Barely a week goes by without Facebook or another social media network igniting fresh controversy in the press.
A particularly recurrent theme is the debate surrounding breaches of privacy. In a nutshell, users of these sites are unhappy that their personal information is being sold to third parties and handled as an insignificant yet profitable commodity.
This is understandable from a consumer perspective, yet it also poses some difficult problems for marketers to whom this information is gold dust. How can the industry reassure the public that data acquired via social media platforms is being used in a legitimate and respectful manner?
I often feel this is an area that we skirt over too quickly. Marketers need to think very carefully about how to approach the delicate social media environment and essentially make sure they are communicating openly with consumers at all times.
This was a platform which began, as the name might suggest, with a social purpose: this is the reason consumers are engaged. In its early days, users praised the lack of commercial intrusion, especially with Facebook.
But, as its popularity soared and the influence of such sites accelerated, brands began to realise the vast potential they offered in profitability and started to heavily infiltrate this space.
As a result of this and thanks to the increasing sophistication of digital channels, marketers now have access to a previously unimaginable amount of information about their customers.
The significance of this is that the customer insight gained through the analysis of this data has allowed us to more efficiently target the right audiences, which in turn encourages a much better level of brand engagement.
Consumers do not respond well to big brands invading their personal space, which we have seen by the negative reaction to e-mail and mobile direct marketing. The uniquely personal nature of social media therefore poses an even greater threat of upsetting consumers.
Brands know it is not always appropriate to thrust marketing in people’s faces, but if handled correctly, a social community can offer a wealth of benefits for both brands and consumers and be immensely powerful. The key is to make consumers aware that their personal information is being used and for what purposes.
Marketers need to be clear from the start of their intentions when encouraging users to engage with brands. By clearly defining the end goal, you are more likely to succeed in obtaining valuable customer data and using it effectively. The underhanded exchange of data across invisible third parties is where the difficulties begin and headlines are made.
Additionally, social networks need to ensure individuals take responsibility for the information they willingly place within a public domain. It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which people offer their private lives on a plate within online networks but then are angered to hear brands have somehow got their hands on it.
Despite the frequent complaints of illegal privacy breaches, the majority of the time this is not the case. All users, whether knowingly or not, have agreed in their registration process to allow their information to be given away.
Responsibility consequently lies with the social network itself to set clear guidelines and make it easy for users to opt-in or opt-out of information sharing. Only then might people be reassured that marketers are being entirely transparent on their intended use of data.
This said, if marketers continue to handle customer data in a secretive and less than sensitive manner, the disgruntled public is going to carry on criticising the data marketing industry.
To prevent this, transparency and respect for the individual are key. The level of customer insight gained through social media is exceptional; let’s not ruin this opportunity for all involved.