Marketing - What "The Social Dilemma" Means for Startups

Nitish Menon

Netflix strikes with its latest documentary

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

If you haven’t heard yet, “The Social Dilemma,” Netflix’s latest documentary, launched in August 2020 to an extremely eager audience while also being nominated for the Sundance Film Festival 2020.

What’s the Buzz About?

You probably think that you’ve heard it all before when it comes to the subjects of social media addiction, personal data protection, and fake news, but the documentary offers something different. So, what really makes it different?

Well, it is led by interviews with some of the greatest minds of Silicon Valley that actually created Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, such as the co-inventor of the Facebook “like” button, Justin Rosenstein, and former Director of Monetization at Facebook, Tim Kendall. It is this special element that makes us sit up and actively listen.

Why Is This Important?

People have long recognized the benefits of social media, from connecting families across borders to acting as an organizational tool for major activists. However, the dark side of social media has also reared its ugly head, which exacerbates issues such as mental health, bullying, political polarization, fake news, and misinformation, even to the extent of riots and conflict.

Hold on. Let’s backtrack a little.

Let’s go back to how social media platforms work. It is evident that by being free for every user, social media platforms are built to treat our attention as the ultimate product, which is then sold to advertisers. Therefore, social media platforms take the most addictive elements of human psychology and pair them with deep personalization technologies to present us with exactly what we want to see. Now, that they have your attention, it is then sold to advertisers to further exploit.

The documentary also highlights that fake news spreads six times faster than true news, making this the king of online content. What does this mean? Well, this means that social media platforms are perpetuating an online (and now offline) world where truth is irrelevant, as long as the content gets as many views, likes, and shares as possible. For example, when Facebook discovered that they can actually provoke real-world behaviors and emotions, without users even being aware of it, it resulted in real-life (offline) effects, such as organizations and governments weaponizing social media to incite political polarization, conflicts, riots, and even violence.

But, what does all this have to do with startups?

Well, a lot, actually. Let’s jump into it.

Paying Dollars for Reach

If you didn’t know that the monetization strategy of Facebook is to sell advertising to companies, then this may explain why your startup’s business accounts are not reaching many people when you post free (organic) posts. Increasingly, companies like Facebook are reducing the reach of organic postings made by business accounts, in order to entice companies like yours to spend money on promotions. You can breathe a sigh of relief now, knowing that it’s not because the post you put out is bad.

So, what can you do about it? Set aside a paid media budget for the future. A well-timed piece of content sent to the right audience can be incredibly effective, but make sure that you have a strategy in place to avoid wasting your money.

Market Dominance

What this documentary also highlights is that big tech companies simply have too much market power. A power imbalance such as this means that large tech companies are not only influencing our personal and political environments but also single-handedly determining how the internet of the future is being shaped. This is restricting innovation across areas such as news, visual media, cloud storage, communications (calls and messaging), and many more. A fairer competing ground would see more opportunities for your startups to develop and grow their innovations and product offerings.

How can this be achieved? Regulations. The challenge is that, with national and supranational bodies adhering to lengthy approval processes, oftentimes technology trumps any new regulation that comes in.

Reduced Productivity at Work

As explained in the documentary, social media inherently turns your “psychology against you” so that you stay stuck to the screen, and is now classed as an addictive activity, as close to doing drugs. While willpower plays a large role in staying focused at work, founders and managers at work should recognize that users are battling some pretty powerful forces here, which they may be victim to as well.

If you’re leading a team in your startup, it could be worth having an open and non-judgmental dialogue with the team to share useful tips such as downloading an app to restrict your daily usage or agreeing to certain measures like turning off notifications on your desktop. However, the challenge here is to not assume the worst (as many team members may already have it under control) and to focus on mental health, wherever appropriate.

Startup Online Presence

It may be tempting to panic and just delete all of your accounts after having watched the documentary. However, it is worth remembering that businesses nowadays need to have an online presence on social media to maintain visibility in front of customers, partners, and other important stakeholders.

For your startup, think about where your customers are hanging out online. For instance, a B2C food tech startup might require an Instagram account to promote their product as compared to a B2B AI startup, that might not find their target audience on this platform. You should question whether it is worth investing time and money on all platforms. In most cases, it is not necessary.

Fake News Limiting Startups

Finally, a silver lining. With big tech companies like Facebook failing to curb fake news and misinformation, a market opportunity has popped up for startups to fill the gap. Whether it’s fake news, deep fakes, disinformation, or the deliberate spreading of false information, startups are already at the forefront of the fight.

Check out this article that I came across to meet some of the rising stars of this sector and even use some of their products yourself. They ventured in this space to build an ecosystem where fake news can be eradicated, especially during the pandemic.

Marketing Perspective and Key Takeaways

This documentary also teaches us that even the creators of these social media platforms are not immune to the negative side effects of these apps, and feel powerless as they watch them suck away hours of our personal lives for profit.

Will you watch the documentary? If not, here are my top three takeaways from a marketing standpoint that you might find interesting.

1. The importance of keeping people on your website

Watching this documentary not only gave me tips on how to get people to stay on my website longer, but it also emphasized the importance. The longer people stay, the more advertising money it pulls in. What social media sites do with ordinary display ads makes influencer marketing look like begging for spare change.

2. Study analytics to the nth degree

I never realized the degree you have measure analytics and the results of doing them effectively brought you. Making a real effort to sit down and learn about who likes your product goes a long way. It will give you information on how you can bring in more people like them, or tell you if you need to change paths. If you don’t study data in enough depth you could end up spending a lot of time, energy, and resources in the wrong place, setting you back massively.

3. Be indispensable so people have to use your platform

People always talk about offering value nowadays and you should. But what I think is better is offering people so much value that they have no choice but to make you a part of their daily lives. The first thing people do when they wake up is to check social media. It has the latest news on there, it tells them what their friends are doing, some even people use social media for a living. It has so much value people can’t go a day without using it. Try and apply something similar to what you’re doing.

However, make sure you don’t give people real addictions because it can ruin lives. But if someone is addicted to your product or service, you know it’s fire and you’re going in the right direction. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a very confusing moral dilemma.

Article originally published to Medium

Written by Nitish Menon