Why Facebook’s Data Mishandling Hurts

Facebook’s sort-of apologies in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal have unleashed another round of tut-tutting across the internet.  If you (still) use the network, I’m sure you’ve seen friends make good on promises to delete the app or even their entire account because they no longer trusted Zuck with their personal info.

Funny thing is, I don’t recall a similar response to credit card breaches by retailers.  People shrugged and said “cost of doing business, I suppose.”

If I may venture a dubious opinion, I believe people got more upset at Facebook than at, say, Target because relative to other social networks, Facebook encourages something approaching honesty.

Yes, you heard me: honesty.  Sure, Facebook has featured more than its fair share of humblebrags and flat-out fabrication.  However, on Facebook more than other networks, we tend to know our contacts, so they know us better.  Meanwhile, Twitter has succumbed to robots and flame wars while LinkedIn feels like a motivational speaker tryout.  I can’t speak for other popular networks such as Facebook’s Instagram or the oldie-befuddling Snapchat.

For whatever reason, we seem to put our trust, not to mention baby pictures, political opinions and general goings-on on Facebook.  We manufacture ourselves less there.  And feeling that someone has exploited that unmanufactured self really feels like betrayal.

The Marketer’s Case Against Cambridge Analytica

By now, you’ve probably read about how digital analytics firm Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook profile information from about 50 million people without their express permission.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s stealing.  And marketers should be outraged about it.

Since Cambridge Analytica used the information to benefit Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, the news has taken on a political cast.  For once, I will not get political.  Nevertheless, marketers should recognize this news as a teachable moment about why data privacy matters.

At first read, it may seem hard to understand what happened.  Here’s how it worked, according to the Times:

Researchers there [a center at Cambridge University that worked for Cambridge Analytica] had developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. The researchers paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, activity that Facebook permitted at the time.

In other words, the researchers gave a few people–270,000–some money to get access to their information.  They used those 270,000 to scrape profile information from a total of 50 million people, who did not give any permission whatsoever.

Since Cambridge Analytica scraped the information unseen and their clients used the information to power opaque campaigns in social media, it may seem harmless.  After all, no one got a credit card bill with thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges, which happens when hackers breach stores and banks.

It comes down to fairness.

Specifically, I think of something I learned years ago when I had a timeshare company as a client.  I spoke with owners (i.e. the people who owned shares, not the people who owned the properties), who genuinely liked their vacation ownership (per the preferred term).  They advocated timeshare properties to their friends.  And that’s where the trouble started.

My client offered shareowners a bonus for referrals, a common industry practice.  I don’t recall whether they paid the bonus for names and phone numbers alone or based on actual sales, nor do I recall the amount.  What I do recall is the satisfaction one shareowner felt when he told me that he sent my client his church’s congregational phone directory for them to mine for prospects.

“Friends, heaven is beautiful.  But have you seen Myrtle Beach?”

In my mind, the situation looks the same as Cambridge Analytica’s.  One person got paid, but he compromised hundreds of others who a) did not give permission and b) probably didn’t know why they got calls from a timeshare company.  Clearly, these kind of tactics will erode trust in and favorability for the brand.

Certainly, three minutes trying to get a timeshare salesman off the phone does not rise to the level of damage from a campaign to manipulate an election.  However, in terms of trying to show how marketers should not try to gather information, I think it fits the bill.

Email Strategy for Soccer Fans

As I’ve written before, I volunteer as a referee in my kids’ soccer league.  Since I’m a pretty garbage referee, I like to add value by helping them communicate more clearly with the high volume of email they send out.  Since my fellow volunteers understand soccer well and email not-so-well, I thought I’d prepare this quick course in email strategy for them based on my admittedly limited soccer knowledge.

That’s my daughter.  If she were a SPAM blocker, there would be no such thing as SPAM.

We’re talking about community mailings, not a profit-seeking email marketing campaign.  However, the basics remain broadly the same.

First, think about goals.  Duh.

Just as soccer has a literal goal, community emails need to have a goal, too.  “Keeping the community informed” doesn’t give the email sender much of a clear goal.  Informed about what, exactly?  However, a goal such as “keeping the games civil” or “ensuring that games are safe, fun and fair” give the sender a better idea of what she needs to accomplish.  In my case, the league asked me to help them recruit more volunteers to the referee training class.  In soccer terms, that gives me a clear shot on goal.

