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Learning from Facebook’s privacy mistakes

In December ’09 Facebook made some changes to its privacy control that pushed its users to publicly share more personal information than they had previously.

The changes were arranged in such a way that users had less control over certain aspects of their personal information. Perhaps the most intrusive change was the erosion of the barrier between users’ data and many Facebook applications. This change meant that even if a user didn’t use Facebook apps, their information could be made immediately available to application developers if their friends used apps.

The privacy settings pre-December 09 meant that users could easily monitor their public information, and simply decide not to use apps, thereby avoiding actively trading their information for the use of a third party service. Following the December changes, as soon as any user opened an app, the information of all their friends was available to the app developer to use as a marketing tool. The changes also reset previous privacy settings, meaning that accounts that had once been secure now started appearing in Google searches. The changes applied to all accounts by default (they have recently been made more explicit and easier to opt out of, due to popular demand).

Why did Facebook do this? The answer has to do with the social currency, or social value, of the information that users encounter on the social networking site. As most of the information encountered on Facebook is presented by friends or acquaintances, users are much more receptive to it. This kind of attentiveness is rare online. Due to the immense ad-saturation of the internet, most web users are very quick to distinguish between useful content and advertising. This is why placement in Facebook is appealing for advertisers—it exposes users to a brand when they’re most receptive.

Twitter has recently introduced advertisements, as well, announcing ‘Sponsored Tweets’ in early 2010. This idea functions much like sponsored search results in Google. Sponsored tweets will only appear when Twitter users search for a particular keyword, and—as of June, 2010—have yet to appear in personal Twitter feeds. This is significantly different from Facebook’s monetary developments in two ways. Firstly, it doesn’t compromise anyone’s Twitter contact details, or share their private information without their explicit permission. Secondly, it’s inobtrusive, though this may change if/when sponsored tweets begin to appear in personal feeds.

The web, and the way businesses operate on it, is continuously evolving. It was inevitable that sites like Facebook and Twitter would endeavour to capitalise on their social currency eventually.

What can be learnt about customer relations from these two examples? It’s important to respect the intelligence of your customers and business contacts, and never to abuse their information. Also, strive for the maximum degree of transparency possible when dealing with customers and contacts.

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