Recent events with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have prompted a transformation in how brands access and leverage third-party data to connect with and engage their target audiences.
Brands are now forced to ask themselves — and their partners — tough questions about what kind of balance they need to strike in terms of creating personalized marketing experiences without crossing a line with the law and public perception. Communications professionals may wonder whether the steps social media networks are taking to rebuild consumer trust and increase consumer privacy affect the insights generated by their data platform.
It all started when…
While the news of Cambridge Analytica’s transgressions is recent, the story begins a few years back when Facebook users took a personality quiz through an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” Without their knowledge, the quiz maker was allowed to capture their private information. The app makers were then able to access the data of those people’s Facebook friends and provided the information to Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis firm, and its U.K. counterpart. An estimated 87 million Facebook users were exposed, according to media reports.
While the debate lingers as to whether or not the data was used to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, regulators in both the U.K. and the U.S. are asking for information about what Facebook knew and how it reacted after discovering the breach.
The hearings may result in new regulations or tougher rules for all social networks. In the meantime, Facebook is already making moves to limit similar incidents, with plans to prohibit third-party data brokers such as Epsilon Data Management from targeting ads on its platform.
This still leaves Facebook with its own second-party data to feed advertisers, such as the Facebook pages or posts a user “likes” to indicate interests and preferences. However, banning data brokers means agencies and marketers no longer have a shortcut to insights into what consumers want.
Who sells what
Facebook is hardly alone in selling access to data for targeting purposes, and the Cambridge Analytica incident is forcing more social media services to clarify their policies and programs. For example, Twitter recently had to dispel suggestions its data licensing business includes the sale of content within its user’s direct messages (DMs). Instead, as The Globe and Mail reported, large enterprises can purchase access to tweets from the previous months to the company’s earliest days.
More recently, The Toronto Star ran a Canadian Press story that looked into updated privacy policies and terms of service agreements from Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Slack, all of which promised clearer information around what data they collect and license to advertisers.
Meanwhile, Google has come under heat in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal for changes it made several years ago to its DoubleClick advertising service, which allows clients to combine its data on user’s search queries, locations, and even credit card information with browsing behavior captured via cookies.
“A Google spokeswoman said consumer card data isn’t used for ad personalization,” India’s NDTV reported. “Marketers don’t have direct access to Google user data, and the company forbids advertisers from collecting and sharing personally identifiable information.”
Some laws are already surfacing to govern the way businesses handle data, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, according to Reuters, Facebook is getting around GDPR by moving some of its affected users to its American terms of service agreement.
The bottom line? The way social media services work with third parties to monetize the activity on their networks is not consistent and, based on recent events, potentially primed for major changes based on what government authorities determine is acceptable and appropriate.
Besides questions around data usage, marketers have been struggling to deal with concerns around ad fraud, viewability, ad blockers, and a sea change among consumers who simply don’t want to be interrupted when they are trying to enjoy content
The earned media advantage
Marketing industry observers have been watching carefully to see whether or not brands will abandon Facebook in favor of another paid advertising channel. However, that’s not the only option available, as corporate communicators are aware.
In fact, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica incident is only the latest chapter in what has become the ongoing story of challenges facing the traditional advertising model. Besides questions around data usage, marketers have been struggling to deal with concerns around ad fraud, viewability, ad blockers, and a sea change among consumers who simply don’t want to be interrupted when they are trying to enjoy content.
Of course, this is assuming consumers can find the content that interests them in the first place. While many publishers had come to rely on social networks as one of their biggest distribution mechanisms over the past several years, changes to Facebook algorithms earlier this year rank user-generated content more highly than that from third parties.
The effort to get eyeballs on branded content more directly has never been a bigger priority.
The upshot? Every CMO who is already trying to figure out where to move ineffective paid advertising dollars has more incentive than ever before to choose earned media.
Whereas data collection and privacy protections have been debated ever since social media networks were established, the transparency and clarity around the earned media model are well established. Comms professionals reach out with great story ideas to professional storytellers. The latter then bring those stories to an audience that has directly opted in to see or hear them. It’s as simple — and ethical — as that.
There is nothing hidden behind the curtain in earned media. There are no question marks around the data. In fact, the biggest evolution in PR is it has become data-driven in a way that delivers insight to brands without compromising the trust between marketers, publishers, and audiences. When it’s done right, that trust is only reinforced.
Over time, social media might become more regulated. Consumers might become more proactive about managing permissions in the apps and online services they use. However, no matter what happens with social, people will continue to want content that informs, educates, and inspires them.