What we do know is that 'bots' are software or algorithms that can perform autonomous tasks while masking as actual users. We also know that they are very real and have become a 'given' across almost all social media platforms, especially Twitter. This is irrespective of whether conversations are being anchored by brands, political regimes (Russia being amongst one of the oldest adopters of it as a state tool) or a political party. Bots add to both followers as well as the quantum of content being put out. Combined, this is better known in our marketing world as 'engagement'.
To the slightly suspecting and trained eye, a bot account is easy to identify. They would usually lack an image or have a stock photo as their profile picture; their accounts would have little or no original tweets just re-tweets; and original tweets that they would have worded exactly the same and repeatedly broadcast across their multiple engagements.
So, much to their discomfort, both brands and audiences have realised that all 'engagement' is no longer authentic. In fact, while percentages may vary, it is safe to assume that at least some part of it is algorithm-engineered across all social media platforms. In 2014, Twitter itself estimated that at least 5 per cent of their accounts were bots. As per various estimates, that number today stands anywhere between 5 per cent and 15 per cent.
However, Twitter is not the only platform that faces the bot onslaught. Other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest also face this annoyance, although admittedly, 'bot-traffic' on these platforms shows a lower incidence vis-à-vis Twitter, ranging anywhere from 2-9 per cent individually (as per Pixalate).
Don't get me wrong, bots anchored in artificial intelligence are not always a menace - they can consciously be employed as assets for the brand if the brand chooses to automate predictable audience interactions and engagements. In fact, this employment can really power simultaneous one-on-one conversations 'en masse', freeing up valuable human-time to focus on other tasks. But all of this is a subject for another discussion; the highlight of this piece is how brands and their marketers deal with the bot-plagued media environment that brews mistrust - the most fundamental concern that both brands and their audiences have had when it comes to conversations on social media.
So what does this new perspective mean for brands that today, more than ever before, employ digital and social media platforms to engage with their audience with their messages? And at the same time, what does it hold for the audience in terms of trust and authenticity of the message they are consuming? Can either be really sure about the nature and amount of engagement they are involved in with their 'true' suitors? Are bots already manipulating conversations, seeding propaganda and can they potentially sabotage public opinion? These are real issues and they must be acknowledged and addressed by all stake-holders (brands, audiences, media buyers, owners and publishers) in a comprehensive and transparent manner.
And yet, I think most of us will agree that the programmatic-led approach, that has ensured more customised content, is now being delivered more effectively and to more relevant audience sub-clusters. That promotes efficiency - a metric that all stakeholders have endeavoured to better.
But the question still remains: How to deal with the new reality and the possible impact it could have on the credibility of the brand's message and its authenticity in this new, exciting and 'real-time bidding' world we live in? How can brands target higher safety ratings for their campaigns - meaning, that at least 95 per cent of all ad impressions served are served 'brand-safe' or to 'real' audiences via a more robust media planning and buying.
While there is no picture-perfect answer to that, at least there are some solutions available that can detect and minimize fraud and even rank publishers and publications on their safety status. Contextual analysis is a method that can determine the relevance and appropriateness of the environment the brand communication is being served in. Intelligence analytics firms like Moat, also track and measure the bona-fides of websites and publishing environments the communication is being served in. And then there are private marketplaces and publisher alliances that offer a 'guaranteed safe' environment for brand communications to be served in. So, while bot-administered traffic, ad frauds and fake sites are real-time issues, it is encouraging to note that there are at least some technology-backed solutions that can address them, even if partially.
Since civilisation was acknowledged, human-kind has been thrown multiple unexpected challenges. The human spirit has overcome all and continues to work with what remains unresolved. The nature of challenges may differ, basis the environment and time we live in. The digital and social media ecosystem is another example of emergent and exciting ways in which our ecosystem evolves and without doubt, this new environment as well has and will continue to bring with it a set of challenges. I have no doubt that while there will always be a share of naysayers, the collective human genius will find answers to these questions that face us.
Yes, while media planning and buying will need to become more intelligent, transparent and accurate, at the same time, I am equally sure that despite all advances made on these subjects, campaign capability and efficacy will continue to remain a part of all 'social' conversations, in every sense of that word.
(The author is head of brand and marketing at Fabindia)