Is Facebook Destroying Trust in Marketers?

First let me say that “trust in marketers” may strike some as oxymoronic. After all, is the business of the marketer not to subtly entice the prospect to spend on products or services they might have otherwise gone without? Of course. Yet there is no hue and cry against good honest marketing. At their best, marketers are merchant-poets: getting you to see something in a new light and even buying that thing. And often enough, the buyer is satisfied and feels it was a helpful exchange.

So it’s not so outlandish to describe the relationship between honest marketers and their prospects as somewhat “trusting.” Even on the simplest level, this trust is a necessary component of the purchase: buy a stick of gum and you are engaging in a multilevel exchange of trust and value. Your trust is challenged when confronted with 20 kinds of gum. By the time you are paying, just one of them is trusted to deliver what you wanted. Your trust is proven when the gum tastes good. The gum company trusts that you didn’t pay with a wooden nickel. The gum company wants you to buy more gum so they keep quality high and consistent, further to nurture your trust and additional gum chewing. Overall it’s a reasonable, trusting exchange.

Today marketers need to be especially wary of keeping trust sacrosanct. In an age where the digital collection of user data is a profound factor in the marketing equation, consumers are rightly concerned that they may be giving more than they are getting. In many cases they are misguided in believing they have a right to free access to content and the content provider has a right to exactly nothing in exchange. Clearly marketers in the first decade of the web, in their frenzied rush to get “eyeballs,” threw content at us for free as if mere table scraps. They succeeded in training a generation to expect trade as optional! Thus it seems that marketers today must keep users educated about what the fair and effective exchange really is these days: often it’s payment in data.

Which is where Facebook comes out on the wrong side of the equation. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s poorly handled public relations or a form of envy that causes the bad press, or if there really are moral hazards in play. But for whatever reason, Facebook has become the face of privacy paranoia. And the question for marketers is whether Facebook has hit the privacy iceberg, and is therefore sinking the entire data collection community in a sea of mistrust.

While most marketers work hard to understand how to optimize user experience by using data, Facebook seems to be playing rugby with the same type of information. Some of the activities associated with being blatantly uncool: creating a timeline of your activity without your consent; tracking when people tag you in pictures you didn’t know you were in; and we know that law enforcement openly peruses Facebook walls looking for troublemakers…even if the latter is not Facebook’s “fault,” the list could go on. Sometimes it presents a posture of surveillance rather than data collection.

Of course Facebook is a private company operating within the law. And no one is compelled to use Facebook. So the Facebook user has played the game and has less grounds for complaint than one might imagine. But from a marketer’s point of view, can it be a good thing that certain giant data collection companies like Google and Facebook have created an atmosphere where data collection itself is seen in a harsh spotlight?

By vacuuming the consumer carpet clean of data and then seeming to perform unsettling data magic with what they’ve got, the big data daddies may have created an atmosphere that makes it harder for more innocent marketers to collect data without raising suspicion – and if we think there’s a hitch in the marketer’s step here, take a look at Europe, where marketers are virtually glancing over their shoulders to make sure they are not being followed by the privacy police.

Air and sunlight are always good for healing wounds. Is it time for a national conversation about data collection and its limits? Is it better to let the ship sail on, hoping the ice field is well to the north? These are questions marketers should ponder, as the future of data collection relies on broad public acceptance.

As for Facebook, we can only suggest that it continues to behave in a manner that comes across as arrogant and careless. And for a company that holds such great power in the marketplace, and to whom many marketers are linked if only by professional association, these traits cannot be helpful in the long term. They do say pride comes before a fall.

We don’t want the mighty Facebook to fall. And certainly not on top of us.

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