Consumers have grown more wary of social media marketing since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke

Consumers have grown more wary of social media marketing since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke

The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal may have been played out largely in the political arena but the implications for branded companies are arguably as serious as they are for politicians. Ben Cooper investigates.

With digital marketing and online consumer data collection now so important to drinks brands, the undermining of public confidence in online data security and greater suspicion of the commercial motives of brands and online platforms are worrying issues.

A survey last month of 1,000 online shoppers in North America, published by Vision Critical, a Vancouver-based provider of cloud-based consumer intelligence that includes Molson Coors among its clients, suggests consumers are becoming more demanding in their online relationships with brands. It revealed that 66% would feel more comfortable sharing personal information if brands proactively told them how it would be used.

"There's no doubt that consumers are becoming more aware of the value of their personal information and how it may be used by social platforms and the brands using them," Vision Critical chief marketing strategy officer Tyler Douglas, tells just-drinks.

The research points to differing consumer attitudes towards brands communicating directly with them, which Douglas says is "generally viewed in a positive light", and gathering data without that direct communication, particularly through third parties, which is viewed "far less favourably". Only 17% are comfortable with brands using information acquired through third parties for personalisation efforts.

Consumer hostility to engaging with brands on social media could clearly undermine continued growth in personalisation

Personalisation has been a key consumer trend in the drinks market for some time, fostered in no small measure by the brand-consumer dialogue on social media. Consumer hostility to engaging with brands on social media could clearly undermine continued growth in personalisation.

In spite of recent events, the Vision Critical research suggests many consumers recognise the benefits of personalisation. Some 58% of respondents said they respond better to more personalised messages from brands, while 80% are comfortable with brands using information shared directly to better personalise messages.

Douglas says it is possible consumers will be more reserved about participating in a social media relationship with brands following the scandal, but he is relatively sanguine.

"What we've seen in our research is that consumers are not opposed to providing information to brands, particularly if the brand provides value back to them," says Douglas. "But, they want more transparency and control over that information.

"Ultimately, this means that brands need to engage customers directly and treat that exchange of value with more respect."

"The greater the transparency, the better the relationship with the consumer and the better the quality of the data will be"

Scott McDonald, CEO of the Advertising Research Foundation, believes giving consumers themselves more control over how data is collected will bolster the consumer-brand relationship. "I think we will see greater efforts to make it clear how consumers can opt out of data collection and to define what data is being collected," he says. "That is all wholly appropriate and, I believe, will be welcomed by the industry. The greater the transparency, the better the relationship with the consumer and as a result the better the quality of the data will be."

Consumers wanting their social media relationship with brands to be more on their terms speaks to a general feeling that consumers are trying to 'reclaim' social media as something that serves them.

Andy Stern, strategy director at advertising agency McGarryBowen, also firmly believes consumers in the digital age instinctively understand the value that an online relationship with brands brings them. For that reason, more than any other, the growth in personalisation will continue. "I don't expect that the scandal itself will slow down the legitimate use of personal information in targeting," Stern says.

However, he believes consumers are trying to regain a level of control over social media and return it to its original purpose, which was to support interpersonal relationships, not b2c communication. He sees this process as potentially disruptive for brands.

"The sense of having lost control of something that you feel was yours, or yours and your friends', would be a clear takeout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal," Stern says. "One of the challenges will be if consumers continue to increase their usage of more direct one-to-one messaging platforms instead of more broadcast social media platforms. WhatsApp is not somewhere brands have been particularly successful in getting a foothold in, if at all."

Meanwhile, Stern expects that the significant spike in people installing adblockers on their web browsers could be sustained. "You might continue to see an increase in people installing adblockers as another way of getting around the feeling that they're being targeted," he says. "Equally, not accepting cookies in browsers is another way of stopping companies gathering your data in the first place."

In addition to reclaiming social media, Stern believes some consumers may seek to subvert the current model by building deliberately inaccurate and misleading profiles. Nevertheless, Stern believes the Cambridge Analytica scandal will not impede the growth of digital media.

"There may be a blip," he says. "It's always going to be driven by consumer behaviour and this scandal is not going to mean people are going to start watching more TV and using social media less. Facebook will recover from this."

However, he believes recent events have served to confirm Facebook's status as a mass digital broadcaster rather than the steward of peer-to-peer online communication that it once was.

"What we are seeing here is an opportunity for brands to re-examine what they've been doing"

"Digital advertising and marketing will survive and continue to grow," Douglas concludes. "Social media platforms serve a valuable purpose in the lives of many people. But, what we are seeing here is an opportunity for brands to re-examine what they've been doing and look at it through the eyes of their customers.

"Brands that authentically engage customers in relationship-driven, mutually-valuable exchanges of information that demonstrate respect for the customer's time and the information they provide will continue to gain trust and loyalty. Brands that treat customers as data points to be exploited will increasingly find their customers to be disillusioned with their customer experience and less likely to share information."

Douglas and McDonald both suggest that ultimately this could be a positive moment for digital marketers. The most important lesson that has been learned, in Douglas' view, is that being able to acquire information about consumers is not the same as establishing a relationship.

"This is a time of reckoning for marketing professionals," says Douglas. "Ultimately, the outcome will be good for everyone involved, not least of which are the consumers themselves.

"Digital media has provided more power to learn about customers, but what we're realising is that knowing about someone is not the same as knowing and building a relationship with them."

McDonald believes the episode has been "beneficial" because it brought to light an important issue. Since the scandal broke, the Advertising Research Foundation has initiated discussions among its membership, which includes advertisers, advertising agencies, research firms and media companies, regarding the development of voluntary industry guidelines for data collection and privacy.

This move towards self-regulation may have come too late, though, as political support in the US for online privacy legislation grows in the wake of the scandal. Meanwhile in Europe, next month sees the official introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

A timely regulatory development if ever there was one.

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