No goals on Simon’s watch, either

Subject lines are like passes: have a target in mind

Once kids graduate from “swarmball,” passing the ball becomes a focus for coaches.  However, when they start passing, most kids just kick the ball in the general direction of the opposing goal.  Half the time, an opposing player will end up with it.

As with passes, subject lines need to have a target in mind.  Think of them as the opening of an offensive play.  Just as a midfielder would think about the positions of the players on the pitch, the email sender needs to think about where the recipients of the email are.

In my case of encouraging referee participation, I knew the email was going to parents who had expressed interest in volunteering as a referee, not simply every parent in the league.  As a result, I recommended a subject line of “Take the referee class so that no player has to miss a game.”  Poetry?  Not by a goal kick.  However, it does get the point across to a bunch of busy parents.

 

Hail to the Redskins!  I mean, nice pass, Leah!

Teamwork over star power

In the recreational league where I volunteer, each team usually has one athlete who plays head-and-shoulders above the others.  Once the other kids get ahold of passing, team offense usually consists of passing the ball to this star and letting her take a shot on goal.  Usually, the star roams the whole field, goal line to goal line, touchline to touchline.  However, once the opposing teams learn how to neutralize or isolate the star, her team suffers.

Just as a team can’t rely on a one player, the league shouldn’t rely on one email.  Over time, I’ve noted a tendency of volunteer-led organizations to stuff too much information into one email, such as asking for volunteers to bring the team snack, reminding parents to show up on time and to announce the date of picture day.

Instead of expecting one email to do it all, space out more focused emails and let each do its job.

Fortunately for Simon, someone got the snack memo

In the case of my referee class email, we had a goal narrow enough that we didn’t run a risk of overloading it with information.  However, we will need to plan run-of-the-mill emails sent during the course of the season around individual goals rather than as catch-alls.

So, in email as in soccer: keep your goal in mind, have a target for your passes and teamwork makes the dream work.  However, in email, you’re allowed to use your hands.  Play on.

I was right. Now I regret it. (Off topic; explicit politics)

After the Newtown, Conn. shootings in 2012, I addressed the deep despair that I felt the way I often do, by writing about it.  In a post on my old blog, I wrote that the National Rifle Association should shift the debate to mental health since they wouldn’t ever countenance any restriction on firearm ownership, no matter how common-sense.

I feel like an idiot now for writing that.

Several school shootings later, our country faces another seemingly intractable debate on guns and the NRA has chosen to cast the problem as a mental health problem.  They claim, not without some justification, that these mass shooters suffer from mental illness.  After all, no completely sane person would do that sort of thing.  Their argument muddies the waters a bit as plenty of people with mental illness wouldn’t do that sort of thing, either and lumping all mentally ill people together demonizes a population already fighting against shame.

Moreover, it’s total bullshit.

If you think arguing with gun enthusiasts over the definition of “assault rifle” seems intense, imagine arguing over what “mental illness” means.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of mental health professionals known as DSM, had just shy of 500 pages in 1980.  Now it has 947 pages, which speaks to ongoing learning about mental illness as well as disagreements in the mental health community.

Even if we consider the science of mental illness settled and even if Federal and state governments adequately fund mental health initiatives, it seems unlikely to me that the NRA and their conservative constituents would ever accept the consequences of increased vigilance.

Let’s imagine a scenario where a teacher, worried about a student’s mental health, or perhaps a well-meaning student who sees disturbing messages from a fellow student on a social network, asks the authorities to intervene.  I have to imagine that a protocol would include a home visit and family interview by a social worker or psychologist.  Here are some things that might happen:

AR-15 in the home

Let’s say the child shows signs that point to his becoming a mass shooter (again; let’s assume we can agree on what those signs are).  Now let’s say that the father keeps a registered and code-compliant AR-15 in an unlocked cabinet without a trigger lock and that these acts are legal in the jurisdiction.  Should the police take away the legal weapon, even though it doesn’t belong to the kid?  Can they require the father to lock the gun up?

