It’s been an interesting several months for Facebook. The social media giant has come under fire amidst news of privacy, data usage, and its role in global society.
Recently, Facebook has weathered scrutiny over its role, if any, in playing host to Russian attempts at 2016 election interference. Additionally, the announcement was made that Facebook wanted to prioritize meaningful social interaction in News Feed posts, perhaps to the detriment of brands and businesses. Even more recently, a political data firm called Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested data on more than 50 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica has been accused of selling this data to political campaigns and other advertising entities, raising questions about Facebook’s handling and oversight of user data.
Things came to an impassioned head last week, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called to answer pressing questions before the Senate. The questions, wide-sweeping and at times tense, symbolize a collective discomfort with how big Facebook has become—and whether it’s embraced the responsibility that comes with unprecedented growth.
As digital marketers who develop client strategies with Facebook and Instagram at the core, the developing situation has caught our attention. With so much information swirling, we wanted to take a moment to catch up brands and business owners on the biggest items, and what they mean for advertisers going forward.
On News Feed Algorithm Changes
In January, Facebook announced its intention to de-emphasize posts by brands and businesses and prioritize posts from friends and family in the News Feed. Facebook frequently alters the News Feed algorithm in pursuit of relevance and greater engagement, but the specificity of this update drew special attention. “Meaningful social interaction” sounds a whole lot like “brands should pay to play, or risk not appearing at all.”
As we explained at the time, Facebook wants to make sure you personally feel that time on the platform is time well-spent. Although brands have seen declining organic reach for years, the trend will continue alongside declines in organic referral traffic and total video watch time.
The re-prioritization of “meaningful posts” will mean decreased organic reach for most brands and businesses. But this is a general rule that won’t apply in all situations. In conversations with Facebook, we’ve learned that engaging brand content—posts that Facebook believes are enriching or leave users with a positive impression—may experience an organic lift, as well.
Importantly, these changes will not explicitly affect advertisers, post boosting, and other paid campaigns. However, we anticipate increased competition as more businesses turn to advertising for the first time, gradually lifting click costs over time. As always, we will share the implications of shifting results as they happen.
For now, the News Feed algorithm change does not represent meaningful change for paid social advertising, but organic (unpaid) social posts may become harder to surface. Compelling images and video, active community management, and helpful content will continue to triumph over obviously promotional organic posts.
For more on this, see our related article: Facebook’s Algorithm Change Effects Business Pages: Here’s How to Get Around It.
Cambridge Analytica: Data Handling and Security
A technique for harvesting Facebook profile information was developed in 2014. The app, developed by Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan, scraped information from profiles like friend networks and “Likes.” The scraping took place within a research study, but while 270,000 people participating in the survey consented to the use of their data, over 50 million profiles were scraped and ultimately turned over to a political research firm called Cambridge Analytica. The firm sold its personality-mapping services on the back of this data, ultimately being hired by the Trump campaign and others.
At the time of use, the app’s activity was permitted by Facebook (though has since been banned). Nevertheless, the existence of this data, the way it was sold and offered to outside entities, and Facebook’s sluggish response has raised serious questions about the company’s policing of user privacy. Facebook says they learned in 2015 that the data was turned over to Cambridge Analytica, at which time they removed the app and demanded the data be destroyed. Evidently, it wasn’t—so can Facebook be trusted with the volume of information people share on its platform?
Facebook’s official stance is that user data, whether collected from the platform or uploaded by advertisers in the form of email lists, must only be used with consent and must be appropriately anonymized and protected. For most digital marketers, this assertion checks out: when uploaded to Facebook, email lists are hashed locally before ever being sent to Facebook. The list is matched against hashed user IDs and matches are made.
Essentially, when it comes to personally identifiable information, the platform is agnostic: Facebook cannot “see” or understand that John Smith himself is a customer, nor can Gruen Agency.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal reflects a laissez-faire attitude of the past that Facebook is now answering for. We expect the process of app development (and the hoops creators must jump through to verify proper usage) will change dramatically in the coming months. As marketers, we’re thankful that Facebook is making these issues a priority in 2018. New terms of agreement will comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and place a greater onus on advertisers to ensure we (and our clients) are obtaining consent for the data we use. Custom Audiences that use such uploads are highly valuable for targeting; we will continue to stress the matter of consent with our clients.
Third-Party Data Brokers
Perhaps as a preemptive PR measure in the wake of Cambridge Analytica revelations, Facebook has announced that it will cease working with third-party data providers like Acxiom and Experian. The two events (Cambridge Analytica, and this announcement) are functionally unrelated, but the latter is likely a clean-up response to fallout from the former.
Among the thousands of audience targeting capabilities on Facebook are some behavioral traits provided by third parties like these. Some examples include being in-market for a vehicle, retail purchase behavior, likelihood to move, and frequency of travel. Over the next six months, the ability to target such traits provided by data brokers will be phased out, though Acxiom has expressed hope that Facebook will reverse its decision.
These targeting parameters do not factor hugely into Gruen Agency’s campaigns. Where they do, we are prepared to revisit the targeting and find creative solutions for reaching the ideal audience. We will work with Facebook directly on such solutions and collaborate with our clients on audience revisions.
At first blush, the above seems like doom and gloom—the imminent end of a digital marketing juggernaut.
We say, slow down. Thanks to market-leading conversion tracking and creative—not to mention the largest active audience, by a long shot—Facebook and Instagram are deeply woven in the fabric of social media strategy for eCommerce and Lead Gen alike. This isn’t changing overnight, nor even in the next half-decade or more. Digital marketing changes fast, but that fast?
Indeed, there’s reason to believe Facebook and Instagram will come out stronger than ever. With new rules and more transparency around data usage, user confidence could rebound, giving a push of confidence to the last remaining brands still hesitant to take part.
In the wake of Facebook’s recent troubles, we feel:
- Facebook and Instagram remain highly effective digital marketing platforms, with robust targeting and conversion tracking capabilities. KPIs can be served across brand awareness, lead gen, and e-commerce.
- The need for digital marketers to be creative and think critically is greater than ever. Options for targeting are ever-shifting and will soon become fewer, challenging us to find our clients’ audience in new ways.
- We must continue to look outward at alternative social media offerings with potential for our clients. Quora, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Snapchat provide importance spaces for reaching new audiences in a different creative context.
How has the turmoil surrounded Facebook affected you or your business? What questions and concerns are top-of-mind for you? Shoot us a message in the form below!