Picture: 123RF/welcomia
Picture: 123RF/welcomia

If you were still in the dark about how much Facebook knows about you, the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack should put an end to that. Centred on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the film points to the fact that by scraping user info from the site Cambridge Analytica managed to collect up to 5,000 data points on every American voter. This allowed the firm to exploit the data and to hyper-target ads during the 2016 US presidential election.

The Great Hack is a wake-up call for users to not blindly trust Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire. But, as Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr correctly notes, “… the Cambridge Analytica story actually points to [the] much bigger, more worrying story, which is that our personal data is out there and being used against us in ways that we don’t understand.”

This certainly holds true when it comes to marketing. The public is simply unaware of how marketing companies are tracking their online behaviour, even though they feel that their online privacy must be respected. UK research company Verve notes that 60% of consumers deliberately provide false information when entering personal details online. It’s done to protect their privacy, but the truth is that this is not enough to fool tech-savvy digital marketers, since browser cookie data and data from multiple platforms are enough to stitch together an online identity. 

The effect on many marketers of the use of data and the exploitation of it through ever more capable marketing technology has been to turn them into kids in a candy shop. They gorge on data till they become sick, only to return later for more. And, much like Facebook, some marketers are showing a flagrant disregard for customers’ privacy.

As an industry we need to become more cognisant of the needs and emotions of consumers. A case in point is the website pop-up. While the “You are the 1,000,000th visitor!” variety has pretty much died out, the newer “Sign up to our newsletter” kind once again dilutes the user experience.

The era of fast and loose with people’s data is at an end.

And this is perhaps what marketers often forget due to this obsession with data: marketing in any form must respect the customer. Some marketers believe the silver bullet is to reach as many customers as they possibly can and to then get the customers to their homepage, to maybe – just maybe – convert some. This ignores the fact that the marketers don’t provide an optimal landing page experience, that their messaging might not be consistent and that some people are actively turning against their brand due to their marketing efforts.

Rather, they should put the money and effort into getting to know their customer properly. This might entail using data, but it should be done in a way that’s not invasive and does not betray the trust relationship brands often like to talk about.

The success of The Great Hack, and Facebook’s $5bn fine in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should be clarion calls for marketers: the time of playing fast and loose with people’s data is at an end. Marketers who continue to show a flagrant disregard for people’s privacy will be the ones who suffer severe reputational damage in the fullness of time.

Charlie Stewart is CEO of Rogerwilco, an independent marketing agency.