Seeing through the issue of user data transparency: Five ways to get the balance right

When it comes to user data, companies seem to make the same mistakes again and again. The current Facebook/Cambridge Analytica disaster illustrates the flawed thinking and ambiguous policies that often lead to these breaches and the resulting erosion of consumer trust. 

In response, Facebook has disclosed some upcoming changes, including the creation of a new Custom Audience certification tool. However, it will take more than a few reactive symbolic “fixes” to regain consumer trust. Here are a few key steps that Facebook as well as other social platforms, marketers and advertisers should take to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Anticipate instead of react

The Facebook fiasco illustrates the dangers of only considering how things will work when everyone follows the rules. When marketers act in good faith, things work pretty well. However, data-driven marketing tools are so effective, that the temptation to bend or break rules can lead some to push the boundaries to make more money (or more nefarious motives). 

Companies need to be proactive by identifying and anticipating potential abuse scenarios and putting preventive measures in place before they’re needed.  Implementing changes only after something has gone wrong or a misuse has been identified is unacceptable when something as sensitive as user data is at risk.

Be transparent rather than opaque 

Maintaining transparency seems simple in theory, but can be difficult to achieve in practice. Users should be both fully aware of who has their data and have the ability to decide for themselves what can be done with it. However, the complexity of where and how data is collected and shared makes it extremely difficult to be transparent without completely confusing users. 

If done correctly, consumers will know what they’re opting into and marketers will only use the data to actually make user experiences better. Users become angry when companies use this data in unanticipated ways without their knowledge or consent. 

Take responsibility rather than deflect blame

Companies must take responsibility and ownership of these issues and can’t continue to make it someone else’s problem. While it may not be intentional, many of Facebook’s responses shift responsibility by blaming the marketers who have misused their platform and their own users for being either too lazy or uninformed to protect their own data using existing privacy options. 

Verify rather than simply trust

Facebook’s new Custom Audiences certification tool would require Advertisers to validate that the email addresses used to target ads were obtained “properly”.  The old terms of service already included these restrictions yet misuse still occurred either out of ignorance or outright abuse. The potential upsides for marketers to cheat are huge, and the risk of getting caught has been virtually non-existent.

While terms were in place that required advertisers to obtain consent, it now appears that Facebook’s enforcement of this policy was based mostly on trust. There was no meaningful system of verification and little in the way of punishment when someone abused the system.

Put mission before money 

Data-driven marketing has been a game-changer for advertisers - and for Facebook's ability to make more money from the ad inventory it sells. The mission of “giving people the power to build community and bringing the world closer together” Is dependent on Facebook maintaining people’s confidence in the platform. People will not share their personal information and establish close communities on a platform they don’t trust.

While its North American daily audience actually decreased in Q4 of last year and recent changes in their newsfeed algorithm decreased the amount of time people spend on the platform, Facebook still found way to grow its ad revenues by 49% year over year. So how do you make more money despite having potentially fewer opportunities to show people ads? The answer is getting advertisers to pay more for the ads they can show. In Q4, the average amount of money that brands paid Facebook per ad increased by 43 percent year over year in Q4. 

There is a balance between how much money a company could make and how much it should make. Facebook has been trying to maximize the revenue side of the equation and is now paying the price for pushing the envelope. Facebook now needs to clearly put its customers and its stated mission first and demonstrate that it can be trusted to put personal privacy ahead of profits.

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