Cambridge Analytica, data protection, GDPR, social media, social media marketing, Zuckerberg, big data, privacy, digital marketing, Facebook, targeted advertising, targeted ads, ad personalisation, what is Cambridge Analytica, SMM, authentic marketing, brand transparency
2018 has been a fascinating and tumultuous year in the world of social media marketing, and we’re only four months in. Earlier this year the Cambridge Analytica story broke, which has thrown into sharp focus the issues over how much data we share online and how companies should be allowed to use and manipulate that data.
If you missed the story or were put off by the amount of technical jargon involved, the key revelation has been that a company called Cambridge Analytica has been accused of gathering Facebook users’ profile information and using it without their knowledge to create psychological profiles. They allegedly then used these to create targeted online messages intended to influence political events around the globe.
In one case, for example, the company used information gathered from a personality quiz app, before which users had to tick a box allowing the app to access their Facebook profile. Most people checked these boxes without anticipating that their profile information - including likes, activity, and online behaviour - would then be used to construct complex profiles that were supposedly used to understand their political leanings and craft targeted messages for them and people similar to them, that may have influenced events from the US election to the Brexit referendum.
The investigation into the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s impact is really just beginning, but ever since the story was published, more and more companies have been questioned on their usage of data. Popular gay dating app, Grindr, for example, was recently at the centre of controversy for sharing its users’ HIV status with third-party organisations. Similarly, YouTube has been accused of illegally gathering data on its users aged 13 and under without their consent and using it to display targeted ads.
So why does this all matter?
As many journalists covering the issue have noted, the problem isn’t so much about targeted advertising in itself as it is about consent and control. Personally, I know that I’d much rather see ads for things that are actually of value and interest to me, like books from a genre I like, over things that I’ll never find a use for, like men’s shoes. Things cross an ethical line, however, when our information is used without our explicit permission, and for purposes that serve a company ahead of the customer, or that try to manipulate us and the way we think.
These revelations have led to a great deal of newfound mistrust in social media, so much so that the hashtag #DeleteFacebook was trending when the story first broke. It’s a lot of weight for these platforms and the brands who advertise on them to handle, especially given that as early as 2016, 71% of users already reported that they believed companies were using their data unethically. People are even beginning to question whether Facebook is listening in on their conversations using iPhone microphones, insisting that they’ll be discussing something off-hand one day and suddenly receive an ad for a related product the next. And you can hardly blame anyone for being sceptical of Facebook’s emphatic denial, given what has already been revealed this year.
This is not to mention that this controversy is all emerging amidst reports that younger generations want “a break” from social due to its negative impact on their self-image, and that platforms are reaching a status of ‘ad-load’ in which users’ feeds are at maximum capacity for their bombardment of advertisements.
In the wake of this fallout, many brands have been left questioning how they should react, and whether social media marketing has a future left at all.
So how should brands respond?
The good news is that new data protection regulation known as GDPR will be coming into effect across the European Union (regardless of Brexit) from the 25th of May. This new legislation intends to give users greater control over how their data is collected, stored, and used, as well as the option to have their data deleted if they want. From this date, brands will have to prove that they have received explicit and informed consent from users regarding the storage and usage of their data in order to be GDPR compliant - and fines for non-compliance could be up to €20 million on a discretionary basis.
This regulation ought to go some way in restoring trust in social media for many individuals, and plenty of big brands are going out of their way to demonstrate their commitment to protecting user privacy via new features and press releases in an attempt to win users back. So social media may not be beyond saving just yet, and from looking at the statistics it’s clear that its deep involvement in our lives doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
With that said, this level of fanfare around renewed commitments to transparency is unlikely to be able to totally rebuild trust with disillusioned customers. Trust is really the most important factor any company can hope to have in their audience relationship, and brands who have previously taken their customers for granted or who thought of them as little more than sets of numbers are going to have to start taking this more seriously.
This is an opportunity for companies to demonstrate that they are capable of taking a responsible and transparent approach to marketing. They’ll have to listen to their audience, protect their data, and offer content and interactions that are genuinely shaped around customer desires. Generosity and good-faith go a long way in business, and a good experience with an ethical brand can inspire lasting loyalty.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to targeted ads and personalised messaging, but we can make sure that customers are involved, consenting and ultimately, benefiting from the arrangement.