Marketers who run Facebook campaigns should be transparent about customer data collection practices, reassess their relationships with third-party Facebook data partners and perhaps even diversify their marketing strategies outside of Facebook.

Experts shared these thoughts with CMSWire in light of the news that broke this month of the social media giant’s largest data breach to date. The Guardian reported March 17 that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested around 50 million Facebook profiles of US voters as it worked with now US President Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign. The unauthorized data-collection practices helped profile individual US voters and target them with personalized political advertisements, according to the Guardian.

Crossed a Major Line

The Facebook data breach may lead to a sea of change in the way companies collect private data online, much like the European Union is doing with its GDPR regulation coming in May. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Thursday himself promised changes, ending a swath of "where's Mark?" cries.  

According to Curtis Sparrer, principal at PR agency Bospar, this crosses the line, creating a psychological reaction. “I think that's where the 'ick' factor is quite huge. I don't think it's very big when it's a matter of, ‘OK. Do you want to consider this product or do you want to drink a soda.’ But I do think it's bad when you have the evil master plan and you're twiddling your fingers like Gargamel from the Smurfs,” he said. 

In light of all of this, we caught up with experts to figure out where we go from here.

Value, Transparency Breeds Ethics

When it comes to Facebook and consumer data, value and transparency are fundamental to ethical data usage, according to Tracy Gamlin, digital marketing manager for &Barr, a digital marketing agency. Ask yourself, "What do our customers gain by sharing their data with us?" “Being transparent about what you collect and how you'll use it builds trust, and that's the compass with which marketers can navigate data usage,” Gamlin said. 

Use trusted sources that adhere to best data collection and security practices through opt-in and privacy controls. Ethics should always be a part of the conversation and brands should seek to work with marketers who understand the ethical implications of all marketing strategies and tactics, Gamlin added.

Really Know Your Third-Party Partners

Facebook provides easy access to third-party data-collectors that can help marketers “find people most likely to be interested in your products or services.”  However, Sparrer suggested marketers dial it back and review all relationships with such data providers. “How well do you know your third parties and what are they doing, and with what and with who? Review those agreements and see just how much control they have of their own data and what that data is being used for and what sort of assurances they have about what's going to happen to the data afterward” Sparrer asked.  This is a big part of a larger conversation, Sparrer said, about data security in and of itself. Can anyone say GDPR? 

“I think we have to audit the data that we have and see what we are doing with it and where we might have some exposure," Sparrer said. "...There are going to be a lot of follow-up stories about this situation, and marketers have to ask themselves, ‘Am I doing anything that could get profiled? Am I going to be in the next 60 Minutes piece?’” 

Related Article: How Will the GDPR Impact Third-Party Lead Generation?

Recognize Reality — Security’s Not Great

As data breaches like Facebook’s continue to pile up, marketers need to recognize that security is not always as sound as they think, according to Dmitri Kara, marketer for Fantastic Services. “What a marketer should learn from the Facebook data breach is that everything is smoke and mirrors,” Kara said. “We might live in a civilized world but it's still a concrete jungle and this is nonetheless valid for the web as well. It's an internet jungle and regular people are merely a row in a sheet or a number. What marketers should realize is that security nowadays is not as advanced as we think, compared to the 90's.” 

Kara called ethical marketing a “shallow standard for the masses.” Bigger players are “in for the kill" manipulating elections throughout the world. “The law of the jungle,” he said, “is even more valid today, regardless if it's a concrete or internet jungle.” Marketing is a “dirty game" with tons of unprotected data, free for anybody to get, he added. 

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Top Customer Data Breaches for 2017

Don’t Surprise Your Prospects

Rob Kischuk, CEO and founder of Converge, said the Facebook breach may be just the beginning. Converge is a reporting automation platform for marketing agencies. He told CNBC that companies like Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Tinder and Bumble also hold massive data sets of private information that could be exposed. In an interview with CMSWire, he encouraged marketers to never surprise their customers and prospects when mining and targeting them on Facebook and other social networks. “Nothing destroys your chances of effective marketing faster than breaching their trust. This requires a conservative estimation of their expectations,” he said.

Stay Ahead of Partner Policies

Stay out of the gray area when dealing with Facebook, Kischuk said. “At one point,” he added, “many marketers made a living extracting lists of users who liked and commented on competitors' Facebook posts. It was a gray area, and anyone who was making a living doing it found themselves cut off quite abruptly. If you feel like you're taking unfair advantage of the platform, you probably are.”

Kischuk also said it’s wise for marketers to stay at least two steps away from the "edge" of platform policies from companies like Cambridge Analytica, a data researcher, a Facebook app developer and technology companies. “When you are right on the edge, you are at immediate risk of a policy change eradicating your marketing model, and you are probably close to breaching your prospects' trust,” Kischuk said. “Taking another step away from the bleeding edge protects you, establishes credibility and helps you build a future-proof business.”

Consider Alternatives to Facebook

Clearly, marketers like Facebook. The company’s market cap is $481.15 billion as of Thursday and it doesn’t make its money (total revenue $40.7B in 2017) off cat pictures from your neighbor.  

Zuckerberg, however, promised increased scrutiny of data-collectors on his social network, promising in his Facebook post Wednesday that Facebook will:

  • Investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before Facebook changed its platform to "dramatically reduce data access in 2014"
  • Conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity
  • Restrict developers' data access to "prevent other kinds of abuse." 
  • "Show everyone a tool at the top of your News Feed with the apps you've used and an easy way to revoke those apps' permissions to your data. We already have a tool to do this in your privacy setting."

This naturally means the usually-calm waters of Facebook targeting may become a tougher ocean to navigate.

“Is it time to diversify?” asked Sparrer. “... Right now there is already a movement about Facebook and going to other digital platforms. I think that's going to be something that people are going to look at.”