Tag Archives: facebook

How Did We Get So Far Off Track?

I started working in the digital world in the mid-’90s. While I wasn’t exactly there for the dawn of the digital age, I was a relatively early member of the group of executives that began building businesses on the internet and on walled gardens like AOL used to be. A couple of things that have happened recently have me shaking my head, wondering how it’s all gone sideways.

First, I asked Twitter to send me something:

Keith Ritter, your advertiser list is ready! The list attached includes the advertisers that have included you in a tailored audience. These advertisers have included you in one or more tailored audiences. Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

I figured since I do a fair amount of cookie-blocking and other means to prevent tracking that I’d turn up in a handful of audiences and I was right. I appear in exactly 9 audiences. However, the rest of the 57-page document (not a typo) listed the similar audiences Twitter has decided I fit. They market me as a part of these audiences and I have no control over it. I can opt out and it will change the ads I see on Twitter. It won’t however, remove me from these audiences. I am included in over 1,000 of them, my data used and sold quite unwillingly.

Then there are the constantly apologizing folks at Facebook. This article in the NY Times is both frightening and disappointing. It talks about how Facebook “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.”  Their privacy track record is abominable and every week it seems there is another apology and a promise to do better. Fool me once…

It’s taken years for the marketers and publishers to push back on the rampant fraud and abuse of programmatic ads. Social media is rife with “influencers” who buy fake followers and regularly violate FTC regulations on advertising. It seems that everyone under 30 is either a ninja or a guru. Fake reviews for products that are complete rip-offs are everywhere (run a link to an Amazon review through Fakespot if you don’t believe me).

All of this leaves one question: what the hell happened? How did the digital business world get so screwed up? At some point, Facebook and many other digital businesses decided that making money is way more important than serving their users is, I think, the basic answer. I’m all for making money, as my business track record shows. There are limits, however, and I have a fundamental belief that making money can only happen over the long term when you respect the customer. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Because most of the people who use digital have no concept about how they are tracked and marketed, most businesses treat them as morons and therein lies the problem.

I could rant on but I’ll end it here with a plea. To any of you who are in the digital world, please resolve to get back on track. Way back when in 1995, all we wanted to do was to amuse a few people and keep them engaged. Yes, we sold ads but we also didn’t track people once they left our domain. We didn’t treat them as numbers or rubes. You shouldn’t either. I get that the tools are more sophisticated and more powerful and that the world has changed. Basic business principles and human decency haven’t, have they?

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Ethics And Profits

A bit of a rant today. Suppose you had a friend who lied about things. Maybe they told you that they had a great way to help your business when, in fact, their plan was to use your money to build up their own business. Maybe you gave them money to invest and they lied about the returns. Maybe you tell them information about yourself that you don’t really want public and they tell people anyway. Maybe you let them use your phone or your computer for a few minutes and they installed malware that spied on your constantly. Some friend, right?

Welcome to doing business with Facebook.

Now before you accuse me of hyperbole, let me remind you of the incredible breaches of trust that Facebook has committed over the years. If you look up “Facebook apologizes,” you get over 17 million results. They, like many companies, seem to be focused on one thing: shareholders. As one person put it in speaking about the fall of Sears:

“What’s happened is that shareholders’ interests have squeezed out other stakeholders,” said Arthur C. Martinez, who ran Sears during the 1990s and was credited with a turnaround. “The mantra is shareholders above all else.”

What happens to workers doesn’t matter. Amazon gave raises with one hand and took away stock grants with the other. What happens to partners doesn’t matter. Facebook begged marketers to use their platform to distribute content and then, once the platform had grown to an unimaginable size, cut off marketers who didn’t pay them from access to their audience. What happens to users doesn’t matter. Alphabet, Google’s parent, has over 88% of mobile apps gathering data for them whether users know it or not. Ever wonder how the ads Google serves you with a search seem to tie to something you were doing on a news or productivity app that had nothing to do with Google or search or even ads? Here’s a study that will explain it.

Why is it so hard to follow a moral compass to profitability for many companies? If the bulk of non-tech people truly understood how their data is gathered and used, they’d go back to flip phones. Why not put your customers first and treat them as you’d expect to be treated as a customer? Why not reward employees so that they’re doing better as you’re doing better? Why not put partners’ interests on a level footing with your own so that deals are equitable and profitable for you both? Why not allow vendors to make an honest profit? Without those four things – customers, employees, partners, and vendors – what the shareholders have will be worthless pieces of paper and not an interest in a profitable, growing enterprise.

