Is This the Death of Permission Marketing?

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Guy LeCharles GonzalezBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Seth Godin

Facebook’s announcement of its Open Graph initiative and release of a variety of easy-to-use Social plugins has set off another hot debate around privacy, with even MoveOn.org and NY Senator Chuck Schumer getting involved.

From a personal perspective, I’ve always understood the tradeoff that comes with using “free” services like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Glue, et al; EVERYTHING I do is being tracked and recorded, to be mined in real-time and/or at some point in the future to “target” me for “relevant” messages, products and services.

Facebook is catching a lot of flak right now, perhaps most humorously on Twitter, where some people are announcing they’ve closed their Facebook accounts without the slightest hint of irony. As if their activity on Twitter — the people and brands they follow and engage with; the links they shorten and retweet; the pictures they post; the Foursquare check-ins — all of it tied to an email address, isn’t being tracked, recorded and mined for purposes that are mostly unknown right now, but likely as “controversial” as anything Facebook has ever announced.

I’ve always assumed this was the case, even way back in the days of CompuServe and AOL, both of which were PAID services, and we all know it to be true today in the illusory era of FREE. So in that light, Facebook’s enabling people to “Like” everything on the Internet and feeding that data back to publishers and marketers doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s actually pretty brilliant on their part, and I’m a bit surprised Google didn’t beat them to it.

What bothers me, though, is HOW they’re going about it, repeating their mistake with Beacon by choosing an opaque opt-out implementation instead of trusting in the value of the service they’re offering and allowing their users to opt-in.

Beacon, which launched in late 2007, basically tracked the activity of Facebook members on certain partner sites and then posted an item in users’ news feeds when they purchased something.

Facebook, however, did not adequately communicate to members that this information was being collected. Users were irked when purchases made on other Web sites showed up on their news feeds (“John bought a diamond ring from XYZ”), prompting MoveOn.org to suggest that Facebook had ruined Christmas.

Facebook tweaked the service and apologized, but the snafu still led to a class-action lawsuit filed by disgruntled users.

Facebook Partners With Nielsen, Ditches Beacon

Facebook shut down Beacon two years after it launched, and the lawsuit was finally settled last month, but they apparently didn’t learn anything from it.

Anyone who’s worked in email marketing has undoubtedly faced a similar dilemma when launching a new enewsletter, especially when working with a large, unsegmented database. (Facebook, of course, has the kind of segmentation marketers dream of!) Do you take the short cut and add the entire list, perhaps under the guise of a “trial subscription”, allowing subscribers to opt-out? Or, do you take the time to build the list organically via an opt-in campaign?

The temptation to choose the faster opt-out route is hard to resist, and the rationalizations for why it’s legitimate are legion, but in most cases, the value of that list will depreciate faster than a brand new Yugo.

So much is made of “trust” these days and its value in engaging one-on-one with readers via social media, and yet that same sense of trust is rarely a consideration in other areas of marketing where readers are viewed as consumers and aggregated bits of data.

The opt-out norm in Facebook – and on many other sites – is not in the better interest of people; it’s in the better interest of companies…

Many of you are playing with Facebook’s data.  Others of you wish to be.  The Social APIs are exciting and there are so many possibilities.  Facebook has one of the most fascinating sets of Big Data out there.  It reveals traces of people’s behavior around the globe and provides the richest articulated social network out there.  But you’re also playing with fire.  Much of the data that is publicly accessible was not meant for you to be chomping away at.  And distinguishing between what should be publicized and what shouldn’t be is impossible.  People are engaging with Facebook as individuals and in small groups, but the aggregate of their behavior is removed from that context.  People are delighted by the information about their Friends that provides better context, but completely unaware of how their behaviors shape what their Friends see.  This creates challenging ethical questions that are not going to be easy to untangle.

Danah Boyd

We’re testing Facebook’s “Like” button, but Digital Book World doesn’t have its own Facebook page primarily because of the issue of context that Boyd notes. While I agree that it’s “a potential gold mine” for publishers, and  some of my colleagues use it as a public platform, I’m still grappling with the ethical questions around digging into that gold mine and likely will be for a long time.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, has a clearly professional context, and we take full advantage of it because of that.

As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, putting heaping amounts of data on our plates and offering a variety of utensils to slice, dice and (ideally) analyze it, Boyd’s words of caution should be taken very seriously by every publisher who sees only opportunity in that gold mine, and not the potential dangers.

The principles of “permission marketing” haven’t changed just because technology has introduced shortcuts. If we’re truly serious about interacting and engaging with our readers and not continuing to depend on 3rd party intermediaries for data, we need to think twice about how much we “like” what Facebook has to offer.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, and a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.

About Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is an old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist. He is the former Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. He views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.

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11 thoughts on “Is This the Death of Permission Marketing?

    • Yes, I’ve seen that; meant to show it during the Roundtable today, but we didn’t get to it. Everyone’s so focused on what Facebook might do with their data, few are noting the issues with who else has access to it.

  1. Dear Guy,
    What about Amazon, Kindle and the highlighting of ebooks?
    Amazon “owns” its clients and all their behavioral data without any possibity of opting-out or in. That’s their big strategic advantage. How many publishers have the money and the endurance to build such a relationship of their own with their readers?
    I don’t like the whole situation, but neither can I see fault in publishers who work with public Big Data. Unawareness on part of users is not a sufficient deterrent. Were (or even are?) Amazon readers aware that they have been spyed on even before they could “share” their highlights? No. Well, it’s foul play everywhere in our Brave New World.

    • The difference between Amazon and Facebook is Amazon uses their data to improve their customers experience, and isn’t distributing it to anyone else. Unless the Nook or iBooks become major players and B&N and/or Apple starts sharing data with publishers, I don’t foresee Amazon ever giving up theirs.