Signs of abuse

It’s no secret that mass shooters often have a history of domestic abuse, either that they commit or that they had fallen victim to.  Let’s say the social worker uncovers signs of abuse by a family member or friend.  Should the police arrest the perpetrator, even though the evidence against him was uncovered for a different purpose?

What about other potential weapons?

Let’s stick with the NRA’s perennial “people kill people” argument.  Let’s say that everyone agrees that the child has a potential to become a killer.  Should he be hospitalized?  If not, can the authorities restrict his access to things that could be used as weapons, such as knives, baseball bats or motor vehicles?  If so, how?

I believe that any mental health-first solution to gun violence would result in junk legislation, laws with too many loopholes to allow what legislators expect them to do.  More to the point, I think we can overcome the semantic debate over what constitutes a dangerous firearm with a good faith effort by both sides.  As I’ve noted before, Congress has enacted effective and substantial limitations to the Second Amendment at least twice, permanently banning civilian ownership of both machine guns and cheap, imported pistols.  There’s no reason to believe that they can’t find common ground over issues like magazine capacities or gratuitous military features on civilian guns.

With that, I’m done giving free advice to the NRA.

The Marketer’s Argument for Political Correctness

This President’s day, I learned that at the time of his death, George Washington’s Mount Vernon farm had over 300 enslaved persons.

Not slaves.  Enslaved persons.  That little difference–the politically correct difference–makes all the difference.  And that difference matters not just for so-called snowflakes but also for marketers.  Marketers can’t live in their own world; they must live in the worlds of their customers.

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Making the Case for Platforms (Warning: Explicit Math)

In some recent posts, I’ve discussed the values of platforms over campaigns.   For those of you just joining us, platforms, or brand-owned spaces that foster long-term engagement with customers, offer an economical alternative to acquiring and re-acquiring customers via Facebook and Google.

Today, I’d like to discuss the economics.  There will be math.  I am not above putting pictures of puppies in this post to keep you engaged.

I will stop at nothing to get you to pay attention to numbers.

The basic equation shouldn’t hurt; you need to compare costs to build and maintain the platform against expected customer value over a relevant time period.  I have no hard-and-fast figures for any of the above.  As always, the devil is in the details.

Costs to build and maintain

Costs fall into two categories: costs to create the platform and costs to drive consumers to it.  Creative costs vary as widely as the forms they take.  These costs depend mostly on what the marketer intends the platform to do, which in turn depends on what’s right for the audience.  Figuring out platform functionality–and hence creative costs–will probably take up the lion’s share of strategy development time due to the open-ended nature of building a platform.

Driving customers to the platform, aka acquisition, also represents a substantial cost.  Yes, despite all I’ve written about turning away from campaigns, I will now discuss why platforms require campaigns.

Puppy reminds you to think about a cost per action model!

A platform won’t grow customers all by itself.  Just as with any other marketing tactic, marketers need to make sure their audience knows about it for it to succeed.  That said, bear in mind that the platform will have lower acquisition costs than, say, a campaign designed to sell something.  A relevant platform offers something useful or entertaining to the consumer, something of immediate value.  A timely article or a fun mini-game will have broader interest than a straight sell.

Expected customer value

Acquisition costs nothwithstanding, platforms ultimately must drive some measurable value such as sales.  Direct brands and retailers have no problem here since they can usually connect a visitor to a sale easily.  Other brands in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, automotive or consumer durables have some more math to do, especially in terms of attribution.  The same goes for direct or B2B brands that don’t rely on digital channels to close the sale.

In short, how the hell do you correlate activity on a cleaning tips app to sales of a washing machine?

It’s not “attribute,” it’s “attri-cute!”

As Bob Dylan would have said had he gone into marketing, “the answer my friend, is proxies.”  Well, he might have said it, at any rate.  Marketers need to find good proxies for purchase behavior.  Let’s use the cleaning tips app and imagine our client is GE appliances (disclosure: they were a client of mine before GE sold them off).  GE appliances could push a coupon through the app or encourage new purchasers to register their new appliances via the app.  From this proxy, GE appliances could use the cost of the appliance or some derivation thereof as the yardstick for value.