My friends don’t lie to me and I don’t lie to them. We’ve had our share of messy moments because of that but we’re still friends because of that honesty. We need ethical standards in business every bit as much as we need profits; probably more so. OK, rant over, but do me a favor and think about that, won’t you?

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Filed under Reality checks, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

A Foundation Of Trust

Bruce Springsteen wrote about trust on his “Magic” album:

Trust none of what you hear (trust none of what you hear)
And less of what you see

That’s good advice these days but it’s far from a current issue. In far, The Boss was only echoing Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote in the short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”:

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

I don’t think Poe, however, envisioned the dramatic lack of trust that most consumers have in the very people upon whom much of their digital lives rely. We see it in the reports that Pew stated that over 40% of Facebook users between the age of 18 and 29 had deleted Facebook from their phones in the past year. While Facebook disputes that number, there’s no doubt that even one user choosing to avoid your product or service on the basis of trust is a huge problem.

How do we solve this? As is my style, I tend to dumb it down to a very simple thing. Don’t do anything to your customers that you wouldn’t want to be done to you or to a member of your family. If you’re OK with your spouse being surveilled and his or her data sold to the highest bidder than be my guest in doing so to your customers. If that notion gives you pause, however, maybe you ought not to be considering doing so to anyone, at least without their full knowledge and consent. That means what you’re doing is front and center and not buried in a 3,000-word terms and conditions clickwrap agreement.

Once trust is lost, it’s extremely difficult to rebuild. You might have experienced this on a personal basis with a friend. As difficult as that might have been, it’s even harder for a business where there is generally not a human face on the brand or service nor an individual with whom to speak. The best solution is never to jeopardize trust in the first place. It’s a foundational issue. Your customers need to trust you and all of what you say. Don’t prove Bruce and Poe right, ok?

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Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Zuckerberg Unbound

Philip Roth wrote a series of books in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The middle one is called Zuckerman Unbound and deals with the relationship between an author (Roth’s alter-ego Zuckerman) and his creations. It’s not a great relationship although it is a pretty good book. Roth’s character seems to express regret for the books his younger self brought into the world, and at one point he finds out that a book he wrote has caused his mother a great deal of pain and suffering.

English: Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Fac...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought about Zuckerman as I watched (and am watching as I write this) another Zuck – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – testify before Congress about how his creation, designed to bring people together, has morphed into something that has blown many people and institutions apart. I doubt any of you reading today’s screed touch billions of people every day the way Facebook does, but I think there are some lessons to be learned here.

One thing that rings hollow for me is the apology offered to the committees. I and many others have been writing about Facebook’s lack of privacy and transparency for years. This isn’t something new nor is it something about which Facebook was unaware. One might suppose that they, like so many others in business, were of the mindset that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Bad call, and they’ll be doing a lot of begging as the inevitable new regulations on the use of data are put into place. That’s lesson one.

My favorite moment of yesterday’s hearing came when one senator informed Mr. Zuckerberg that Facebook’s “user agreement sucks.” It does, but it’s far from alone. I’d also argue that any “simple” agreement that links out to a dozen other pages for further explanations of things not explained in the initial policy is far from simple. I doubt I could pass a quiz on what Facebook can and can’t do with my information and I’ve been on the platform since 2006. Anyone that generates data that you’ll use to benefit your business should understand what they’re giving you and why. Lesson two.

I do know that Facebook gives the user a lot of control over who sees what although it really doesn’t do so by default. I’m less clear as to what they gather although I’ve downloaded my data and gone through it. Some of what is in there comes from activities off of Facebook, probably either through my use of a Facebook ID to log in or via the Facebook Beacon. How many users understand that they might be tracked EVERYWHERE by Facebook and not just when they’re using the service? Facebook would argue that you’re using the service when you use your Facebook ID to log in elsewhere but I think that’s specious. Yet another lack of transparency, and lesson three.

I wonder where Facebook goes from here. As far back as 2010, it’s been under attack for its privacy failures. It’s a business founded by a man who called users “dumb f^&ks” for giving him their information. Maybe like Zuckerman, he’ll come to realize that he needs to be unbound, cut loose from everything that made him what he was and fix the problems in a way that fulfills the promise of connecting the world that he espouses. At the moment, it appears that others may step in and take steps that alter his world forever.

What’s your take?

