Mediapost’s OMMA Magazine

By Mike Bloxham

For a business that is all about building community and that has grown on its ability to facilitate communication between ever-larger numbers of people, Facebook continues to do a pretty poor job of communicating, itself. Apart from consistently over-claiming for its brave new commercial initiatives before proving that users will even accept them, much of the negative response Facebook generates every time it changes something or introduces a new protocol could be nullified if it actually behaved like a company that cared about its communications and the loyalty of its users.

Whereas other brands seek to build relationships and loyalty with customers, Facebook almost seems to be pursuing another approach that the rest of us haven’t stumbled upon (pardon the pun) yet. Obviously that’s not the case, and millions of us continue to use the service anyway, but a little more attention to shaping the communications and maintaining customer loyalty wouldn’t be amiss.

After all, if you’re going to introduce new data and privacy protocols on the basis that they are opt-in by default until the user chooses otherwise, then the least you should do (as a customer-facing brand, anyway) is make the means of opting-out clear, easy and seamless. Right now even sophisticated users of the service are having to work way harder than they should to go through the labyrinthine process of opting-out (and as someone who has tightened up my privacy options in recent weeks and months, I’m speaking from experience).

This is quite simply bad marketing. It suggests that while you say you care about privacy and you would never abuse someone’s data, you’ve deliberately taken steps to confuse and bewilder people. While that may well not be the case, there can be little question from the chatter online and on Facebook itself that the brand is being damaged by the number of people who seem to be drawing that kind of conclusion.

Instead of making things difficult to do, market the benefits of staying opted-in, just as you would if you were trying to win subscribers to a service. Many companies do this all the time – why not Facebook? Big splashy launches to the choir aren’t enough for something like Open Graph – they also need a user-oriented campaign in order to spread a well-crafted message effectively.

After all, as much as it is about privacy, this whole thing is about integrity. And integrity isn’t just about what you do and don’t do – it’s about being open and honest about it and offering choice.

If the good folks at Facebook feel they’ve been doing this, then – as a loyal user – I have to say they are not cutting through with anything coherent. Likewise, if they think the opt-out process is straightforward, they need to get some UX help fast.

But beyond the issues with whatever proportion of the Facebook community it is that feels uneasy as the business changes – yet again – its privacy practices, there is something much more serious rumbling around that has the potential to affect many more businesses large and small.

As we all know, the amount of noise around the whole subject of privacy, policy and legislation has been steadily increasing over the last year or more and it’s obviously not going away. Awareness of the issues – not always well-informed – has increased in Washington and in this context Facebook risks becoming the poster-child for those wanting to see legislation passed that could constrain many in the digital industries from doing things that are currently central to their business models.

With such a high-profile player as Facebook in the arena, it is easy for anyone right now to point at it as the 800-pound gorilla of social media and claim that it has all the sensitivity one might expect from such a beast when it comes to privacy. After all, reports have circulated widely that the head of the business doesn’t believe in privacy (or words to that effect). Whether such a view is correct or not is less important than the fact that there have been no strident claims to the contrary. In the absence of such claims, the arsenal of the pro-legislation body has become stronger and Facebook’s position as the social media darling risks becoming that of social media pariah.

I should make it clear at this point that I’m no great fan of legislation in areas such as this, but I think we’ll inevitably get some passed down – the question will be more about how it is framed. Facebook is by no means the only party that is showing its lack of political savvy on these issues, but as the big dog in the room, its mistakes will have a ripple effect far greater than many others. The industry may (inevitably) prefer the notion of self-regulation, but right now it is going to have to do way more to convince legislators that it can be taken seriously in that regard. And if it can’t ultimately strike the right balance between serving business objectives and respecting the privacy of consumers – however that comes to be defined – then legislation will be both necessary and deserved.

It’s my hope that the debates we increasingly see take place on matters of online privacy are well-informed and objectively framed (Note I said hope, not expect. Consider it an aspiration.) The concern, of course, is that they become fear-driven, agenda-based political fodder in the classic mold.

Right now, the insensitive nature of Facebook’s communications regarding its procedures is making it more likely that the subject of privacy becomes even more of an emotionally charged political football. Sure, Facebook is not the only culprit, but it is the most visible, and what it does will affect the whole industry. The result could be bad for every company in the space.