May 1, 2018 by Mark Brownlee

After Cambridge: What Facebook’s privacy controversy means for marketers

The Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal has caused a ripple of shockwaves through the digital world.

The controversy, which involved a third-party company exploiting shady data-gathering tactics on social media, brought Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg before Congress to discuss his company’s privacy tactics.

Elsewhere, it triggered calls for more privacy regulation.

But in the marketing world?

Mostly crickets.

In this post we’ll look at what the controversy means for marketers – both with Facebook and other tactics in the future.

What is the Cambridge Analytica controversy

At the centre of the controversy is Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that performed work for Donald Trump’s (eventually successful) presidential campaign.

The issue centres around an app Cambridge professor Aleksander Kogan created in 2013 called “Thisisyourdigitallife”. Around 300,000 people downloaded the app. Cambridge Analytica then harvested data from users and, importantly, their Facebook friends.

Kogan then provided the data to the Trump campaign to be used for swaying potential voters.

The controversy rose to the surface in March 2018, when a whistleblower revealed Cambridge Analytica’s tactics to the Guardian and the New York Times.

In total Facebook estimates the data of around 87 million people was improperly shared.

The fallout has been extensive.

American lawmakers called Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington for a (at times inane) discussion of privacy.

The controversy now has Congress mulling regulations for Facebook and users asking new questions about how companies use their data – both on the internet and elsewhere.

What the controversy means for Facebook advertisers

Facebook says it has already created rules to prevent this sort of violation – even before the allegations came to light.

In 2014 it made changes to how much data developers can gather when an app is downloaded.

The changes weren’t made retroactively, which allowed Cambridge Analytica to continue using the data it already had.

In April Facebook made further changes.

It announced its plans to shut down partner categories. This “allows marketers to target ads on the company’s universe of platforms by using third-party data provided by data brokers,” says Harvard Business Review.

“This development could have major repercussions for internet companies and the broader digital advertising ecosystem if the firms at the center of this industry follow suit, collectively distancing themselves from data brokers and increasing transparency into their practices with personal data,” says HBR.

How marketers have responded to Cambridge Analytica

After the controversy came to light in March, Facebook advertisers have adopted a mix of reactions.

Mozilla, the builder of web browser Firefox, paused its Facebook ads.

Other companies – including Denmark-based brewer Carlsberg– continued with their campaigns.

The controversy’s impact has been more extensive than just how brands spend their ad budgets.

For example: Its even made its way, indirectly, to Ottawa’s Shopify.

The e-commerce provider’s stock has dropped amid concerns about what changes to Facebook could mean for the ability of Shopify’s customers (people who build online stores) to reach customers using paid social media ads.

Still others have questioned how effective the Cambridge Analytica data was in shaping the outcome of the US presidential election in the first place.

What the Cambridge Analytica controversy means for marketers

Get to know your customers – not their data

Data is a powerful tool in helping connect your brand with its audience.

But it by no means is a replacement for offering value to your audience.

Great marketing is all about building relationships.

The risk with relying too much on data – particularly through third-party providers – is that it’s a poor substitute for getting to know your audience.

Building a relationship starts with providing them value through content that they’ll find useful and products and services that help them – not mining their private info for data.

Know where your data comes from

Do you use a third-party vendor to gather data about audiences?

You could be playing with fire.

A lot of brands lack the time or resources to do a deep dive on where that data comes from.

But what the Cambridge Analytica controversy underscores is the need to have a clear understanding of how you’re gathering data for campaigns.

Learning that a third-party vendor gathered data as Cambridge Analytica did would be, for most brands, an irreparable breach of trust with audiences.

Nurture your other tactics

It’s easy to forget these days that digital is just one component of any marketing strategy.

Brands that have jettisoned traditional marketing tactics in favour of an exclusive focus on digital. But they’ve mostly ended in failure.

The controversy surrounding Facebook – and the limitations potential legislation might bring in the future – is an opportunity to sharpen your focus on other tactics.

Facebook is a powerful tool. But it shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of other effective strategy for reaching your audience.

After Cambridge Analytica

The Cambridge Analytica controversy revolves around a political campaign, an organization far more ephemeral than an established business.

For a brand with existing customers and relationships, the consequences would have been far worse.

This should be a welcome opportunity for brands to review how they handle customer data and, ultimately, build a stronger relationship with them.

Mark Brownlee is a Digital Marketing Strategist with Banfield.

Get a free digital copy of our Now Report on current industry drivers and best practices