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Today We Say I Told You So

I was at a startup event last evening and of course, the topic of Facebook‘s data problem came up. I’m sure you’ve heard something about it but what you’ve heard might not be accurate since many of the reports I’ve watched on TV are pretty off the mark. Since I’ve written a lot of not nice things

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

about Facebook here on the screed, let me add my two cents here. I also want to taunt you, politely, by reminding you that not of this should be a surprise. I won’t retell the story of what’s been going on but you can read it here if you’re not familiar.

First, the inaccuracies. This wasn’t a data breach nor a data hack. It isn’t a bug – it’s a feature. The whole point of Facebook’s business is to collect a lot of data from and about its users and sell that data along with ads to marketers. They’re not alone in this. If you use Google, they pretty much know what Facebook knows and a lot more. Like Louis in Casablanca, you might profess to be shocked by this but you knew about it all along, didn’t you? After all, you agreed to let it happen when you clicked through the app install or joined the service some other way. You didn’t realize that using a Facebook or Google sign in on other sites meant they could track you? Hmm…

What’s inaccurate is that many reports say Facebook was collecting voice calls and texts from Android phones. First, it’s not the actual calls or texts, it’s the metadata – who you called or texted. Second, that was a feature of some versions of Android that allowed that to happen and Facebook just scarfed up was available and THEN, only because YOU said ok when you installed Messenger. Please don’t be mad at them for doing what they said they were going to do and don’t be shocked the data is in your file.

I downloaded my Facebook data, Other than seeing a few photos I don’t ever recall uploading to the service (which makes me wonder if they’re just grabbing stuff off my camera roll), I wasn’t surprised. No metadata from my phone because I never granted the permission for them to have it. No weird ad stuff because I go through my Facebook settings fairly regularly to clean out things I don’t want them to store. You should too. In fact, you should do that with ALL your digital stuff – check your Google activity, your ad profile, etc. Go through every app on your phone and check the permissions you’ve granted. Why would a game need access to your camera? Why does a barcode scanner need your location? You can probably revoke the permissions individually and if it breaks something in the app, turn it back on. Better safe than sorry. You want Facebook to know less? Delete the app and only use it from a desktop.

Now the “nyah nyah” part. I wrote a post in 2010 about Facebook and their privacy practices (or lack thereof). I wrote another one in 2012 about how Facebook might go the path of AOL or MySpace. I wrote then:

Like AOL long ago, there are some other underlying factors that might portend bad things.

  • Just 13 percent say they trust Facebook completely or a lot to keep their personal information private.

  • A large majority (59 percent) say they have little or no faith in the company to protect their privacy.

I think what’s happened over the last 10 days has me convinced that I was right then. Facebook are no angels but you shouldn’t be surprised at any of this. Unless and until each of us takes control over our privacy, which means understanding that data is currency and you wouldn’t just throw your currency around, this will happen over and over again. Make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Your Focus Is Fake

Over the weekend the NY Times published an article about a company called Devumi that sells followers. As the piece says:

Photo by Jehyun Sung

Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online.

Since social media is, well, media, an outlet’s ability to charge is based upon its reach. Since everyone has the ability to be a little piece of the media these days, having a bigger audience or the ability to demonstrate great influence by having hundreds of thousands of followers is a big deal. Take Facebook where:

up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations.

I’ve seen this happen first hand. I was working with a client and we were approached by someone (actually a pair of someones) who wanted to work with us. They proudly showed off their 1million+ Twitter followers as evidence of their ability to impact what we were doing. They seemed a little shady so I ran their Twitter account through one of the services that examine followers for signs that they’re fake. 95% of their followers were bots or fake accounts. No deal.

The Times piece is really excellent because the thing it points out to me is something that is important to you, or should be. The reason having fake followers works is that brands are too focused on reach and not enough on results. The thing those fake followers won’t do is to buy. Yes, you can buy fake click-throughs as well, but I’m quite sure that your conversion rate will plummet if you do so since no bot-master is going to spend a nickel going through your sales funnel. When celebrities (or celebrity wannabes) inflate their follower totals, it’s part ego and part to demonstrate their popularity. Does anyone look at real-world results that might point to those things? Ratings? Box-office? Ticket sales?

Have you ever heard anyone giving out advice (marketing or otherwise) tell you to be fake? Probably not. Authenticity is the underpinning of great marketing today. There is no incentive for Twitter or Facebook to fix this since their financial well-being is partially judged by how many people are on and use their platforms. It’s a shame, and if we did politics here we could talk about how this same problem has gone beyond marketing products and services and into influencing our political system. You can fix it, however, by measuring what matters. Reach doesn’t really matter. Results do. That’s how I see it. You?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?