What We Should Learn from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

A wise person once told me that when something is free, it isn’t.

Since about 2009, we’ve all grown accustomed to using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to share our lives, read the news, and keep in touch with friends and relatives. And the most amazing part about this is that you can use these platforms for FREE. All you have to do is turn over an email address and you’re in.

An email address is a direct link to you. The technique is called data capture. The companies that run these FREE social media sites generate revenue by selling this data to third-parties. This technique applies to far more than social media. Every time you give your phone number, address, or email away—you’re going on a database somewhere.

Remember telemarketing? If you ever received an unsolicited phone call from a business trying to sell something, your number ended up on a database that was sold to third-party marketers who would call you during dinner to pitch insurance, real estate, or magazine subscriptions. Maybe you included your number at a convention to win a free tee-shirt? Who knows. But somewhere along the line you gave it away and that’s why you received that phone call. The lure of that free tee shirt was data capture.

When you sign up for social media accounts you’re giving those platforms permission to use your data as a means to generate revenue from people who want to sell things to you—advertisers.

But social media is so fun that we don’t think about any of that.

Facebook, more than any other social media platform, is a veritable gold mine of data collection. Every “like,” every share, every time you take one of those fun quizzes that tell you which Jonas Brother you are—these are all little bits of data used to develop a profile on you that is lumped into buckets of other people with similar profiles. From “liking” a specific dog breed, to “liking” a post by a friend about a politician, to “liking” the page of a soft drink brand so that you can get freebies—all of this information forms your profile. (While this isn’t a post on protecting your data on Facebook, here’s a link on how.)

Back in 2010, when big data became a real thing and we were scrutinizing how Facebook could possibly use this data, many folks in my business lauded the gathering of highly personalized information as a way to advertise better. And it is—when you’re using the data for good.

It’s like this, when you buy a billboard that reaches 50K people a day, the reality is that only a small percentage of the folks driving by are prospective clients. The message (and media buy) is lost on the rest of the drivers passing the billboard. Same with TV, radio, and print. And to a lesser degree, direct mail—which essentially was the beginning of the big data movement. Until now, ad platforms could only really sell how many eyeballs or ears you could potentially reach through their platforms. But in the digital age, advertisers know way more about you than ever. There’s less waste. More ROI.

So on the one hand, data capture is good. If you “like” dogs, you get served ads for dog food. If you “like” beaches, you get served ads about great travel destinations that are relevant to you. The advertiser is happy because they reach qualified prospects. The users are happy because they get to learn about relevant products and services.

And while most folks in our business were elated with the new uses of highly specific user data, some of us speculated how this data could be manipulated for darker purposes.

We now know that Cambridge Analytica in Great Britain mined Facebook data for darker purposes during the last US Presidential election. With this valuable data in hand, they simply began serving specific segments of the population with messaging that reinforced one side of the political aisle, while discredited the other. These messages were highly effective. As good advertising should be.

And it wasn’t just the US that CA has affected—but elections all over the world. And they’re using sites like Facebook to do it.

We don’t yet know what the full outcome of this malevolent use of data, but we do know now that this data is so powerful that it can influence global elections.

#DeleteFacebook

Part of the fallout from Cambridge Analytica’s work includes a wave of people who are deleting Facebook from their lives altogether. The #DeleteFacebook movement is a real thing that’s growing by the day. And whether it continues or not isn’t important. What’s important is that brands recognize what they own and control, and then invest in those things.

When something is free, it isn’t.

Imagine for a minute that half the people on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites got fed up with their data being exploited and stopped using these platforms. How would that affect your brand?

Clearly, in order to stay in business, you’d have to find other ways to reach your audience. But do you go back to buying print? Radio? Outdoor? Possibly. But the most important thing you could do is double down on what you actually own—which is your brand story and content on your website.

A website is the hub of all your brand communications until the end of the world.

Social media is simply the distribution channels by which to share your story. Sure, they’re amazing channels when used properly, but, like the Do Not Call Lists from the age of telemarketing, in the end your audience always has a say in how you engage them. And if Facebook loses a good percentage of its users, so too will you.

Not that Facebook is going die, but if users get smart and start locking down their personal data, you’re going to need a backup plan on how to market in these channels. The solutions, however, are fairly straightforward –

– Invest in your brand and website. 
– Bring your story current. 
– Ensure your site is SEO compliant so that search engines can index it and include it in the search results of people looking for what you sell. 
– Offer incentives for your audience to provide their email so that you can keep in contact with them. 
– Create relevant content frequently and invite engagement on your blog. 
– Speak to your audience like they actually matter to you. 
– Tell the truth. 

When you have a product or service that people want, and when you back it up with outstanding service, you’ve won half your marketing battle. The other half is ensuring that you’re reinforcing your brand’s promise of value and using the digital tools (that come and go) in ways that consistently points your audience to a place where you control the message–your website.

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About the Author

Jim Mitchem

Jim has been in advertising and marketing for a long time. An award-winning copywriter in his early days, he now focuses on things that matter as a founding partner of Out of the Ether. Jim, a US Air Force Veteran and author, is married with two daughters, and somehow manages a pack of wild dogs.

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