      When users value your product or service, you don’t need to use them as bait to attract revenue from other sources.

      Also, putting the onus on users in an age of novella-length EULAs is an ethical question, and a pretty easy one to answer if engagement and “trust” are goals equal in importance to increasing sales.

      • Excellent article, Guy. Lots to think about here. I just started an email marketing list and went for the opt in approach. I now feel confident that the people who actually did opt in actually want to hear from me and about our products.

        Meanwile, “I don’t foresee Amazon ever giving up theirs” you say. But what about if they found a way to charge publishers for the data? I think some publishers would gladly pay for that knowledge and I feel Amazon merely has to figure out exactly how to monetize it… Or maybe I’m just paranoid that Amazon really does have all the answers.

        • Selling access to customer data doesn’t fit with Amazon’s customer-centric philosophy, though that could certainly change if a major competitor started to offer theirs. It’s a risk-reward decision, and I think the risk far outweighs the reward for Amazon.

          That data-sharing wasn’t a part of the deal with Apple from the start — and it’s already been reported that they’re restricting 3rd-party app metrics in iPhone 4.0 — suggests it’s not going to be an option any time soon, either.

          He who sells out his customer first, loses.

  2. Regarding this –

    “Facebook is catching a lot of flak right now, perhaps most humorously on Twitter, where some people are announcing they’ve closed their Facebook accounts without the slightest hint of irony. As if their activity on Twitter — the people and brands they follow and engage with; the links they shorten and retweet; the pictures they post; the Foursquare check-ins — all of it tied to an email address, isn’t being tracked, recorded and mined for purposes that are mostly unknown right now, but likely as ‘controversial’ as anything Facebook has ever announced.”

    – I don’t agree with the implicit premise.

    I closed my Facebook account several days ago, and noted that decision on Twitter without any sense of irony. Your assumption in the quote above is that people are naively viewing Twitter as benign, and in my case that assumption is incorrect. I don’t take use of the internet lightly, and I assume that all free services come with a fee derived from my inputs and choices while using that service.

    I trust no one by default.

    The distinction I made (and make) between Facebook and Twitter (and many other free services that also gather and profit from user data) is that Facebook is now a known serial liar. To the extent that Twitter may be guilty of or intent on the same abuses, they have yet to make me feel like an abetting dolt for using their service. At the very least that says something about the intelligence of their management, even as that brain trust may be exploiting me in the same way that Facebook is exploiting me.

    To the extent that I cannot know what Twitter is doing, there are advocacy groups that pay attention to these things, and regulatory compulsions that require Twitter to divulge important decisions. If this were not the case, Facebook would be acting with impunity, rather than announcing their changes.

    • You’re personalizing a statement that wasn’t about you. While some of those who are canceling their Facebook accounts are doing so with the same level of awareness and compromise that you are, many others don’t have that same level of awareness.

      As for Facebook’s being “a known serial liar”, I’m not convinced. Their many missteps seem to have more to do with a very specific vision of the Internet that presumes its inevitability, and a confidence in their mission to achieve that vision. They’ve definitely moved the goal posts several times over the past few years, and have chosen to embrace opt-out over opt-in, but I’m not familiar with any instances of them outright lying about what they’re doing. What are you referring to?

      • “You’re personalizing a statement that wasn’t about you.”

        I have to say I find this kind of dismissal disingenuous. If you make a generalizing and the criteria apply to me, then I’m not personalizing your generalization when I point out that fact. But then that’s the problem with generalizing. (If you belong to Group X, and I say something about Group X, should I be let off the hook simply because I say personalized my generalization?)

        As to Facebook being a “known serial liar”, obviously you can reduce the claim to something approaching legal purity, which was not my intent. In my blog post about dropping Facebook I pointed to this quote as an utter absurdity — following a long line of similar coporate-speak:

        “Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service,” Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage said in a letter to [Senator] Schumer.

        Do you believe that? Do you think the person who said it believes it? If no and no, what else would you call that other than a lie?

        I count lies of omission as lies. I know that’s not cricket in business and marketing, but I do it anyway. Facebook is clearly structuring its privacy choices in ways that confuse users and obfuscate the degree to which failing to opt-out may impact the transfer of user data. In effect, Facebook is giving people options, then making it all but impossible for users to actively manage (or even understand) those options. Is Twitter doing anything similar? Is anybody doing anything even remotely like this?

        For more examples, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Facebook

        • — > “I have to say I find this kind of dismissal disingenuous.”

          I truly don’t know what to tell you there, Mark. It wasn’t a dismissal , it was a clarification, and in no way was it disingenuous. Not everyone who jumped off Facebook and announced on Twitter was oblivious to the irony — and I certainly never said as much — but there were many who were. I know a few of them personally.

          — > “Do you believe that? Do you think the person who said it believes it?”

          Two very different questions, but my answer to both is “yes”.

          Facebook knows that “trust” is absolutely critical to their survival, because without it, they’re toast. They also surely realize that the long-term prospects for a completely closed, private FREE platform aren’t very good, so they have to find ways to monetize their massive growth and just serving contextual ads isn’t enough. While they’ve made decisions that cause some to feel their trust has been compromised, I do believe that’s more an issue of their particular vision of the Internet — that the world should, will and wants to be fully connected — than any conspiratorial deceptiveness.

          As I noted in the article, and what my real point was, is that they’ve made a mistake in going with yet another opt-out initiative instead of allowing users to opt-in. Twitter, so far, hasn’t made a mistake like that on any significant level (though their official RT implementation was in the ballpark, and the LOC archiving deal could end up being similar), but that’s partly because they’re still in the “attract eyeballs” stage and haven’t felt the same kind of pressure to monetize that Facebook has. They also started primarily as an open network, so it’s a somewhat apples to oranges comparison anyway.

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