If you work in the media industry, “filter bubble” is probably a term you are familiar with. From Brexit to Trump’s victory, and with the United Kingdom’s recent election, there is an ongoing concern about how social media feeds are narrowing and distorting people’s view of the world.

The same also applies to advertising, with digital algorithms that result in people being served highly targeted ads. But did you know that 82% of UK consumers have never heard of the term “filter bubble?”

People respond more positively toward unexpected online advertising than targeted ads.
People respond more positively toward unexpected online advertising than targeted ads.

With the aim of exploring consumers’ awareness of online filtering and targeting, Newsworks teamed up with media agency the7stars for a project conducted by Flamingo Research.

By monitoring online browsing behaviour in both a standard Web environment and a cookie-free Web environment — and combining this with a quantitative online survey of 1,000 nationally representative adults 18-77 years old — the project set out to unearth people’s knowledge of and attitude toward algorithmic targeting. As a result, it provides brands with further understanding of how to navigate the digital environment.

Print newspapers are often appreciated for their serendipitous nature. When it comes to news, they broaden our horizons and give us a “full” view of the world. When it comes to advertising, they allow brands to strike the right balance between relevance and serendipity. It’s this balance the study showed consumers would like to see replicated by online ads.

Results show that 63% of people love it when they come across something useful and interesting but unexpected. When asked how they feel when they see ads that are relevant but unexpected, more respondents chose positive words such as “curious” (33%), “surprised” (27%), and “intrigued” (25%) than negative words such as “annoyed” (17%) or “irritated” (18%).

In contrast, when asked to choose words they associate with expected advertising based on recent searches or expressed interests, the majority of consumer chose words such as “targeted” (37%), “intrusive” (30%), and “annoying” (26%), with words such as “clever” and “timely” attracting far lower values.

For brands, the answer lies in redefining relevance and finding the middle ground between over-targeting (57% of people are scared to click on an ad in case it follows them around) and complete irrelevance (two-thirds of ads consumers see aren’t relevant).

The study found ads related to “interests and hobbies” are deemed more relevant than search/browsing history or age. This is especially the case with people who prefer news brands to Facebook, whereas those who prefer Facebook are happier with demographic targeting.

As the7stars’ Helen Rose put it, “Consumers do not mind a curated information experience so long as that is done with some thought; they simply want a better balance between targeted advertising and serendipity.”

But while consumers understand the connection between their search behaviour and the ads served to them, they are less clear about how digital algorithms limit their access to online information in general. Sixty-four percent do not know their Google search results are personalised, while 65% “disagree” that the news they see on Facebook is matched to their personal profiles.

The research showed news consumption is drawn from a healthy mix of sources:

  • While 44% said they consumed news presented by Facebook, 63% use TV news programmes and 77% consume print or digital newspaper brands.
  • When asked which their preferred source of news was, 32% of UK consumers chose print or digital newspaper brands, 25% TV news programmes, and 9% chose Facebook.

Commenting on this, Newsworks’ Insight Director Denise Turner said: “As we go into a general election, weve found that almost half of news consumers would prefer not to have a news service filtered by an algorithm and most would prefer to discover new information and ideas. It also shows that while social media is an important part in peoples news diets, news brands are more likely to be peoples first choice for news information.”

You can download an infographic of the research findings here.