Marketers Getting the Milk for Free

When a couple is living together but not married, the woman’s grandmother might say something to her like, “Why would he buy the cow when he can get the milk for free?” The same could be said for social media data. Why would marketers need to pay users for data when they are getting a rich data stream for low or no cost? We are also getting a free social media experience. So why should we pay to use the service? Well, maybe we should “buy the cow” because we are all actually giving way too much free milk!

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Social media users are in a circular relationship with social media platforms and marketers. We need to use the service to stay connected with friends; platforms need us to stay engaged to have valuable data that can be sold; and marketers need our data to sell products and services. Who is benefiting the most? Do we know what we are giving up to use this free service? In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, did we change our Facebook settings or did we actually #deleteFacebook? A Pew Research study from late 2018 following the revelations from Cambridge Analytica found that 54% of Facebook users surveyed changed their privacy settings in the past year, 26% deleted the Facebook app from their phones, and 42% took a break from Facebook for several weeks or more. In looking at various age groups, younger users demonstrated more concern for privacy with 64% adjusting their privacy settings and 44% of them deleting the Facebook app from their phones.

Cambridge Analytica gained access to data from a Facebook personality quiz app, which collected data not only from the 270,000 users who took the survey but also their friends, resulting in up to 87 million accounts being impacted. Others companies also use this practice, and therefore, each user who downloads an app gives the company access to not only users but also their friends. For example, this article in The Verge discusses a company called Microstrategy and their Facebook “Wisdom” tool with 52,600 installs at the time, but with access to 17.5 millions users. Another example mentioned in The Verge article is a company called LoudDoor that creates pages of enticing Facebook content, but with surveys included in the content. Taking the survey requires users to download a “fan satisfaction” app, which will then harvest your data along with that of your friends.

Of course, you don’t have to even be using social media to have data collected about you. A company called Apisphere uses wands in the ceiling to collect identification numbers from cell phones (IMEI numbers) on users who passed by and then maps the paths of the users and can also reverse-lookup the user and send targeted offers.

If users really knew how shady some of these social media practices are, would they leave Facebook and other social media platforms? With 2 billion people using Facebook, it’s hard to find another platform that offers the same benefits to users despite what they have to sacrifice in terms of privacy. Will companies try to act more ethically with their data collection practices? What would be their incentive, especially if their competitors are aggressively using these tools? Will Facebook change its practices?

One move in this direction happened in March 2018 when Facebook shut down Partner Categories, which had allowed third-party data providers to offer targeting on Facebook. Facebook also started requiring advertisers to verify that customers had given consent to be targeted through searches of email addresses and phone numbers.

Nobody really wants to buy the cow, but maybe platforms and marketers can figure out ways to act more ethically and fairly to protect users.


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