who had already expressed interest.

There's a lot of pressure to keep up with the algorithm, which really means keeping up with both trends and the formats that are successful on the platform. A lot of the people built their businesses or audiences on Instagram when it was about still photos. Now Instagram is heavily pushing ephemeral stories and videos.

Are there any businesses you discovered that were able thrive without playing this game?

To me the best example of this was a coffee shop in Kyoto. Rokuyosha had stayed resolutely the same since 1950. I think that kind of long-term thinking and long-term authenticity is the best route out of the situation we're in.

The problem that we faced in recent years is that everyone pursued scalability over all else because it's so easy: You can target more people, you can spend more on advertising, you can do more ecommerce. There's that temptation of growing really quickly, whereas I think slow sustained growth over a long term is much better for most businesses.

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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