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Marketers rejoice? Why Facebook's latest controversy could be good for brands

25th Jun 2014
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Recently, Facebook announced new means of collecting data on its users. It will soon be accessing members’ browsing histories to track all their online activity and learn which other websites and apps they are using.

It's all in a bid to improve the relevance of the adverts it delivers to users. Facebook sees the move as improving its service not only for advertisers, but also for its members, who should start seeing more personalised adverts as a result. At the moment, Facebook can only learn about preferences from the activity which goes on within the confines of the site, such as likes and shares. This, in its eyes, is rather limiting.  

Unsurprisingly, the announcement has not been met with unadulterated enthusiasm, partly due to Facebook’s already colourful history of privacy breaches. As John Fleming, marketing director EMEA & APAC at analytical solutions provider, Webtrends, notes: “Facebook has been somewhat cavalier about its users’ privacy in the past, which causes consumers to mistrust and fear announcements such as this.”

So, with such a justifiably wary userbase, could this development be doomed? Well, Fleming hints at some interesting research findings that counter this theory. “Webtrends has recently undertaken an in-depth consumer research study, which will be launched in the coming weeks, that demonstrates how effective personalised marketing can be and how, in fact, it is welcomed by consumers. Among other findings, the research shows that just 13% of Britons don’t like receiving personalised content from brands."

For Facebook’s – and its advertisers’ sake – let’s hope that’s accurate, as Bhavesh Vaghela, CMO of web analytics provider ResponseTap, notes that the initiative's fate relies on its users. “How much success Facebook will find with this will depend on whether users implement the ‘opt-out’ clause – through the Digital Advertising Alliance – or indeed, whether they allow every app on their phone, tablet and the website to allow Facebook access to their information.”

Old news

Despite uproar from critics, tracking people’s browsing history in the name of marketing is not a new concept. It’s been done. In fact, it’s been done for quite a while now.

“I, personally, have to side with Facebook when it points out that ‘this is a type of interest-based advertising, and many companies already do this’,” says Angela Knibb, senior search manager at digital marketing agency, Greenlight. “We have certainly been running display campaigns across multiple platforms for years based on cookie data to track users’ interests and types of sites they’ve visited and targeting them accordingly.”

Andy Mitchell, digital media expert and European MD at online video platform, BrightRoll, is neither surprised or sceptical about Facebook’s announcement, which he notes is “not original or unique." He continues: "What the company is trying to do is understand anonymous behaviour with a degree of depth that allows it to provide a better service to advertisers. This is the motive for any publisher.

“Even Google has Google Now that looks at what users are doing in their PC browsers and then references this, if and when they are using mobile devices, to deliver a seamless experience across platforms. A year or so back, the search giant made an announcement that it was going to share this personal or anonymous data across all of its products. It did this with a logical and rational argument that they were all products and services from one company. The way Facebook is doing this is probably within the same logic, as it is using its links to other places on the internet to retarget its own customers.”

Why marketers are high-fiving 

So why exactly is this such good news for brands – will it really make that much of a difference to their social campaigns? Knibb definitely thinks so. “For advertisers, it certainly opens up a lot of doors in terms of finding and engaging with new and relevant users. It’s a really interesting move, and could really help to boost performance and investment within paid social activity on Facebook, by allowing advertisers to find users who are actively searching for their product, but engage with them when they’re in a different mind-set.”

Fleming concurs. “Using online analytics to learn more about their customers enables marketers to plan and allocate resources more efficiently, rather than pushing out messages to all and sundry and hoping for the best. And because consumers receive relevant content and offers based on their likes and preferences, they’re more likely to convert to sales or engage positively with the brand.”

But could this fist in the air for marketers be a slap round the face for privacy-conscious users? Well, not necessarily. Justin Thorne, marketing director EMEA of digital solution provider Kenshoo, is keen to point out how this development could improve their Facebook experience. “We have to remember that Facebook is providing a way for users to control what they see and how their data will be used to serve ads. And remember that the data is only used for serving ads – data on who users are and their browsing history will never be shared or accessed by individuals. It is all controlled by an algorithm - automated, aggregated and anonymous.

“This is a positive move,” he asserts. “We expect Facebook users to be more responsive to ads that are targeted beyond interests and geo-demographics. The ads will be relevant and timely and will offer products people are actually searching for."

Jonathan Lakin, CEO of audience intelligence solution provider Intent HQ, agrees that Facebook is moving forward in a positive way, and thinks that consumers recognise this, as they're beginning to appreciate the give-and-take nature of their relationship with social media. "A number of Facebook moves, including this one and its previous announcement about anonymous logins, are all steps in the direction of giving users more control," he says. "Increasingly, consumers recognise that providing social data is an exchange so that the brand can deliver a better or more useful experience to them. When brands are upfront about the value exchange, it benefits everyone. Facebook is showing that it clearly understands this."

What's next?

In Vaghela's view, this announcement by Facebook is only the beginning – this type of data harvesting could soon be taking place in other channels, too. “We live in a world where more data means smarter decisions, and how brands make use of information is one thing, how we all collectively educate consumers is what’s important. Browsing history is just one piece of a complex puzzle, one which needs to start factoring in offline data too, such as phone calls.”

Lakin also sees Facebook extending its marketing activity further outside the parameters of it's website: "They have already announced that they are going to use this data on mobile. But, in future, what I think they will start to do is use their collective data assets to target ads on other people’s sites, outside their own ‘walled garden’."

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