Social media Users – Keep their Trust, Keep them Clicking

Katie Taylor

“If you’re not paying for a service, then you are part of the product,” says Adrian Short of The Guardian today, as Facebook once again reconfigure their multi-billion dollar social networking empire. Taking better advantage of the promotional materials at their disposal, Facebook have begun to roll out a new ‘improved’ version of their well-known site, utilising materials such as intelligent targeted marketing, for which they have become famous. This sort of targeted marketing is used by companies the world over, depends on the searching and storing of users’ browsing information. This information has become astonishingly valuable as the techniques used to search for it have improved over the past five years; however the suspicions of social media website users have increased in parallel with the rise of targeted, search-based advertising.

Social networking earns its revenue through advertising. This has never been a secret. The way in which Facebook works now is particularly in conjunction with less popular or niche social media sites such as Spotify, forcing links with outside companies and pressing Facebook further into the wider internet. By encouraging users to set up accounts (or in the case of Spotify, making it a necessity) more people are added to the ever-growing population pool, meaning more accounts to “like” or recommend products, services, places, or any other business with a page of its own. The idea of self-perpetuating marketing in this way is hard to fault from a commercial point of view; it is useful, practical, easy to gauge using simple metrics, and can be switched on and off at will. Users have happily played along with this concept until now, and “like” buttons have become part and parcel of daily life on the web. However, with increasing measures to quantify users engagement and activity, there are definitely rumblings of mistrust amongst long-time Facebook users. Can being offered a new improved website make up for the fact that potentially personal browsing data is being used for Facebook’s own financial gain?

Privacy Concerns

Tech blogger Dave Winer has been mentioned in several blogs (in this case Nik Cubrilovic’s blog) after he described Facebook’s latest advertising strategy. “The new API
allows applications to post status items to your Facebook timeline without a users [sic] intervention. It is an extension of Facebook Instant and they call it frictionless sharing. The privacy concern here is that because you no longer have to explicitly opt-in to share an item, you may accidentally share a page or an event that you did not intend others to see.”

Online privacy has long been an issue of contention between users and owners, and it brings to light some of the issues touched upon earlier. Many have said of the changes that they were unnecessarily intrusive, although on the other side of the fence there are users who believe that using a free service comes with its inevitable disadvantages, and that a mild inconvenience (the changing interface of the site) does not override the overwhelming usefulness of the website itself.

So then, what does this mean for social commerce as a whole? For a start, it means that there are increasingly more useful, less labour-intensive ways to push marketing and brands out to millions of users every day. It also means that used correctly, social media can, and does, effectively increases customers’ interactions with brands, companies and products, and creates a valuable ‘loyalty’ between themselves and the product in question. Regularly compromising users’ privacy in any form however, diminishes trust and eventually leads to interest tailing off. Facebook currently trades on the simple fact that people get bored, and keeping users occupied with status updates, advertisements and games (Farmville earned it’s maker Zynga $240 million in 2010) is a lucrative and attractive business opportunity.

Social commerce as a whole can learn from this. As it stands on the brink of further success there is a very realistic chance that its users, the money-making stratagem of the whole operation, will lose confidence in it. Taking away users’ privacy, for whatever reasons and with whatever safeguards, will leave them feeling used. Are they paying for the use of the site? No. They are however investing their time in it, agreeably clicking on links and notching up profits for Facebook Inc. As they become aware of their position not as powerful users, but as pawn-like cogs in the machine, this could have detrimental effects on social networking as a whole. You break the trust, you break the system. Even if your social networking campaign has nothing to do with push marketing or Facebook, the knock on effect could be drastic.

The best advice is to keep your ear to the ground – you could do a lot worse than speaking directly to your fans, users and clients, and asking them what they think. Ignoring the users of social networking sites is a grave mistake – without users, you are left with an empty theme park. The colourful, expensive attractions are perfectly researched and present, but they are redundant. For evidence of this in action, please visit http://www.myspace.com.

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