Getting the best from man and machine

As Facebook fires its trending editorial team in favour of automated bots, content marketers would do well to remember the human touch

Ever since Facebook launched its ‘trending topics’ section at the end of 2014, it’s faced a certain amount of mockery for its breaking stories being laughably behind the times.

Aiming to capitalise on the popularity and instantaneous nature of Twitter, the trends show a news headline with a short description of the story underneath. But now the trending team editors, responsible for plucking out the stories and writing the descriptions, have found themselves out of a job.

They’ve been replaced by artificial intelligence. An automated system now picks up on the keywords people are posting about or searching for and links to suitable stories. Leaving the production of content to automata seemed like a risky decision. And so it’s proven to be.

So far some of the ‘trending topics’ have included Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being fired (she wasn’t) and news about a McChicken sandwich (you don’t want to know). Facebook released a statement reassuring that there were still people involved in the editorial process to ensure “quality” – but it’s been an inauspicious start.

The human connection

As any good B2B marketer knows, forging a human connection with your audience is not just an aspiration, it’s crucial.

Treating output as a personal interaction is a useful mindset in helping to create and commission engaging content. And that personal interaction necessarily includes human input.

This battle between human and automatic curation was recently explored in a Guardian website article on Spotify’s Discovery function (the weekly playlist automatically created for each Spotify user based on what they’ve previously been listening to).

Music journalist Pete Paphides took on the streaming service by curating a competing playlist for musician Anna Vincent after an hour’s chat about her musical likes and dislikes. She compared it with the Discovery playlist to see which she preferred. In a close run thing, Paphides’ choices just about came out on top.

A two-way conversation

The article is set up as Man v Robot, and man comes out triumphant. The message seems to be that we like our content with a human touch; that machines cannot be wholly trusted to make the content calls.

However, on closer examination it is made clear that the article has been paid for by Spotify. The streaming service’s bot may have been pipped to the post but still comes out well from the piece. Vincent approves of the Discovery playlist and extolls the virtues of the music service: “I listen to Spotify all day, every day,” she says. “[It] has opened up so much new music to me.”

Spotify is portraying that for all the efficacy of its Discovery algorithm, it recognises the value of human connection between brand and audience. Was the point of the article to prove that its digital method was virtually as good as the journalist’s picks? Was conceding narrow defeat a cunning ploy for the content to appear more credible?

Whatever the motivation, to convey that connection effectively it chose to pay for content to appear to its target demographic.

To big up the bots, Spotify chose relatively traditional media and paid-for, long form content. There is hope for us all.

Content marketers should embrace the automation that is increasing in all spheres of our work. We should accept that a bot may be able to outperform us in some areas. But we would be wise not to follow Facebook’s apparent mistake and hand over too much trust too soon. McChicken sandwich, anyone?

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