Relevant time period

Marketers can’t measure a platform’s success in the same relatively short time period that they might use for a typical campaign.  Platforms engage consumers at different points of their journey, so results may not happen in the near-instant time frames associated with digital campaigns.

As a starting point, the time period for measuring platform success should correspond to the customer journey in some way.  On a recent platform project for an automotive brand, for instance, I used three years as a period of measurement because three years represents a typical (if short) ownership period for a car.  For the appliance example above, ownership periods represent too long a period to wait; people hang onto major appliances for more than a decade!  Instead, it might help to look at a length of time related to the purchase cycle.  A typical CPG, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.  People replenish their pantries and supply closets weekly.  As a result, the measurement period might represent a typical timeline for a customer to go from new customer to brand-loyal customer.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Now, let’s talk long-term lease depreciation.

I’ve sketched out the math for platforms in very broad terms.  Hopefully, you can use this math as a framework for evaluating ideas that will allow you to break your brand’s dependence on the digital duopoly.  If not, I hope you liked the puppy pictures.

OK, P&G. I’m Impressed

“Only Nixon could go to China.”

A Procter & Gamble ad promoting their Olympic sponsorship reminds me of this old political chestnut, made popular by “Star Trek VI.”  I speak in particular of the vignette of a bullied, gay male figure skater being consoled by his mother.

I’m impressed

As the right-thinking among us say “it’s about time,” let me ad some context.  Nearly a quarter-century ago, I conducted communication check interviews for Cognac Hennessy to determine whether an ad read “gay” or not.

For the blessedly uninitiated, brands often run communication check interviews to confirm that an ad gets the main idea over to its audience.  So Bud might conduct communication check research to ensure that beer drinkers who saw a TV spot heard “beechwood aged” enough times to get the point.

Hennessy’s ad, a pencil sketch concept at this point, featured a younger man hugging an older man with a headline about the experience of coming home.  As an aside, the sketch of the younger man bore a striking resemblance to our account director, David Freeman (RIP, Dieter), Apparently, two men hugging in 1994 was a big deal.  So happens, most respondents didn’t see the ad as depicting gay men, although a few suggested that maybe the younger man was gay and the hug signaled acceptance from his father.

Lots of things happened between then and now, including “Will & Grace” and Obergfell v. HodgesEllen DeGeneres kissed a woman on prime time TV and the world didn’t end.  The arc has truly bent towards justice on this issue, even as some remain opposed.  As Kahlil Gibran said, “the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”

Kudos to P&G for joining the caravan and leaving the dogs behind.

Why rent when you can buy? The argument for marketing platforms.

In my last post, I argued that Facebook’s decision to shift their news feed algorithm away from publishers’ posts and back towards friends’ and family members’ posts should encourage marketers to build platforms as a hedge against changes that might hurt them.  Solid advice.

Now what the hell is a marketing platform and why should marketers invest in one?

In terms of description, a marketing platform is a long-term marketing initiative, often but not always digital, that engages customers and prospects at one or more points along the customer journey in a brand-owned space.  Let me emphasize that last point about a brand-owned space.  In some ways, platforms work like branded content in reverse; rather than engage consumers in a trusted publisher’s space, platforms build brand trust by becoming media properties themselves.

Some of my favorite examples of marketing platforms include:

Society of Grownups, Mass Mutual’s content platform for adult financial education

These models are about as psyched as you are to learn about IRAs

Society of Grownups speaks to a segment of recent-ish college graduates who need to start making financial decisions with lifetime consequences.  Creating the Society of Grownups platform gives Mass Mutual’s content some credibility without relying on a publisher brand.  They update it frequently with new articles, graphics and calculators to encourage ongoing learning.

DIY Projects & Ideas, Home Depot’s tool and project tutorial series

Now I have a nail gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Home Depot has, of course, featured live tutorials in their stores for ages (and these, incidentally, serve as a great example of non-digital platforms).  Putting these tutorials online might represent an obvious next step for our connected and busy world.  However, they also encourage consumers and maybe even some pros to keep visiting the site and to build their trust with Home Depot.

Yeah?  So?  Why should I spend money on one?

Obviously, platforms such as these, which depend on fresh content and functionality, don’t come cheap, so why build them?

