Facebook is redesigning the settings menu on mobile devices. Picture: REUTERS
Facebook is redesigning the settings menu on mobile devices. Picture: REUTERS

A fellow digital advertising practitioner recently posted the following: “Facebook – the user pays no cash to use the service. The business requires billions to keep providing the user the service. The business needs to make revenue somehow. The business sells advertising. Your data (browsing DNA) is used to optimise the advertising process and increase value for advertisers. Fairly simple equation, I’d say. If you don’t want this to happen – disable your account. PS – brands use social listening tools daily to better understand sentiment. This is nothing new.”

In other words, let them eat ads.

Many of us appreciate optimised advertising that makes smart use of personal data to deliver messages that are relevant to our needs and interests. But my own experience as a consumer leads me to believe that some social media giants have overstepped the mark in the personal data they collect about us and how they put it to work.

For example, when Facebook suggests a business acquaintance as a friend shortly after you’ve sent him or her an e-mail for the first time, it feels like an invasion of privacy. The mechanisms it uses to connect you to a person with whom you have had only a few interactions are not transparent and the experience is unnerving.

Companies such as Facebook have, for far too long, hidden behind dense, opaque privacy policies and complex privacy permission settings to monetise our data. Even staying off Facebook is no guarantee that the platform won’t collect info about you from friends and family.

As the past few weeks have shown, Facebook’s typical attitude towards leveraging user data for targeted advertising is to half-heartedly ask for forgiveness rather than wholeheartedly seek permission. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to revelations that it scraped call and text message data for years from Android phones, the company has shown a cavalier approach to managing our sensitive and private data.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s insolent and dismissive statements indicate that they are not overly motivated to correct their course and they are not particularly remorseful about their failings. Recent US congressional hearing statements include Zuckerberg saying, “Senator, we run ads” (before breaking into a tiny smirk); Zuckerberg agreeing that he would be uncomfortable about sharing the name of the hotel he was staying in; and him saying he would probably not choose to publicly share the names of the people he had messaged that week.

The big take-out

As Facebook illustrates an alarmingly cavalier attitude to how it manages users’ private data, it’s important for digital marketers to be transparent about how they use personal information to link brands and consumers.

As Zuckerberg faced questions from politicians, a group of demonstrators chanted: “The Internet is getting dark and we owe it all to Mark [Zuckerberg].” As Wired magazine notes: “This obsessive critique is uniquely trained on Zuckerberg. The American public, including both Facebook’s advertisers and its users, have come to believe Facebook is a monolith corporation that controls every aspect of a fundamental way that people share and receive information.”

So, what does this mean for us as marketers? I expect Generation C (the connected consumer), a group of tech-loving individuals who transcend the generation gap, will lead the revolt against corporate misuse of our data. They are not linked by age, but by their readiness for change and their active engagement in the digital world. Gen C consumers do business differently – they’re smart and savvy, and they reject the hard sell. And they’re getting fed up with the troll factories, the misuse of personal data and the invasion of privacy that define social media today.

Revolt is brewing, and leading marketers can win by choosing to be on the right side of history. We can do this by applying some common sense and good manners in how we collect and use people’s personal information:

• Be specific about the personal data you want to collect and what you want to use it for;
• Don’t collect and store data you don’t need; and
• Don’t be a creep and stalk people mercilessly across platforms and channels.

Above all, get permission to use your customers’ information for marketing data.

Many of these points are covered in data privacy laws such as Europe’s general data protection regulation and our own Protection of Personal Information Act, but marketers should consider these regulations a baseline and aim to do even better for their customers.

Are you going to switch off Facebook or not? That’s a trickier question for any brand, given the size of its audience. But a good starting point is to be thoughtful and cautious about which of its ad-targeting features you use to reach your customers.

Our job as digital marketers will continue to be linking brands with the consumers they desire, but we need to tread carefully and respectfully. There is no reason not to use tech, because Gen C wants to engage with great content from desirable brands. But there is every reason to do this in a manner that is transparent, fair and respectful to our customers.

• Lindemann is managing director of Mediamark