Clicks ’n Tricks: Facebook — shady data, uncool & terribly confused
by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) Facebook, long the darling of consumers, brands and analysts, has become a demon of late, with 2018 turning into an annus horribilis for the social media behemoth. All the signs also point to a continuation of the scandal and loss of direction that has beset it over the past 12 months.
The year started with a fake news hangover, progressed into the Cambridge Analytica debacle and a belaboured Congress dissection before stumbling into a shocking earnings report (during a 90-min conference call in late July, its market valuation shed an eye-popping R2tn). Over the past few weeks it’s faced renewed criticism that it’s not doing enough to block scamsters, that it’s leaking data, faking its numbers and ripping off advertisers.
Hires UK deputy PM
Desperate to change the narrative, in late October 2018, Facebook announced that it’d appointed a man who used to be the UK’s deputy prime minister as its global communications chief. But so strong is anti-Facebook sentiment that even this news was met with scorn; rumours had been circulating for a while that a senior British politician would be joining, with most pundits hoping it would be the dynamic ex-Labour foreign secretary, David Miliband, instead of the widely disliked and rather wet Nick Clegg.
A malaise born of confusion
Facebook’s malaise may be distilled into three primary issues. It’s uncool, its data is dodgy and it can’t decide whether it’s a publisher or a tech company.
On the first score, youngsters have fallen out of love with Facebook (although it’s debatable that they were ever in love with it in the first place). eMarketer reports that less than half of US-based 12-to-17-year-olds log onto the platform more than once a month. What’s more, the research company projects that it’ll shed around 2m US-based users aged 24 and younger this year. Granted, some of these will migrate over to the Facebook-owned Instagram, but rival Snapchat is likely to be the nett winner.
It’s also falling out of favour with celebs and professionals, with more and more following Jim Carey’s lead by dumping it. While he did so on ethical grounds, others are keen to remove the rabbit-hole distraction of a never-ending (and rather shitty) news feed from their busy lives.
Facebook’s had an issue with data for some time. And it’s not just that it’s criminally reckless with its customers’ information (in late September, it admitted that the latest in a long line of breaches affected 50m people’s information): it also seems clueless about its own numbers.
In 2017, it was ridiculed for saying it could reach more people than exist: its Australian operation claimed 1.7m more 15-to-39-year-olds as users than there are listed in the country’s official population numbers. The ensuring criticism prompted it to review how it measures accounts. It must have appointed a team of imbeciles to conduct the review as, instead of correcting the imbalance, it actually upped the number of invisible 15-to-39-year-old Aussies using its services for 2018.
Not content with overstating its user-base, it’s also been accused of inflating post and video engagement metrics. This audience distortion, coupled to the shenanigans around fake news, is pissing off the very advertisers on whom it depends (to the tune of $39.9bn last year). Earlier this year, Unilever instructed Facebook to ‘drain the swamp or else…’. Elsewhere, groups of smaller advertisers are launching class-action suits.
Who am I?
To my mind, the greatest cause of Facebook’s failure to please anyone is an underlying confusion over what it is: is it a publisher / media company or an IT company?
In a debate at the recent Festival of Marketing, bulldog commentator Mark Ritson laboured this point with Steve Hatch Facebook’s regional director of Northern Europe. Ritson maintained that, because Facebook has an editorial team, produces original programming and is the primary source of news for one-in-four British people, it should be viewed as a media company and thus should assume a media company’s responsibility for managing the flow, quality and integrity of information that appears on its platform.
Hatch disagreed, stating that Facebook is a tech company that builds products and is driven by engineers, rather than creating content and being staffed by creators. Which allows it to abrogate responsibility for the flow, quality and integrity of information that appears on its platform (ok, he didn’t say that last bit; I did).
Portal to intrusion and leaks
In keeping with its internal view that it’s a tech company, Facebook has just launched Portal, a new video-chat device to compete with Google’s Home and Amazon’s Alexa. For some reason, it really believes that a company that has leaky security, treats users and advertisers like idiots and propagates fake news will convince consumers to entrust it with the intimate details of what goes on inside their homes.
As the saying goes, there’s sucker born every minute. But even Clegg will have his work cut out trying to sell this proposition.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.
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