Are Your Customers Starting To Hide From You?

I’m reporting from the Social Media Insider Summit at the Resort at Squaw Creek in Lake Tahoe. Currently I’m looking at an unobstructed view of Squaw Valley, set against a clear, mostly cloud-free, sky.

But maybe the view from last year’s Tahoe summit  -- smoky, courtesy of massive wildfires several hours away -- would have been more fitting, considering what I’m about to say about consumers and social media.

The thing is, people seem to want a little more anonymity and a little less intrusion when it comes to their social media. Rather than giving advertisers unobstructed views of themselves and their interests, many consumers are finding ways to hide behind the smokescreen, according to evidence.

That was the key takeaway I had after listening to a research presentation by Megan Meagher, strategy director of Red Peak Youth, at the Summit yesterday morning, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. “Millennials & Privacy: What Does It Mean for Your Brand?” was the title of the presentation, which put a fine point on Millennials and their privacy concerns. While covering one demographic, the study probably has broader implications for all those aware of constantly being targeted.

The online world the Millennials inhabit is one in which 80% of the 25- to 34-year-olds in that group say they are concerned about online privacy, but only 26% have read privacy policies on sites. It’s where those under 30 view Edward Snowden as a hero -- but when asked whom they hide their social media information from, only 9% say the government.

Yes, it’s schizophrenic, but some actions speak louder than statistics. In this world, more private social networks are taking hold -- which seems like a much easier choice to make than waking up one morning and deciding you’re going to start reading privacy policies. Why not just go where privacy is a given?

Snapchat, WhatsApp, Secret, Whisper -- all in some ways provide either more privacy or less advertising, or both. Snapchat -- which admittedly is actively pursuing an ad model -- is nonetheless the social network where content quickly goes to die, and users want it that way. WhatsApp has been forthright about being against advertising, and Secret, Whisper, and other platforms like YikYak are largely anonymous.

What does this mean for brands? The answer is obvious. As companies talk enthusiastically about targeting, merging data streams to get a holistic view of the customer, and creating shareable content, they are also putting themselves at sometimes-extreme risk of alienating consumers. As AutoTrader’s Ryan Dickerson said during the session devoted to combining social data and CRM, “Misuse of data is why we marketers can’t have nice things.”

Of course, the term “misuse” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from the blatantly illegal to what might be called data abuse, which I’ll define as the urge to use data to target intrusively just because the data exist.

Of course, advertising isn’t the only thing consumers are fleeing when it comes to the new breed of social networks. They are also trying to carve out their own social speakeasys, private niches, where, for instance, their mom isn’t likely to comment on their status updates.

Advertisers need to take the customer drift toward these other kinds of social nets more seriously. And if they behave, maybe they’ll get the nice things they want -- like consumers that actually trust them.

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