You've probably heard that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before Congress this week. The testimony covers the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency's misinformation campaign and Cambridge Analytica scandal. What you might not know is that Facebook is the least-trusted major tech company, by far. In large part, that is because of the way Facebook invades user privacy to target advertising. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has already acknowledged that Facebook knew Cambridge Analytica mishandled users' data and she and Zuckerberg are making the rounds apologizing for Facebook's actions and say they are making changes to the social network in order to regain users' trust.
Undoubtedly, digital marketing has created unprecedented opportunities to connect with consumers. And while consumer data can be used to deliver value, there are important ethical issues that must be carefully considered. Personal consumer information must also be closely protected because of the ways in which it can be used for questionable or illegal purposes.
Data has been described as "the new oil." If that's true, then Facebook is Exxon trying to clean up after Valdez. Trust is hard won, easily lost, and even harder to win back. So, there's plenty that marketers can learn from this epic privacy intrusion and consumer manipulation.
This isn't simply a question of transparency in data collection, judicious use, and robust protection. Marketers need to consider their immediate objectives and long-term customer relationships every time they think about, or employ, data-driven ad targeting.
Here are three good reasons to take a hard look at your data-based marketing:
1. Consumers distrust digital more than any other form of advertising. And it is a given that learning that companies like Facebook and Google track them across the web and use that data to do everything from stalk them with ads to manipulate their emotions and political views is not going to make them feel any better about digital advertising. When we look at common Facebook activities, consumers do not approve of many of their most lucrative data collection practices.
2. Targeting doesn't always deliver. Mark Pritchard, CMO of P&G, says that the company has moved away from ads that target specific consumers. "We targeted too much, and we went too narrow," Pritchard said in an interview. "Now we're looking at: What is the best way to get the most reach but also the right precision?" And tracking (aka "targeting") is one of the aspects of digital advertising consumers cite as particularly disagreeable. Besides, hypertargeting also has a very dark side. It has been associated with discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and other personal information. This is only unpleasant and irresponsible, it's also illegal.
3. Context matters. As we've seen in brand boycotts triggered by media personalities' comments to those caused by consumer outcry over ads appearing near unacceptable content, the context in which advertising appears matters. While marketers have expressed some concern over the #DeleteFacebook movement, Facebook was already slipping in popularity. Even so, there are few places that offer an audience of that size. But size isn't everything. It remains to be seen how many users defect from the platform as the scope and impact of the company's data collection and usage. What is clear is that consumers are becoming more aware of these sorts of behaviors and will think twice before they trust a brand that chose to advertise in environments that they do not feel good about.
While Facebook may be on the hot seat right now, the entire marketing ecosystem needs to step up to restore consumer and advertiser trust with transparency and real consumer choice. CMO Keith Weed outlined three key commitments on behalf of Unilever, the first being not to invest in platforms that do not protect children or which create division in society. The CMO Council senior VP of marketing, Liz Miller, said the industry must be "hyper vigilant" in developing transparency and authenticity with customers in partnership with the platforms being leveraged to connect with them.
Along with P&G's Pritchard, these marketing leaders understand that data is only valuable if it is used in a transparent, ethical, and constructive way. That when it is used to deliver relevant experiences, it can be a joy. However, that the line between just-right messaging and "creepy" ads that follow users around is a fine one. In fact, we are witnessing a renewed understanding that marketing to audiences in positive, valued contexts is effective and maintains a level of trust pays off in the long run.
So, before you try to slice your audience into data demographics, think carefully about the value you are trying to deliver. Forgo a quest for clicks and make smart investments in experiences that they will enjoy, delivered in trustworthy places. Even Zuckerberg has to agree with that: Remember, he kicked off his data-scandal apology tour with full page ads in reputable newspapers. Data and digital can deliver, but only if we put the customer first and weigh the value of long-term relationships against quick clicks.