Cambridge Analytica – Best marketing consultancy ever?

Marketing Consultancy using social media

A year on how is the scandal around marketing consultany Cambridge Analytica affecting marketing and business relationships now, and in the future, and what impact did it have on data usage to target prospects?

In the business of, well, business, and marketing, any time we are trying to influence someone to buy a product or service (which no matter what you do this is most likely your end goal otherwise you’d not be in business very long) data is an essential factor. Data informs decisions on targeting, intelligence on prospects, and ultimately, who to approach and how, to get the desired results. However, what happens when a company gets too good at marketing and manipulating its target audience and uses data from questionable sources to affect the future of nations?

It’s fair to say, last year Facebook had its biggest scandal to date. With more information coming out over the months leading up to Brexit, likely one of the most significant political decisions Britain has made in a lifetime. It appears Cambridge Analytica and Facebook had a greater role in helping us in the UK form our views than once thought.

Tech companies have for a long time been using Algorithms to feed us content across our news feeds, searches and push notifications; accommodating directly to the four areas of human’s cognitive bias to create online experiences personal to us. For the same amount of time, companies have been trying to tap into these data pots to push their own messaging and agendas to target people who may be interested in their products or services. Algorithms are not a new phenomenon; however, first posed by David Hilbert in 1928 to solve the Entscheidungsproblem, they are within the foundations of computer science itself.

For all the use algorithms and the data they are based on have done for businesses, aiding them to tap into their target markets and feeding bespoke messages on a granular scale. Prioritising content we interact with the most and the people we view the most content from. Algorithms even tap into links we share on apps such as Facebook Messenger prioritising content relating to these subjects. It also comes with its misuse, algorithm bias, and in some cases, anonymity. Using Big Data, personal information and direct channels to affect our thought, behavior and views on a global scale.

What was the Cambridge Analytica Scandal?

This subject is summarised fairly well by Caroline Cadwalladr in her recent eye-opening Ted talk, linked to the much talked about Guardian article published back in May 2017 – ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked’. However, for those of you who are still unaware of what the Cambridge Analytica scandal was, in short, it was a process where data was collected, analysed, sold and utilised with the aid of Facebook marketing to manipulate opinion within worldwide political votes. Delivered by a company, previously SCL Elections, brought by Robert Mercer and renamed Cambridge Analytica.

Within the new Netflix documentary, ‘The Great Hack’, it highlights Cambridge Analytics role in global elections from the Trump election campaign, Britain’s Brexit vote, and even Trinidad and Tobago’s voter and corporate manipulation.

I think we can all agree that we believe that this is bad and is something that shouldn’t be happening, shocked with every new bit of information that comes out. With that said, how has this affected the trust of society on business, politics, and inbound messaging as a whole? And has this now changed how companies target online?

The Personal impact?

Off the back of the breaking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Atlantic conducted some user research and although self-proclaimed, unscientific due to its lack of world demographics and diversity in its feedback. It does offer some insight into a change in user behavior. This research suggests out of the 2,218 that took part 39.8% reported being very concerned about social media privacy. While according to results of 2,000 strong think tank carried out by Ponemon Institute finds Facebook trust levels plummet by 66% compared to the previous year, in the month after Cambridge Analytica scandal, to only 27%, as reported by Business Insider.

However, the long-term impact on the public regarding social interaction and the direct impact on Facebook itself appears to be limited.

As reported by the BBC back in January (2019), Facebook login numbers jumped 9% year on year and revenue was up 30%. Although the slowest annual revenue growth recorded since its listing on Nasdaq stock exchange, still reassuring according to analyst George Salmon, at Hargreaves Lansdown.

Although marketing consultancy, Cambridge Analytica has been liquidated data companies still exist, companies still trade data for profit and businesses in the game of selling still heavily rely on this data to be able to target prospects.

The lack of impact this seems to have had on the public overall suggests that maybe we prefer connectivity to actual privacy and society is quick to forget.

Business impacts?

Well, first off, this targeting should not be a surprise to a seasoned marketer. Businesses have been trying to get to this level of sophistication for years. As put by Mark Ritson in his article commenting on the scandal in 2018, “And then, after a pause, the marketer inevitably says with a sheepish grin: We’ve been doing it for years” when recounting meetings with clients post-Cambridge Analytica appearing in the press, it’s nothing new. It’s not necessarily the data or even its analysis up for debate here; it’s more the ethics of how it’s used that ultimately gets called into question.

Realistically, little has changed within the marketing arena when it comes to targeting during the scandal and the years to follow. The problem is that, due to this data being collected in line with terms and conditions outlined and agreed to by users, it’s still a grey area on the legality of this, however, it can be claimed to be severely unethical. In reality, organisations have a fraction of the $1m a day budget used within the Trump Campaign for Facebook advertising. Nor the inclination to use aggressive propaganda to persuade prospects to use their products over competitors.

Companies still sponsor ads and employ organic targeting methods, using data, as they always did, basing audiences on; demographic targeting, elements of filtering based on interaction and engagement, and any other data they can legally get their hands on to help achieve that sweet spot of right message, right time, right person – Be it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other social platform. The critical point here is ensuring the morals and ethics of the companies you work with aligning to yours. If you are outsourcing campaigns to source leads, it needs to be to companies who are interested in creating viable relationships and only leveraging data to identify those people.

What does this mean for the future?

Ultimately this isn’t just a social media problem; it’s a Big Data concern. Data housing, harvesting, and manipulation is a tool used within app downloads. When asking for individual phone accesses to allow a download, Google maps timeline, can show you every single place you and your phone have been together, or even the suggestions that Apples Siri, Windows Cortana, and Amazons Alexa listen and record everything we say (although there is little proof to these suspicions).

Things are set to change with data tracking and social media ad targeting, however, but only very slightly.

The top changes that seem to have come to fruition since the Cambridge Analytica scandal boil down to the 5 points below;

  1. The Federal Trade Commission announced a $5 billion settlement with Facebook back on the 24th July 2019 whist implementing a new privacy oversight committee, as reported by The Independent. Off the back of this Mark Zuckerberg, Facebooks co-founder and CEO, released a privacy manifesto outlining the future of Facebook and its commitment to its policies moving forward, as described in Mark Zuckerberg’s blog on Facebook.
  1. Spam busting features have since been launched on Facebook advertising, putting restraints in place to clamp down on ‘spam ads’ on the platform. This adds a ‘send a detailed spam report’ option on all ads you view, along with additional elements. Put in place after a case was raised against Facebook by Martin Lewis, founder of when fake ads were appearing for his services on the platform.
  1. Increases in privacy on the newest releases on both Android Q and Apple i0S 13 to help protect users. With Android introducing updated ability to control location sharing, while Apple will be adding email preferences to give the option to hide emails addresses when signing up to apps and sites using your Apple ID, creating replacement burner email addresses, increasing your spam tracking ability.
  1. The potential of future data regulation changes to branch out from last year’s GDPR, and GDPR-lite with CCPA, regulations, as discussed in an article by ‘all about law’ expected to be enforced to better regulate and monitor data trading.

These may have some effect on marketing, businesses, targeting, and the information we can glean before companies directly communication with prospects within a target market. However, for most businesses using data of these sorts on social media platforms to target its products, it’s unlikely to have much effect on reaching prospects, at least not at this stage.

In all, this boils down to the future security of our data as a society, our awareness of how we can protect our digital footprint and ensuring we instill the correct ethics when it comes to deploying data tactics and those of the companies we work with.

Published: 18th September 2019

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