It seemed the nation was glued to coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Capitol Hill this week to testify on Facebook’s alleged privacy violations. I listened to some of the testimony, as well both out of personal curiosity, and as a marketing professional who uses Facebook (and other social media advertising). I was struck by one simple observation:
Our grandparents are running this country.
The complete and utter lack of understanding I heard from members of Congress was completely stunning. We have legislators suggesting policy changes who don’t have the slightest clue how social media works for marketers.
One example was questioning from Sen. Doris Matsui, representing the 6th District of California. When Zuckerberg explained that if you didn’t want your data out there, you simply don’t post it, Matsui went on the attack. Repeatedly, she asked questions centering around the theme, “Well, that’s fine, but once the data is out there, then it can be abused going forward…”. Umm, yeah, actually, not.
I can’t “buy” data from Facebook. What I can do is use current data in targeting my campaigns. If your data is currently out there, I can use this information to help focus my ad delivery. When I want to reach left-handed, cat lovers in Central Iowa, I can use Facebook targeting to look for people with those qualities in their profile, feeds, and engagement. AT THAT TIME. Facebook uses real-time data to help me target campaigns. I felt badly for Mr. Zuckerberg as he tried to explain this to a Senator who seemed lost in the era of the flip phone. Facebook does NOT hand me a data file. They understand that this would be a clear violation of privacy standards.
It’s a long-held truth in marketing media planning that eliminating waste is a key to campaign success. The best way to do this is to try to connect with prospects who have qualities that are likely to make them interested in your message. In short, we try to match needs to product attributes. That’s why social media advertising has been such a revolution. People will tell you what they like and value. And I can laser-focus my message to just those people. In all candor, as a consumer it helps ensure you get more of the information you’re interested in, and less of what you don’t care about. Yes, there are those who abuse this, but that’s a whole other blog post.
Also, we’ve been able to acquire information since well before Facebook. Since before Zuckerberg was born, actually. Ever buy an electric razor or other small appliance that came with a warranty card? Of course you did. Are you aware that the data you provided about your hobbies, interests, and income have absolutely zero to do with a warranty? For years, you sent these cards to the Denver address of a division of R.L. Polk called National Demographics and Lifestyles (NDL). The nice folks at NDL would then sell this information to marketers like me so I could append my database to enable me to locate the aforementioned lefty cat lovers in Ames. Remember those nice folks at R.L. Polk? Guess what we used to buy from them? Your driver’s license information. So, when we were marketing weight loss surgery, all we needed was your height and weight. Run a simple algorithm, and PRESTO, we know if you’re morbidly obese. Does Facebook take this to another level? Absolutely. But for Congress to pretend that we couldn’t already get to plenty of information is incredibly naïve. I’m quite certain many of them used this information to get elected. If you’re interested in a brief history of the rise of these lifestyle databases, check out this article.
Facebook – like most other social media – is a for-profit enterprise. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolhardy. Don’t want your information used? Don’t put it out there. But to try and convince the American people that Cambridge Analytica somehow bought a magic database only shows ignorance.
With all of this said, I do think this week’s testimony and surrounding uproar will bring some much-needed cleanup to the social media industry. Already Facebook and Instagram are locking down third-party developers via the API from being able to access information without your permission. Expect this trend to continue. And, expect the social media networks to make a greater effort to enable you to more transparently see which apps may be using your data. This is a good thing.
P.S. I also enjoyed the uproar over Mr. Zuckerberg’s untailored, ill-fitting suit. This is a guy whose trademark has been t-shirts and hoodies. He only put on the suit to appease a generation that’s lost touch with the current world of technology.