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This consumer survey shows trouble ahead for Facebook

The more people know about how social networks monetize them, the less comfortable they are with the whole idea—a fact Facebook can no longer afford to ignore.

This consumer survey shows trouble ahead for Facebook
[Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash]

If the image of Mark Zuckerberg bandaged and bloody on the cover of Wired, like some sort of Rocky cosplay artist, wasn’t clear enough, it’s been a tough year for Facebook.

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A new study may add some salt to those wounds. According to research by Insights Network, 45% of consumers have considered deleting at least one social network in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. Twelve percent say they followed through, and most (78%) claim to have deleted Facebook, indicating that the #deleteFacebook movement might have had some teeth.

While the study of 1,100 consumers is heavily weighted towards millennials (57%) and Gen X (25%) and certainly overstates the rate of Facebook deletion, the underlying attitudes of respondents should concern Facebook. Moreso, it should spark the company to change the way it describes its ad business to the world.

(B)ad business

From congressional hearings to public FAQs, Facebook’s comms strategy has been consistent. The company has obscured the fact that it’s a juggernaut advertising business powered by an insane amount of personal information that people voluntarily share about themselves.

Age, birthday, location, hometown, job title, company, marital status, likes and interests (sooooo many likes and interests): Facebook has built the fastest-growing ad business in history by using the profile information that we once used to fit in with our classmates and co-workers to sell $40 billion dollars in ads annually.

It should trouble the company that the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against it—and against the explicit use of data to sell ads. Sixty percent of respondents in Insights Network’ study were aware of the Cambridge Analytica story. Ninety percent think it’s unethical for their personal data to be shared without their consent. Sixty-five percent are uncomfortable with their personal data being shared with for-profit businesses, while 68% are worried about the security of their personal data.

Facebook’s logical retort is that it doesn’t actually sell data to anyone. It just uses your data to sell space in your News Feed to advertisers (in large part because controlling that data as a proprietary advantage is way more lucrative than selling raw data to outsiders.)

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However, this nuance is lost on most consumers. In contrast to Google, which has long clearly differentiated its ads in appearance and been aggressively transparent about they work, Facebook has mostly hoped that users wouldn’t pay attention to the whole ad thing. That works—until a string of bad press breaks out. Then, users are left to assume the worst.

Sam Weston summarized this dynamic brilliantly for Co.Design, writing: “Facebook’s real problem–its vulnerability–is the gulf that exists between people’s negligible understanding of its business model and what Facebook’s business really is.”

Unfortunately, mild efforts to do just that haven’t gone to plan.

“You are not the product”

[Image: courtesy of Insights Network]
Ironically, Facebook’s best recent effort to explain its advertising business earned it widespread scorn.

Last month, the company published an FAQ which clearly detailed how its advertising business works. It explained that information from your profile is used to target you with ads, and that it does that to make the ads more relevant to you. (And to make more money, but we can forgive it for leaving that part out.)

So far, so good. But then, Facebook shot itself in the foot. “If I’m not paying for Facebook, am I the product?” Facebook asked, echoing Apple CEO Tim Cook’s 2014 line that “if you’re not the customer—you’re the product.”

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The answer from Facebook was “No.” It says that its product is “social media—the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world.” It reeked of BS because, you know, Facebook is free.

This resulted in a barrage of bad press for what otherwise should have been a positive step forward. And it made clear that the warped perception inside Facebook has damaged its ability to communicate clearly with the outside world.

Getting off the mat

Facebook needs an aggressive approach to save its reputation and keep its user and advertising growth on the upswing, and it needs a prominent outside perspective to make it happen smoothly. I won’t pretend to be tapped in enough to compile a shortlist of people whose advice could help, but recently-departed Gizmodo Group CEO Raju Narisetti, who admirably led the confederation of straight-talking former Gawker sites, is one name that comes to mind.

Facebook needs to clearly educate consumers on how its ad business works, and the ways in which the information people provide inform the ads they’re shown. And it can’t just post this information on a blog that no one besides a small group of media reporters reads. (Its FAQ post got a whopping 7 comments.) It needs to put information where people will see it—like, oh I don’t know—in their News Feeds.

It also needs to stop putting out nonsense like the TV ad it’s been blasting throughout the NBA finals. The ad is a strange montage that might make people wonder if they sat on the remote and flipped over to the opening 60 seconds of a Black Mirror episode. Its voiceover clumsily sidesteps blame, saying “then something happened…” before quickly mentioning fake news and data misuse. It says that things will change, but doesn’t explain how. That’s not the path forward.

What users want more than anything else is transparency. According to Insights Networks’ study, 77% of respondents would be more comfortable sharing their data if they knew which company was requesting it, and 86% think they should be notified every time their personal data is shared. This isn’t going to happen, but Facebook should at least consider making the bold move of allowing users to turn off information that’s used for ad targeting. (Currently, their only recourse is to delete that information from their profile altogether.)

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This will hurt Facebook’s ad business in the short-term, but if the company wants to survive and flourish, it needs to offer this option and making it easy to perform.

Otherwise, Facebook may get a different treatment when it’s on a magazine cover in a few years—the Myspace gravestone.

Joe Lazauskas is the head of content strategy at Contently and co-author of The Storytelling Edge, a new book about the science of storytelling and how to use it to transform your business.

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