What does the social media ‘privacy shift’ mean for brands?

Every so often the digital sands shift in a way that requires businesses to transform their social media approach. Arguably the most recent of these was the swift erosion of organic reach, particularly on Facebook, and subsequent need for brands to embrace paid social ads.

Last week at Facebook’s F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg spoke of a “privacy-focused vision for social networking”. Could this be the next big shift?

“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever,” he wrote.

What do we mean by ‘private’?

Any comment from Facebook’s CEO garners plenty of media attention, and already many articles have dissected this “shift to private” – indeed, it’s the catalyst for this post. Much of the focus is on aspects such as end-to-end encryption, which is clearly important. However, the side of private I’m considering is a reflection on changes in how people wish to interact publicly on social media or with their own (social) network.

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Let’s be clear, this situation didn’t arise overnight

The underlying factors driving this shift have been growing over a period of time, predominantly driven by how we, as users of social media, are choosing to use them.

Firstly the rise of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and messaging features inside social networks have enabled us to create our own micro social networks. Remember the social network Path, which limited you to about 150 connections? That’s effectively what we’re doing with each WhatsApp group we create.

Now throw in the fact that ‘traditional’ social networking is losing its novelty factor and you have a real shift in online behaviour.

The social networks work hard to limit how much content appears in our newsfeeds, but there’s still an awful lot, leading us to do more ‘self-curation’ (the opposite of the over-share if you like). Instead of posting that rant about Nottingham Forest to all my friends on Facebook, I’ll post it to the dedicated WhatsApp group where the other 8 members might actually care! Facebook deciding to make Groups far more prominent in the app looks like a clear reflection of this change.

It’s not all about people deciding who’s actually interested in what they have to say, but whether they actually want everyone in their social network, or the world at large, to hear it. We’ve been telling younger generations for years to be careful of what they post publicly – “it’s a lasting digital footprint kids!” So no wonder many people now use separate ‘public’ and ‘private’ Instagram accounts.

The other major change we’re seeing is the huge shift towards Stories versus posts. This is being driven in part by the novelty factor, in part the fact they’re gone in 24 hours and in part the countless features that exist around them. And that means it comes as no surprise that Zuckerberg also spoke at F8 of a greater focus on content with reduced “permanence” – again further publicising a trend that already exists.

Where are brands at with ‘private social’?

Most businesses use social media. A good many use paid ads to some extent. Plenty operate social customer service. A proportion work with ‘online influencers’.

However, when it comes to ‘private social’ few businesses appear to have established much of an approach. There’s perhaps a growing mismatch between the way organisations think their customers like to communicate online and how they actually do. To pedal some inner Gary Vee, where is the ‘audience’s attention’ going?

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What are the implications for businesses?

As this private new-normal starts to kick in, there are likely to be a number of implications for how businesses approach social media. Here are six potentials…

1. Straight-up promotion remains key

Regardless of the exact changes Facebook make around privacy, the ability to target an audience based on their behaviours will (surely) remain at the heart of Facebook’s business model. With Groups, Events and Stories becoming more prominent (than the newsfeed) there will likely be additional targeting options and new ad placements appearing.

But due to the nature of Groups, Events and Stories, those ad placements have the potential to feel far more ‘disruptive’ than those in the newsfeed. Think about Promoted Stories when you’re tapping between Stories or mid-video ads.

The impact of this is likely to require businesses to think further about the objectives for their social campaigns and the creative they use. Stand-out brand awareness and appropriate (re)targeted for direct sales seem like two activities which would come to the fore.

Let’s not forget good old sponsored posts in the newsfeed aren’t going away. But if they’re less prominent, will the cost increase? Something else that will play out over time one way or another.

2. Building relationships becomes harder, but more valuable

The second area is the impact on how organisations try to build closer relationships with customers and prospects.

Only a few big brands (that I observe) have been able to, or perhaps more accurately have chosen to invest in, building relationships through more private online communities. I’m something of a running bore and, over the last 2 years have Instagrammed plenty about trainers, watches etc. I’m no Instagram influencer, but none of the brands I’ve mentioned have asked me to do anything more exciting than signup to an e-newsletter. Invite me to join some sort of first look at new trainers WhatsApp broadcast list and I’ll be there in a shot.

It’s maybe smaller, newer businesses who’ve been able to more effectively embrace the changing ways people operate on social media. Thread Styling is a great example of of a business taking the customer straight from Instagram into a private, tailored WhatsApp interaction; #slick.

Perhaps with Groups becoming more prominent on Facebook, more brands will be incentivised to try and find a way to tap into them. Will this be a sudden new land grab with every brand inviting you to join their ‘exclusive’ community? Of course the idea of building a branded Facebook Group is all very nice in theory, but harder to deliver in practice.

3. Customer care grows in value

The thing is, most businesses are already embracing private social, but they probably don’t think of it as a marketing activity.

Social customer care is essentially a mandatory part of any customer service team these days. And with the integration of tools like Facebook Messenger into brands’ websites, it’s starting to shift back towards more 1:1, private conversations instead of public information exchanges.

I’ve blogged (many times!) about the need for businesses to think about these customer service conversations as daily micro-marketing interactions. The customer is there and wants to interact, so make the most of it. Sure, if they’re having an issue it’s probably not smart to try and up-sell directly, but what an opportunity for total social media care.

And we haven’t even got into the sophistication of social CRM tools such as Sprinklr, which enable clever categorisation of audiences based on these interactions.

4. The role of influencers evolves (again)

The adidas Tango Squads case study is well worn, but arguably still one of the best examples of tapping into micro-influencer groups with a super-clear objective around authentic word of mouth; essentially what this is all about.

Where the sprawling (some say grotesque) influencer marketing monster goes next is tricky to gauge. Many reports question how much influencers’ content is actually believed, but their stock might rise even higher if brands are struggling to break into these precious private social spaces and the influencers can act as a gateway.

5. Businesses do more to embrace a ‘dark social’ world

This reflects on the fact that two-thirds of people choose private messaging apps when sharing something online (Global Web Index, see link below).

This, and other forms of ‘dark sharing’ such as the humble email, make it hard for businesses to track the performance of digital activity. So why not try to embrace the shift in user behaviour by making WhatsApp, Messenger and Email the prominent ‘share this’ options, instead of the historic Twitter and Facebook icons we are used to. That way you can at least get some data on what’s being shared.

6. Lazy content is naturally phased out

I recently blogged about brands getting stuck in a content marketing rut, churning out content that’s ‘fine’ but little else. The privacy shift looks like another nail in the ‘average content’ coffin. If content isn’t driving a direct action, isn’t attracting standout attention and isn’t being super-tailored for a more private community what exactly is it doing? Not much.

In conclusion

The privacy shift on social media isn’t a new phenomena, but now it’s been called out so publicly (Facebook are running a campaign called More Together to promote Groups) businesses will pay more attention.

The change is actually audience/user/customer led, as we mature in our use of ‘social’ communication technologies that exist.

Organisations need to see the world through the eyes of their audience in terms of how they choose to communicate, rather than holding onto a notion of how we think they do.


Are you future-proofing for a more ‘private social’ world? Have you seen any brands doing a great job of this?

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