Are we crossing the Digital Rubicon?

In the past few weeks we have taken some major steps in the area of advertising and privacy on the internet. I’m not going to copy and paste the press releases of Google, MySpace and Facebook, but I will quote the always brilliant (and wonderfully sarcastic) Nicholas Carr…

It’s a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.

Yes, apparently the future of advertising arrived this week. Zuckerberg pitched himself as a 21st century Gutenberg and marketers all over the world were loving every bit of it. And to be honest, it’s not all bad. Everyone working in the digital arena knew it was coming, but now it’s here we really need to think about what we’re doing with this future before we wreck the whole thing. To quote Uncle Ben (and/or Volatire), “With great power comes great responsiblity”.

According to Facebook, every user now has “a way to connect with things you are passionate about.”

But this is slightly misguided. Kids will always scribble brand names all over their pencil cases, but we’re talking a very small slice of brands. There are very few brands that people are willing to wear as a badge so publicly. So while Facebook seem to be preaching to every single brand manager in the world, the impact these announcements have on 99.9% of brands just won’t be significant enough to worry about. The only significant benefit for the majority of marketers is that now any brand venturing into these waters won’t be risking to the astro-turfing suicide of the past few years. And if the venture fails it will likely just fizzle out quietly (unless you’re Wal-Mart or McDonalds of course, in which case you’ll go down in a blazing Facebook fireball). It’s a safe way for any brand that has previously been hesitant about the whole 2.0 social web thing to jump in.

So while the direction we have taken in the past few weeks is exciting, it simply isn’t the knockout blow to traditional advertising that we’re being made to believe. It is the start of something big, but we can’t now just go out and start abusing this new technology and consequently the consumer’s trust. Everyone working in digital marketing and advertising has worked hard to earn the customer’s trust, and by giving consumers a voice in the social webspace brands have also taken a brave step. So before we go utilising the data that social networks will be so happily (and no doubt profitably) providing for our advertising, we need to think very hard about what expectations people have regarding their privacy.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

I have written about what is essentially the Social Ads platform previously, and I still think it really is the only way for marketers to effectively and positively use uninitiated advertising on the social web. This is not to say the digital ad departments as they currently stand are going to disappear. The most effective use of the web in marketing and advertising in the future will still be user-initiated discovery. But issues will begin to arise when people are being marketed to by unknowingly using their social data.

Users are happy to go to Facebook or MySpace or Ning and have targeted advertising. Done well this may even become a key reason for choosing one social platform over another. But where a certain ‘creep’ factor (in both senses of the word) will occur is when social data is being used outside of that network. This will create an increasing public distrust for the platforms, sites and brands involved. Very quickly everyone will get the feeling that their social network platforms are some sort of Panopticon.

The danger is that once advertisers cross that point, users will simply abandon those platforms. And if that happens then we’re back to banner ads and Flash games.

- November 2007