How the Cambridge Analytica fallout could change online marketing forever

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By Amy Rowe

In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, Facebook is wondering who its friends really are. The social media platform has made some bold moves on its advertising platform. Here's what you need to know.

In the late summer of 2016, I spent weeks on a Facebook ad campaign targeting high net worth individuals. Using external data that was plugged into Facebook’s ad platform, I was able to target ads at mothers who earned over £100,000, worked in the City and who made investments. I was even able to drill down to what sort of investments. I remember feeling uncomfortable with how little Facebook told you about where the data came from and distrusted its accuracy. So I spent considerable effort trawling Facebook’s community help pages, the part of the advertising platform which encourages you to reconcile problems with other users. I didn’t get any answers there so I wrote and then, after days of silence, I called Facebook. All they could offer was that the data was accurate and came from third-party provider Acxiom – a provider that, among others, had its partnership with Facebook axed last week.

Why the break-up? The social network is hoping to prevent the illegal gathering and processing of data after accusations that data gathered by an app called This is Your Digital Life was passed to Cambridge Analytica, a company that uses data for political campaigns. That data, allegedly made up of the psychological profiles of 50 million Facebook users, is suspected to have been used by the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

In response to a rising tide of international anger, the social network has said it will delete targeting options offered up by third-party data providers. Acxiom and others pull data from many places, including public records, consumer surveys and retail records. In other words, in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, Facebook is wondering who its friends really are.

Where does this leave marketers?

But where will this soul-searching leave good, honest marketers, who aren’t trying to convince whole swathes of a population to vote one way or another because they’re susceptible to certain messages via Facebook? Also, profiling the public isn’t new, most businesses that promote products, online or otherwise, will have used third-party data at one time or other.

Acxiom’s CEO feels his business and other data providers are being used as scapegoats. Speaking to Business Insider, Scott Howe said: "The trouble was in Facebook managing its own data. And this doesn't actually offer individuals any more protection."

It does seem a confusing move, and logically, the platform is still open to abuse. To use the analogy of pruning a tree, it’s like cutting off a branch to allow for regrowth, without tackling the real problems at the root. Will other platforms, like Twitter, that sell third-party data options to advertisers follow suit? No word from them so far, it would be huge if they did.

More changes afoot

Facebook is also going to crack down on abuses made by companies uploading their own data, such as the use of data which was not gathered with a user’s full consent. This involves a part of its advertising suite known as Custom Audiences. The move makes more sense, as the Custom Audience feature was used by advertisers implicated in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It allows businesses – for example, a retail clothing store – to upload the email addresses of its current customers so it can retarget them with ads over Facebook. Now marketers using their company’s data will need to undergo some form of validation to prove that the data gathered and uploaded to the platform was done so lawfully. So far, so good, but how on earth will it actually work? Will there be a tickbox for marketers, or is Facebook going to pop over to check your data complies with the General Data Protection Regulation (or whichever regulations are relevant for your country)?

Whether Facebook’s moves will prevent another Cambridge Analytica, or are just the pointless arm thrashing of a swimmer caught too far out at sea, the public has finally had a rude awakening to big data. But it isn’t just Facebook that needs help. Marketers need to keep their eyes fixed on the horizon too, and not least because Facebook’s changes to its advertising platform will have a profound impact on marketing.

Creative thinking is crucial

Things could really change for anyone who has been creating ads to reach very specific demographics. While I am sure for the better, it seems there’ll first be a challenge ahead for any marketers forced to compare the success of legacy campaigns vs. newer ones. Quite simply, the same targeting options won’t exist and, overnight on Facebook at least, they will be wiped out. Savvy marketers will need to spend far more time on their own research, on important exercises such as audience segmentation, to drill down into the interests of their targeted audiences. They’ll also need to be cunning to adequately replace what was previously available  – and they’ll need to be far more imaginative about how to do that. Rather than target people who have ISAs, for example, they’ll need to have first gathered a picture of the interests of people who usually have an interest in ISAs or who already invest, and target them that way. So they’ll need to find out what they read, how they were educated, what ages they commonly are and so forth, matching ads this way. It’s not rocket science, but it does require more creative thought and home-grown research. Testing audiences, a staple for the competent marketer, will grow ever more important. Marketers will also need to find the language to explain new data challenges to clients, explaining why this means their future campaigns will need to be more agile and clever than ever.

What do you think? Holler at us on Twitter over @foco_global