Algorithms – A beginner’s guide to what they are, how they’re used, and how to beat them


When I was studying Marketing at university in the 1990s, I shared a house with a girl who was studying for a degree in Computer Science.

The coursework she did, textbooks she read and chat she had with her fellow Computer Scientists who visited the house (and there were many, for not only was she one of the very few girls on the course, but an attractive one at that) was as foreign to me as Mandarin.

It never occurred to me the subject I was studying would one day become inextricably linked to ‘computers’.

The closest I ever came to linking the two was giving consideration to the idea that email marketing might one day catch on. And given that I only sent about 3 emails a week, I didn’t even think this very likely. These were the days in which print, radio and television adverts were king.

But now, algorithms apparently seem to rule all our most effective marketing channels. A few years ago, I had heard people talking about them, but never really understood what they are.

I hated maths at school and the very word still makes me feel a bit anxious. However, it’s important to understand how the huge social media platforms, so instrumental in marketing today, use algorithms in a bid to both profit from and enlighten us.

What is an algorithm?

Put simply, an algorithm is a list of steps we give to a computer to solve a problem or achieve something.

A bit like a recipe, an algorithm takes the inputs required (the ingredients) and produces a usable output (finished dish). And as with a recipe, the end result can be achieved in a number of different ways.

A recipe, or an algorithm, can be complex or simple, and there will always be many different ways to get the same result depending on who the programmer or chef is.

Social media channels use algorithms to quantify human behaviour. Why do they do this? Because it increases their advertising revenue and therefore their bottom line.

Algorithms are relatively new to Twitter and Instagram, but Facebook has been using them to develop your News Feed since the early days.

How does Facebook use algorithms?

Facebook looks at all the posts made by your friends, groups you’re a member of, or pages you have liked on a weekly basis, and ranks them from those it thinks you’ll find most interesting down to the most boring or irrelevant. This ranking system then determines whether or not you see each individual post.

Facebook does this by using algorithms to assess you as a user based on the particular types of posts you view and engage with, as well as how often posts made by you have been well received, or indeed hidden. It doesn’t show you everything – just the stuff it believes to be of the most value to you (and them!).

How does Twitter use algorithms?

On Twitter, algorithms enable the user to receive a selected handful of tweets – ‘the best tweets you may have missed’ – which are those most relevant to you with the highest engagement. This is based on algorithms assessing the type of content you’re most likely to interact with.

“In case you missed it” tweets appear in a sort of promotional ‘box’ in your Twitter timeline.  Unlike Facebook, you can see everything that has been posted by those you follow, but the tweets in the box are those that Twitter deems to be of the most interest to you. It’ll even present tweets you may like from those you don’t follow, but may be interested in.

How does Instagram use algorithms?

Instagram’s algorithmic timeline is based on the likelihood the user will be interested in a post, their relationship with the person posting, and how recently the photo/video was posted – the more recent, the more relevant.

How do algorithms help social media users?

This use of algorithms as social media use increases, with users gaining more and more friends and followers, helps your feeds to become less crowded and reduces spam content. This is excellent news for users like me who can be tempted to spend hours scrolling through posts when they should be doing the ironing.

However, algorithms can cause real problems for brands – and by brands I mean everything/one from Top Shop to Donald Trump – as they essentially have to fight for space on each platform.

How to beat social media algorithms

Brands need to create increasingly valuable content capable of growing organically, and very quickly, in order to make an impact.

  • Starting with the obvious, ask users to share, comment or like your posts, and if possible, engage them with questions, polls and surveys.
  • Ensure your content is interesting, engaging and accurate. It must also target the right demographic. Even one small campaign, for a new restaurant, for example, may require its content breaking down into sub-sections and aiming at different demographics (Pizza and Prosecco – twenty-something women, Sunday Lunches – thirty-something people with children, Afternoon Tea – retired women etc)
  • Pay for promoted posts. These are guaranteed to reach your target audience. You may not need to spend very much money at all, just remember to keep an eye on how your posts perform, and you may be able to gain some insight into how to help your posts grow more organically.

So, algorithms are not so complicated after all. There is no need to shy away from marketing through social media – providing you do it right, thanks to algorithms, it really is much more effective and less time consuming than delivering a thousand flyers, and less expensive than an advert in the evening paper.

Rachel Davey
Office Manager
Knapton Wright