Have Marketers Learned Anything Since Cambridge Analytica?

Author: Tom Chapman

When the Cambridge Analytica story broke last year, it represented a real turning point. All across the country, Facebook users downloaded their data files and expressed shock at the information collected – especially considering these details could have been used by the consultancy firm to influence their voting behaviour.

However, I – and many other marketers – were not surprised by the contents of our data files. After all, for years, we had been using audience data to shape our strategies and decision-making.

This wasn’t without user consent either – typically, everything we did was included in the ‘terms and conditions’. However, if we’re honest with ourselves, we also hoped our customers wouldn’t find out.

The real Cambridge Analytica story was not that a firm had used audience data to influence decisions – but that the average user is woefully ignorant of how their personal information is collected online.

More than a year on since the scandal and lessons are still being learned. However, many marketers stuck their heads in the sand and refused to adapt – arguably making them no better than the consultancy firm.

Customers are learning

The Cambridge Analytica scandal – and the following revelations – prompted users to change their behaviours online. One survey, conducted by Atlantic journalists, polled individuals after the event and discovered that almost 80% of respondents were either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the privacy of their information on social media. Moreover, around 82% now reported self-censoring themselves on these networks.

Almost 10% of individuals also reported deleting or deactivating their Facebook account following Cambridge Analytica.

Although the publication admits this information isn’t scientific, it presents a good indicator of how users are changing online in response to Cambridge Analytica. Its findings have been backed up by separate research published by marketing firm SlickText. This report highlighted a number of conclusions in the post Cambridge Analytica world, such as:

  • Almost three-quarters of users are concerned about how their information is used
  • More than 90% are unlikely to do business with a firm if they have concerns about their data privacy.
  • Around 85% are now more aware when companies were targeting them online.

These research pieces highlight how much customers have changed online and demonstrate that we – as marketers – must adapt to their changing needs.

Here’s the problem

Although customers have been extremely vocal regarding their concerns, the marketing sector has largely responded with silence – a silence which speaks volumes. In the words of Mark Ritson, writing for Marketing Week:

“In the past two weeks I’ve had the same uncomfortable conversation with several senior marketers. We start with a quick summary of what is going on in the Cambridge Analytica saga. We shift to what this might mean for Facebook, digital media and general marketing. And then, after a pause, the marketer inevitably says with a sheepish grin: ‘We’ve been doing this shit for years.’”

From my own experiences, marketers seem to be treating the Cambridge Analytica scandal similar to a passing storm – and then returning to the practices which have earnt the ire of so many individuals.

In this world where we can know almost anything about a customer, it’s easy to regard these people as just statistics, numbers, a column on a spreadsheet. However, many of us have lost sight of who these individuals are – and forgotten their wishes should, at least, be listened to.

Here’s the solution

The real legacy of Cambridge Analytica will be one of customer transparency. Businesses which are honest and ethical about how data is collected – and used – will triumph over the competition. Publishing a survey demonstrating this, customer feedback firm VisionCritical found:

  • Around two-thirds of customers would be more comfortable sharing personal information with brands if those organisations told them about how the data was being used
  • More than 40% of respondents were happy to exchange personal information for a more personalised service

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is not the end of data-driven marketing. Far from it. Instead, we just have to be more honest and open with our customers about how this information is being used and why. One good place to start could be our ‘terms and conditions’. Instead of creating reams and reams of paperwork which we know users are never going to read, it might be time to simplify these documents to ensure users understand what they’re consenting to.

What’s more, it can be argued that consumer information – given freely and with full knowledge – will allow us to make better data-driven insights.

Customer trust was deeply rocked by Cambridge Analytica and we have a responsibility to start winning that back. Sadly, the scandal is likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how users’ data is collected and processed online. The first major company to be transparent with its customers will find itself in a good position when the next revelation occurs.

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