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Why Social Advertisers Are In Trouble (and How it Affects Earned Media)

There were few lighthearted moments during the 10-hour period when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently grilled by U.S. Senators over the way it collects and uses data, but this was one of them:

Sen. Orrin Hatch: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?”

Mark Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.”

Zuckerberg then smiled, and there was a ripple of quiet laughter in the background. The clip became widely shared (including on Facebook, of course) as an example of how supposedly “out of touch” government officials are in terms of how social media works.

There’s nothing funny, however, about the confusion and uncertainty the Cambridge Analytica controversy has created around how organizations access and leverage third-party data to connect with and engage their target audiences.

Brands are now forced to ask themselves — and their partners — tough questions about what kind of balance they need to strike in terms of creating personalized marketing experiences without getting themselves in trouble with lawmakers and the public. This includes communications professionals, who may wonder whether, for instance, the steps that social media networks are taking to rebuild consumer trust and increase consumer privacy affect the insights that Cision® can provide with Cision ID and Cision Impact.

Though the short answer to that is “No,” let’s take a step back first to understand exactly what happened, what kind of changes might be in store for social media and what it means for executing a successful earned media strategy.

Notes on The Cambridge Analytica Scandal

For anyone who has struggled to keep up with the news, the story began when, a few years ago, Facebook users took a personality quiz through an app that, without their knowledge, allowed the quiz maker to take their private information. The app maker was then able to access the data of those people’s Facebook friends and provided the information to Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis firm. An estimated 87 million Facebook users were exposed, according to stories on Wired and elsewhere.

As Quartz reported, the creator of the app recently told BuzzFeed and 60 Minutes he doesn’t believe theories that the data could have been used to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S., presidential election. Nevertheless, regulators in both the United Kingdom and the U.S., are now asking for information about what Facebook knew and how it reacted after discovering the breach.

While the result of the hearings may include new regulations or tougher rules for all social networks, Facebook is already making moves to limit similar incidents. While the company has traditionally allowed advertisers to use information from firms such as Epsilon Data Management and Axciom Corp., a story on Bloomberg said the company will soon prohibit third-party data brokers from targeting ads on its platform.

This still leaves Facebook with its own second-party data to feed advertisers, such as the Facebook pages or posts a user “likes” to indicate their interests and preferences. As an article on Publishing Executive explained, however, banning data brokers means agencies and marketers no longer have a shortcut to insight into what consumers want:

“Understandably, it’s difficult to create a direct first-party data relationship with customers who buy your products through a channel. Third-party targeting data is robust, relatively cheap to use and if it’s available in your favorite channels — all the better!  While the quality of third-party data has always been debated (find out for yourself by checking your Acxiom profile at www.aboutthedata.com), it’s proven to be a financially advantageous method for brand marketers to ‘target customers.’”

The Differences in Data Access Across Social

Facebook is hardly alone in selling access to data for targeting purposes, and the Cambridge Analytica incident is forcing more social media services to clarify their policies and programs. Twitter recently had to dispel suggestions, for example, that its data licensing business includes the sale of content within its user’s direct messages (DMs). Instead, as the Globe and Mail reported, large enterprises can purchase access to tweets from the previous months to the firm’s earliest days.

More recently, The Toronto Star ran a Canadian Press story that looked into updated privacy policies and terms of service agreements from Microsoft, LinkedIn and Slack, all of which promised clearer information around what information they collect and license to advertisers. According to CP, though, the information was reportedly difficult to find or written in complex legalese. Forbes and others have praised LinkedIn in the past for not selling access to data brokers, but the firm has had other issues, such as the discovery in April of a bug that would have allowed profile data such as e-mail and phone numbers to be compromised.

Google, meanwhile, has come under heat in the wake of Facebook/Cambridge Analytica for changes it made several years ago to its Doubleclick advertising service, which allows clients to combine its data on user’s search queries, locations and even credit card information with browsing behavior captured via cookies.

“A Google spokeswoman said consumer card data isn't used for ad personalization,” India’s NDTV reported. “Marketers don't have direct access to Google user data, and the company forbids advertisers from collecting and sharing personally identifiable information.”

Some laws are already surfacing to govern the way businesses handle data, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). According to Reuters, however, Facebook is getting around GDPR by moving some of its affected users to its American terms of service agreement.

The bottom line? The way social media services work with third parties to monetize the activity on their networks is not consistent and, based on recent events, potentially primed for major changes based on what government authorities determine is acceptable and appropriate.

Cision And The Earned Media Advantage

Marketing industry observers have been watching carefully to see whether or not brands will abandon Facebook in favor of another paid advertising channel. That’s not the only option available, however, as corporate communicators are aware.

In fact, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica incident is only the latest chapter in what has become the ongoing story of challenges facing the traditional advertising model. Besides questions around data usage, for example, marketers have been struggling to deal with concerns around ad fraud, viewability, ad blockers and a sea change among consumers who simply don’t want to be interrupted when they are trying to enjoy content.

This is assuming, of course, that consumers can find the content that interests them in the first place. While many publishers had come to rely on social networks as one of their biggest distribution mechanisms over the last several years, for instance, Facebook made changes to its algorithm earlier this year that ranks user-generated content more highly than that from third parties. The effort to get eyeballs on branded content more directly has never been a bigger priority.

In other words, every CMO who is already trying to figure out where to move ineffective paid advertising dollars has more incentive than ever before to choose earned media. All this bodes well for Cision ID and Cision Impact customers.

Instead of selling advertising, for instance, Cision is assigning demographics to individuals who consumed earned media content after the fact. That means the changes to how Facebook handles inbound advertising data doesn’t affect the technologies we provide our customers. It also means that the advantages of having measurement and attribution of earned media activities will only become more valuable as marketing strategies evolve.

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Conclusion

For all the calls to consumers to delete their Facebook accounts, social media services are probably not going away any time soon. They can be great mechanisms for staying in touch with everyone from family members and friends to business contacts and more. They still allow opportunities to share stories, but they were never designed as traditional media properties.

Whereas data collection and privacy protections have been debated ever since social media networks were established, meanwhile, the transparency and clarity around the earned media model have never really changed. Communications professionals reach out with great story ideas to professional storytellers. Those journalists then bring those stories to an audience that has directly opted in to see or hear them. It’s as simple — and as ethical — as that. 

There is nothing hidden behind the curtain in earned media. There are no question marks around the data. In fact, the biggest evolution in PR is that has become data-driven in a way that delivers insight to brands without compromising the trust relationships between marketers, publishers and audiences. When it’s done right, that trust is only reinforced.

Over time, social media might become more regulated. Consumers might become more proactive about managing the permissions in the apps and online services they use. What you can be absolutely sure of, however, is that people will continue to want content that informs, educates and inspires them. Earned media remains the best way to deliver what they want, and Cision ID and Cision Impact remain the best tools to achieve earned media results in a way that gives marketers the confidence about what they’re doing -- and how they’re doing it.

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Tags : social media

About Jen Jones

Jen Jones is the VP of Product Marketing at Cision. Connect with her on Twitter.

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