How the Cambridge Analytica scandal could change marketing forever

News of industrial-scale data sharing shocked the world – the aftermath could see an existential reckoning for brands everywhere.

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Like never before, data sharing has hit the headlines.

The online world has been rocked by revelations about some of its totemic beasts. As you will have heard by now, Cambridge Analytica has managed to access detailed information on tens of millions of Facebook profiles, squirrelling it away for use in election campaigns, referendums and who knows what else.

A quick recap

It’s a landmark scandal for a few reasons.

First, it’s brought into the public consciousness just how much of our personal lives we are inadvertently putting online, and the ways in which it could be used against us. This is having wide-ranging political consequences, with calls from some quarters for an out-and-out rerun of the Brexit referendum where Cambridge Analytica’s data is thought to have been deployed extensively.

Also interesting is just how poorly Facebook, once untouchable, has handled the affair. Failing to nip the story in the bud meant it ran out of control and made Facebook’s slick operation look decidedly wobbly.

The ‘#DeleteFacebook‘ movement continues apace while some commentators have talked about the ‘third age of Zuckerberg’ as the man who once appeared to have eyes on the White House now faces the prospect of a grilling from American and British lawmakers.

This last point is particularly interesting for marketers.

Having been exposed for their cavalier approach to data sharing, Facebook and Google are now anxious to give the pendulum a good old push back the other way and prove their commitment to user privacy.

Given the duopoly’s overwhelming digital dominance, their combined sneezing power could give just about the whole internet a cold.

A perfect storm

You don’t have to look very hard to find adtech pessimism littered across blogs and industry commentary sites stretching back years.

But it wasn’t so long ago that it seemed poised to sweep up all before it from a revenue-raising perspective. Indeed, even towards the end of last year we reported that BuzzFeed was reluctantly implementing banner advertising.

It’s remarkable how much has changed in 2018 – and how much more change is on the horizon.

As privacy preservation posturing reaches fever pitch, initiatives have been coming thick and fast from big businesses that would have been unimaginable even at the tail end of 2017.

Industries with big demands on data – notably ad tech – are first in the firing line. Marketers relying on user data to create tailored messages and user-friendly content won’t be far behind.

Business Insider reports that Facebook is launching a big campaign to prevent ad targeting through third-party data.

Although many at Google are doubtless breathing a sigh of relief at having escaped Facebook’s PR car crash, YouTube will suspend third-party ad serving in the EU as of 21 May with a view to rolling out the initiative worldwide.

A survey of Digiday+ members (very much the cream of the digital crop) shows 69% believe marketers might never collect data in the same way again in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

And all of this has taken place in the last week alone.

It’s not clear that all of this is down to Facebook’s public woes. In the YouTube example, the official line is that new caution around ad serving is necessary due to GDPR (with the cynics arguing that Google is simply trying to wrest control from third-party ad vendors to give its own analytics tools a boost).

But amid the public scrutiny that has been poured on Cambridge Analytica – and, yes, the coming storm of GDPR too – 2018 is set to be a year of reckoning like never before for data deployers the world over.

Buy provisions, get to shelter

How should marketers react to these changes?

With the web’s big players still writhing about in an effort to score PR points, onlookers should be careful about knee-jerk reactions. Upheaval is afoot, but keeping a safe distance and allowing the dust to settle seems wise.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of points worth reiterating.

However scary the new climate of enlightenment and due process around use and abuse of personal information seems, it is merely a stepping stone in the digital world’s emergence from data anarchy. This may be a messy process, but it will be a worthwhile one.

Tried and tested formats provide a welcome fallback against a turbulent backdrop. Print, for example, might not seem an obvious addition to your marketing mix right now. But it evades the strictures of GDPR – something we’ve discussed here before on Content Desk – and in doing so deserves renewed credence in a world of uncertainty around data.

Additionally, it’s possible to be a tech-forward business without resorting to dodgy use of personal information. This needs to be done carefully, but many firms are already witnessing tremendous gains from combining astutely-applied automation with existing content. From chatbots to knowledge banks, the possibilities are there to be seized.

It’s troubling to watch on as the battle for data between corporate monoliths and regulators rages. Whatever equilibrium emerges over the coming months and years, it’s unlikely marketers will remain unscathed. But content might be our best hope.