Paid media | 21/03/2018

Has Cambridge Analytica changed the future of social media marketing?

Posted by Lawrence Greenlee

It’s been a fascinating week for those of us that work in social media, and a difficult week for anyone working at Facebook. Apart from Mark Zuckerberg, who appears to have been off on holiday… The Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought into sharp focus the issues over how much data users share online and who can access that data. This could have significant implications for those of us using these platforms as marketing tools. So what exactly is going on?

Wait, what happened?

If you haven’t been following the story, or if you’re a bit confused by the deeply technical language most of the articles have been written in, these are the facts in a nutshell. A company called Cambridge Analytica has been accused of acquiring Facebook users’ data without their consent and using it to create psychological profiles that shaped targeted online messages intended to influence elections around the world.

In one example, Cambridge Analytica allegedly acquired data from a company called Global Science Research – they developed a Facebook personality quiz app, one of those ones that includes a tick box that says “this app can access your profile”, which most people just blindly click on because, what’s the harm? This app not only took the answers they provided in the personality test, it scraped their profiles to gather information on their likes, activity and online behaviour. Whilst these users had given permission, however ill-informed, for their profiles to be accessed, it is claimed that the app also scraped the profiles of their friends, who had given no such permission. This data provided insights into the online behaviour of 50 million people, which enabled the Cambridge Analytica team (allegedly) to understand people’s potential political leanings and craft messages to be served in their Facebook feeds that would influence the voting behaviour of them and people like them – this is (allegedly) what they used to encourage people in crucial swing states to vote for Donald Trump, and what may have (allegedly) won him the election.

Similar activity is thought to have been used to influence the EU Referendum in the UK and presidential elections around the world, from Mexico to Malaysia. The Information Commissioner’s Office has been trying to get a warrant to audit the data that Cambridge Analytica have and how they acquired it, but this still hasn’t been secured. Meanwhile a team working for Facebook have been allowed round to Cambridge Analytica’s office, leading many people to suspect that by the time the ICO get access there will be very little data left to audit. Allegedly.

So what about Facebook?

Facebook claims to be “outraged we were deceived” about the use of this data, but many, including one of the journalists at the centre of breaking this story, say the company were informed and warned back in 2016:

Facebook has lost $60 billion of its stock market value, and users are, understandably, not too happy – the hashtag #DeleteFacebook was trending on Tuesday as many people were considering the implications of remaining on the platform.

As if things weren’t going badly enough for Facebook, their glorious leader has been notably silent on the matter, and a lot of employees have expressed anger about this.

Why Facebook in particular?

Facebook knows pretty much everything about you. When you sign up to Twitter, you don’t have to tell them your gender or where you’re from, you don’t even have to give them your real name. Whereas Facebook throws people off the platform if they discover you’ve given fake data. Meaning they know everything from your name and where you live to who you hang out with and where you go. Your Page likes and activity on the platform provide detailed information on your lifestyle and behaviours, and Facebook has even been accused of tracking your text messages and phone calls through the app to gain further information on you.

The company strongly denies the phone call claims, but many people have reported seeing ads for things they’ve only ever mentioned in calls. When I discovered I was pregnant, the first thing I did (after a lengthy “oh my god, we’re going to be parents!” conversation with my husband) was call my mum to tell her that grandchild she’d always wanted was finally on the way. After that lengthy conversation, we both settled down slightly psychologically drained and crashed out on the sofa for a bit – so obviously I did the thing we all do when we’re crashed out on the sofa, I started scrolling though social media. I started with Facebook and suddenly found myself facing a stream of ads for baby-related products. It took me a moment to realise that this was weird – at first I was thinking “oh yeah, I will need one of those now”, then suddenly it hit me that I’d never been served any of these ads before (so it wasn’t lucky targeting based on my age and marital status) and that I’d not got round to liking any relevant Pages or even searching for anything that would tell Facebook I was likely to be pregnant. So I think the jury’s still out on the phone call situation.

Does it matter?

Targeted advertising can be a great thing for users – I have indeed found a whole host of useful baby-related products and services that I hadn’t even known I needed thanks to the sudden flurry of pregnancy-focused advertising. I’d much rather see adverts for digital marketing resources or books in a genre I’m interested in than get a bunch of messages shouting about men’s trousers or video games when I have zero use for either.

The issue is around consent and control. If you’ve been following the Cobb Digital social media channels, you’ll have seen how the new GDPR is consuming a great deal of our time right now – this new legislation aims to give users greater control over how their data is collected, stored and used, and the ability to have their data deleted. This comes at a time when users are feeling deeply mistrustful of brands who they feel are harvesting their data for their own gains and not to improve their customer experience, and a shocking 71% believe companies are using their data unethically.

However, there is still a great deal of confusion over how GDPR should be implicated, and, clearly, there are loopholes that companies are (allegedly) managing to use. Furthermore, if this data is being used to manipulate, rather than serve, customers, then we most certainly have a problem.

What’s next for marketers?

Brands have a job to do in repairing trust with their customers, particularly in online spaces. Many companies have taken their customers for granted for too long and taken the approach of simply bombarding them with marketing messages until they either give in and buy something or go somewhere else permanently. It’s time to look at building real relationships with customers, and using the precious data that they’ve been generous enough to allow access to meet their needs rather than the perceived needs of the company. Ultimately, the needs of the customer are the needs of the company – happy customers mean more profit; shouting about sales messaging until people get sick of you is not a long-term business model.

This should be an opportunity for companies to take a more responsible approach to their marketing, and shape their online interactions around what their customers need and want. The opportunities offered by social media listening and well-thought out, ethical audience profiling gives us the ability to provide genuinely useful real-time interaction that will support users through their customer journey and inspire lasting loyalty.

Personalisation and targeted advertising is not going to go away – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and consumers prefer personalised messaging anyway. Instead, companies and platforms will need to be more transparent in the way they use these methods, and the messages themselves will need to be more carefully crafted and adapted to suit the consumer. Brands that can demonstrate an ethical, customer-first approach will be the ones that prosper.

If Facebook don’t get their act together soon, they’re going to learn that the hard way.

If you want to talk about how you can build better trust with your consumers and ensure a more ethical approach to your marketing, we’d love to hear from you.