Where does Facebook's balancing act leave advertisers?

Facebook is giving users more agency over their data, building out a News Tab and opening itself up to scrutiny from conservativ

Facebook, still feeling the aftershock of 2018’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, has embarked on three separate missions to show the world – and advertisers – it’s a safe place for everyone.

The social giant introduced an Off-Facebook Activity feature Tuesday (20 August) that lets users see the information Facebook collects about them both on its platform and across third-party websites. Users then have the option to disconnect that tracking information from their accounts.

However, that does not mean users will be deleting the summary of the apps and websites they visit. Facebook still stores that data, but it no longer is associated with an individual account.

In a joint blog post from Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, policy, and David Baser, director of product management, the company will be making Off-Facebook Activity initially available to people in Ireland, South Korea and Spain.

“If you clear your off-Facebook activity, we’ll remove your identifying information from the data that apps and websites choose to send us," they wrote. "We won’t know which websites you visited or what you did there, and we won’t use any of the data you disconnect to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger.

“We expect this could have some impact on our business, but we believe giving people control over their data is more important.”

Phillip Huynh, vice-president, national paid social strategy lead at 360i, said the digital marketing agency will be gauging the impact of the global roll-out of Off-Facebook Activity, and how it may play hand-in-hand with other privacy pushes such as Europe’s GDPR.

“From an advertiser standpoint, this occurring in tandem with the depreciation of cookies across the Internet will lead to a larger focus on first-party data and platform-specific data,” said Huynh.

Gartner analyst and research vice-president Andrew Frank said most users are unlikely to disconnect their browsing data from their accounts, but even if they do advertisers shouldn’t worry.

“This sounds like a positive impact for advertisers,” said Frank. “I don't think advertisers need or want to target on personally identifiable data anyway. I think they're perfectly happy to target anonymous profiles, as long as those profiles are consistent and targetable within the attributes that they're interested in.

“The best solution is to have a clear separation of your anonymous encrypted online ID that can be tracked and your personal ID, which should never be connected to that.”

Facebook is targeting publishers with a dedicated News Tab

Facebook is also building out a News Tab, a destination outside of the newsfeed where it will license articles from top US publishers. According to The New York Times, Facebook is now looking to hire “seasoned journalists” to curate its news offering.

At the same time, Facebook is letting a group led by former Republican senator Jon Kyl conduct a review of the platform to evaluate whether it holds an anti-conservative bias.

Kyl wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal outlining how conservatives believed Facebook “discriminated against them” and the steps Facebook took in addressing those concerns, including reforming their ad policies. For example, Kyl explained it will now be easier to promote certain pro-life ads on Facebook.

Facebook is trying to please everyone. It wants a brand-safe environment for news – something it’s previously struggled to accomplish – and ad dollars from the nation’s ruling political party, all while potentially hurting its bottom line by giving users more control over their data.

Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice-president of global affairs and communications, said the company is working to strike the right balance in its policies.

"Even if we could craft [our policies] in a way that pleased all sides, when dealing with such nuanced issues, involving policies that apply to billions of posts, we will inevitably make some bad calls, some of which may appear to strike harder at conservatives," Clegg wrote in a blog post. "That’s why it is so important that we work to make sure this process is free of bias, intended or not."

Frank said that since Facebook can't please everybody, its best bet is to align with the commercial interests of publishers.

“The connecting thread is that Facebook, in its latest bid to rehabilitate its brand and reputation, is focusing on the publisher constituency – offering them money for their articles, offering them a solution to their advertising data problem and also kind of taking on the lightning rod issue of bias,” said Frank.

Facebook is planning to hand some of its publisher partners large paydays to license their content for the New Tab, according to The Times. As Frank pointed out, this would be a much more compelling offering than Apple’s competing news destination which has publishers angered over the company’s revenue and data sharing practices.

Huynh called Facebook’s embrace of journalist-led curation is an “exciting prospect for advertisers,” but he’ll be taking somewhat of a wait-and-see approach if the News Tab can sufficiently address Facebook’s fake news problem.

How Facebook will handle privacy issues going forward

Facebook’s “fundamental shift” toward privacy officially kicked off in April when chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg announced plans at F8 to create a “living room” atmosphere on the platform.

Frank explained this as a move for Facebook to “inoculate itself against the challenges of being a media company that has to take responsibility for the content that it publishes.”

“The economic point of the News Tab move is to try to create an editorial safe place to put ads without having to take on the responsibility of building a whole newsroom or editorial team. They'll have humans do curation, but it's still going to be curating content that's produced by news outfits.”

Facebook’s other move to consolidate its messaging apps and pivot around end-to-end encryption would also likely close the services off to marketers as its difficult to advertisers within encrypted environments, said Frank.

Huynh sees the growth of different intra-Facebook outlets as a way for the company to diversify its income stream.

“The Newsfeed has been a gold mine for [Facebook] and advertisers, and with the creation as well as the growth of Stories, Watch and now News – they’re looking for where the next opportunity within their ecosystem will be.”

Facebook recently began selling subscription video services on Facebook Watch, moving its TV service beyond a solely ad-reliant business model.

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