Is there guilt by association for brands on social media platforms?
Well, here we are at another crossroad for social media platforms. Masters of the universe in Silicon Valley are being taken to task for their lack of control and protection of user information and accountability for the content posted to their platforms. Both of these topics are specifically related to trust. Over the past few months, there has been a decline in user participation due to deliberate manipulation of content designed to divide or inflame, user privacy issues, fake news, and a general denial that the above-mentioned are growing problems for these platforms.
Are brands part of the trust problem or the solution?
Clearly there is a transparency issue with social media platforms. Just due to the sheer size of monthly users – Facebook with 2.2 billion, LinkedIn with half a billion, and Twitter with 335 million – these platforms represent a formidable media network and a large economic driver for brands. As documented, some of the transparency issues come from brands paying for product promotion (cyber-shilling), being disguised as independent third party recommendations to the manipulation of viewer content by black box algorithms.
There is also the “magnification effect” of cyber telemarketing. If you have ever used a search engine or visited a website, there is a cascade of branded content being targeted to your digital device that is almost impossible to override and may have very little relevance to your initial search query.
Which brings us to the guilt-by-association issue for brands and their use of social media.
For example, let’s say a Facebook or Twitter feed displays a cyber-shilling post and further down the page is an advertisement for an investment firm. If the viewer recognizes the top post as manipulated content, does that taint the advertisement of the financial firm simply because it’s on the same page? This situation can be even more aggravated due to programmatic ad placement in which the advertiser has very little control because placement of the ad is based on a real-time auction price.
Globally, there is lots of action and discussion on regulating these platforms. This approach also represents a dilemma for brands because who is to decide what data is considered private, what data is public, what data can be monetized, and what is acceptable online content? In addition, how do we make sure that these platforms are not hijacked for political partisan purposes? These are privately held companies not regulated by the government that are accountable to their investors and shareholders to generate profits.
Trust is the foundation for brand loyalty
In my opinion, brands will have to exert influence and financial clout on these platforms to clean up their act. In just a short time span of 20 years, social media sites have migrated to global paid media channels. The business model currently employed by these platforms is based on self- publishing. The platforms provide the technology, and the users provide the content. Users are granted access for free in exchange for their personal information. That allows the platforms to sort and profile the users by likes, dislikes, preferences, types of content posted and viewed, and hundreds of other selects. This provides brands with a rich source of micro-targeted prospects ripe for one-to-one personalized advertising. The very nature of this business model discourages regulation because the larger the user base, the more advertising can be sold.
Going forward, a look at the past may be helpful. Implementing a subscription model where the user pays a modest monthly fee would accomplish several things. First, it would decrease the number of fake accounts, next, it would provide a verifiable and audited subscription list which advertisers would have more confidence in, and finally, advertisers would have to be verified and advertising would have to be approved for content that is acceptable per the platforms’ guidelines. Implementing this would make the platforms more transparent and more secure for users. Silicon Valley must accept that this is no longer the wild west of cyber space where regulation impedes intellectual thought, and accept that they are now commercial channels that facilitate global commerce.