In terms of the investment discussion, it helps to think of platforms as a way to buy your audience’s attention rather than to rent it.  A successful platform reduces the need to acquire and re-acquire customers and prospects every time they reach the “shop” or “buy” phase of the customer journey.  They keep showing up because the platform has something of value for them.  Continued visits build brand trust that ultimately leads to purchase.

Speaking specifically of digital platforms, they can also play a valuable role as CRM tools.  At their simplest, any platform can have a “buy now” button or something similar.  The nail gun video above has links beneath it to drive users to a nail gun buying guide that leads to product pages.  More subtle approaches can gather data about visitors (assuming proper permissions, of course) and provision them with appropriate content and offers when they display buying behavior.

In a subsequent post, we’ll discuss how to build, maintain and most importantly measure the performance of marketing platforms.  For now, though, think of what you could do with your audiences if they belonged to you and not Facebook.

Facebook’s Revised News Feed is a Hint-and-a-Half for Your Ass

Pundits have not yet finished the volley of thought pieces in the wake of The Zuck’s decree that his kingdom’s news feed will focus more on posts by your friends and families and less on posts from publishers and, more to the point for our purposes, brands.  This move reminds me of the advice of noted marketing guru Eddie Murphy to people in horror films: “that’s a hint-and-a-half for your ass to get out.”

OK, maybe I exaggerate a little by suggesting that brands get out of Facebook (hey, clickbaiters gonna bait), but I think they should stop relying too much on Facebook for engagement and start building their own platforms.

It’s not an ark.  It’s a species diversity platform.

First, let’s acknowledge that no one, maybe not even Zuck himself, knows what the news feed change really means.  On the face of it, the change seems to limit opportunities for brands to buy their way into Facebook users’ consciousness.  However, Zuck didn’t become a gajillionaire by ignoring marketers’ and publishers’ wants.  Based on my studies of the Mafia and OPEC, I suspect that the Hoodied One wants to drive up margins by artificially limiting supply.  Take that as someone who grew up in the home state of Tony Soprano and Exxon.

Regardless of Facebook’s endgame, marketers should take this moment to acknowledge the media duopoly.  Facebook and Google account for 77% of all digital ad dollars spent.

As an alternative, look to create platforms rather than campaigns.  Specifically, I mean digital platforms such as The Wirecutter, an e-commerce platform owned by the New York Times or American Express OPEN’s Forum platform.  While campaigns and platforms both engage consumers around a brand, platforms seek long-term engagement rather than a limited time capture of consumers’ attention.  To put it another way, platforms help engage consumers when they’re interested in something, not merely when marketers have something to say.

Over time, successful platforms reduce the need to rely on Facebook or Google to snag consumers’ attention.  They become self-sustaining.  Facebook can restrict its news feed to French bulldogs for all your brand cares.  As my friend and mentor Tim Suther likes to say, “why rent your customers when you can buy them?”

Take the hint.  Build a platform.

Why Not Blockchain for News?

For the first time since color film, Kodak might be onto something.

Provider of mobile technology since ’88.  1888.

Pundits have already savaged The Great Yellow Father‘s entry into blockchain with KodakCoin.  After all, Bitcoin and cyrptocurrency hype continues to soar despite cautions from pretty good sources.

However, before consigning KodakCoin to the scrap heap, consider what Kodak and its partner WENN digital media created the product to do.  They intend to take advantage of blockchain’s distributed ledger to track the usage of photographs.  If you’ve never waded into the mire of photography digital rights, consider yourself lucky.  Fair, compensated use of photographs bedevils photographers and commercial entities who use photographs alike.

Also consider the larger opportunity: fake news.

Photo manipulation (e.g. Photoshop) has forced us to question the reality of a photograph since the days of Matthew Brady.  Now the ability to create a realistic photograph from nothing but algorithms has started to emerge.  A distributed ledger could verify that a picture of, say, Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon, really happened.

Why stop at photos?  Couldn’t we use a blockchain-driven technology to allow consumers to see who actually created a news article or video?  Sure, we can assume that a story appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s website really came from a WSJ reporter.  However, when we see a dubious news story in our Facebook feed, couldn’t something like KodakCoin let us know where it really came from?

I can’t wait to see how Kodak–wait for it–develops this idea.