Is this the end of Facebook?
No, probably not. At least not yet. Social networks come and go, and while Facebook use is on the decline (along with its share of the US ad market), those looking to leave Facebook over privacy concerns don’t have many alternatives.
Vero — a subscription-based social media startup that doesn’t serve ads or mine data — soared to number 1 in the App Store's social category at the end of February, with 3 million users taking advantage of its free-for-life early adopters’ offer. On the surface, Vero looks like it could herald a new era of social media, but performance issues, a slightly confusing UX, and the fact that, well, nobody’s really using it, makes this somewhat unlikely.
The surge in Vero downloads — part retaliation to Instagram’s latest algorithm changes, part “sign up while it’s free, just in case” — is impressive, but whether this translates into active users remains to be seen. We could have another Ello on our hands (which isn't dead, by the way — it's just gone niche).
Should we still advertise on Facebook?
This is a moral question more than anything, and ultimately it’s up to you. Facebook advertising is a hefty source of revenue for some eCommerce brands, and stopping that spend might not be a great move financially.
But it’s also worth considering what your audience is thinking and feeling right now. Users are looking at their feeds with greater scrutiny, and with greater suspicion of the targeted content that appears there. You don’t want to be seen as part of the problem — or seen to be funding it.
Continuing to advertise on Facebook, at least for now, could be detrimental to brands who have built a reputation on being “good” and championing social causes. There’s a risk of coming across as hypocritical or disingenuous here. Redistributing ad spend in the short term — to Google Ads, for example — could be a wise move.
How do we get consumers to trust us with data (and why should they)?
While personal data will inevitably be a sore subject for a while, there’s opportunity in all this. With GDPR (new privacy regulations that will change the way organisations collect, store and use their customer data) coming into effect in May, brands can kill two birds with one stone: provide reassurance to consumers about how their data is used, and ensure they're covered when GDPR comes into effect.
Ultimately, consumers want and expect a personalised experience, and brands need data to provide that. There's a trade-off that most people are willing to make: information in exchange for a better user experience. But the thing is, right now, people don't feel their data is in safe hands.
Running a re-permissioning campaign is one way of rebuilding trust and reassurance here. Send an email to explain what data you collect on your customers, what you use that data for, and ask for permission to continue using it (and if you don't get permission, stop).
Oh, and if you’re not sharing customer data with third parties, now would be a really good time to mention that. Thanks to Facebook, this is the big fear right now.
And be careful: if your customers have explicitly opted out of communications, you shouldn't be contacting them after GDPR comes into effect, even if it's to ask for their permission to contact them.
Facebook might be at the heart of this scandal but this isn’t a Facebook-specific problem. This is a problem with the personal data that we’re putting out there on a daily basis, and big tech’s responsibility to handle it ethically. We need stricter rules about how data is used and collected online, and serious consequences for companies that flout them. But there's no real precedent here — it's only relatively recently we've had access to data on this scale. We don't know what to do with it.
Besides, how can companies like Facebook ensure their data is only being used legitimately? When questioned, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be using the data for academic research, and Facebook told them to go ahead. Cambridge Analytica's parent company, Global Science Research (GSR), is owned by Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge academic. It all looked to be above board. More stringent checks should be possible, and are likely necessary, but this would be at the expense of genuine researchers who aren't trying to influence elections.
But maybe — and we say this optimistically — this isn't for big tech to decide. With Gen Z ditching Facebook in favour of "closed" social apps like Snapchat, and users seeking out Messenger alternatives like the (ironically, Facebook-owned) Whatsapp or the "secure" choice Signal, we may be looking at the dawn of a newer, more responsible social media landscape — or the demand for it, if nothing else. Perhaps a subscription-based model like Vero's is the way to go. You know what they say: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. And maybe we’re getting sick of being sold.