Posted on Thursday 10 May 2012 by Ulster Business

Social Media

The problem with the internet is that it keeps channelling exciting new forms of innovation.

Social media, for bad or for good, is allowing more and more personal information to be shared globally and is now developing as an efficient marketing tool at a rapid rate. Our customised online experience involves stepping into social circles, keeping up with the latest trends and mapping out our E-life on a digital timeline.

The collection of information through these fresh designs and interfaces has divided opinion between those who claim that they genuinely enhance our social behaviour and those uncomfortable with tailored marketing and privacy intrusion. Social media is either going to be advertised as evidence of the natural progression in marketing and brand promotion or as the precursor to a litany of litigation.

There is an understandable logic behind the use of social media to promote brands and services.

Dr. Patrick McCole, a senior lecturer and E-Marketing expert from Queen’s University, believes social media is simply another marketing tool.

“Companies have always communicated with consumers. These are just new ways of helping us do that. They are simply just another channel of communication,” he comments.

In support, Richard Houdmont, Director of the Chartered Institute of Marketing for Ireland, pointed out that companies are just adapting to the changing cultural and economic environment.

“It actually comes back to the age old message, which was you should be where your customers are. If your customers are on Facebook, well you should be there too,” he said.

Online privacy rights continue to be a trending topic of debate. Attorney general Dominic Grieve told The Guardian newspaper recently that social networks must “act responsibly” and obey the law of the land, but said that “excessive regulation” of cyberspace could pose a threat to civil liberties online.

There is an issue of trust between internet users and companies like Facebook and Google. In line with Facebook’s switch to its timeline design, some observant users are complaining about changes to the privacy settings, which allow profile information to be shared as a default. Ironically, words of warning and advice have been handed out through social networks.

It is the gap between telling people what they need and listening to what they want that is an issue for Patrick McCole: “People are wary of change; they get familiar with something and then if there is a sudden change they ask if it’s not broken why fix it. If we can develop that trust in terms of information exchange and say: ‘This is what I am going to gather from you and this is what I am going to use it for’, then it wouldn’t be something for customers to be worried about.”

Suspicion and unease has been created by this new advertising strategy, as social media is able to target individuals rather than groups or a demographic. Daniel Rowles, of digital marketing training business Target Internet, feels that the collection of data will allow the web to develop to a much more useful level.

“We need to ask what are we actually concerned about as most concerns are fairly ethereal. What I mean is that we aren’t used to having information about us that is personal and widely available, so we find it strange. However, what can be done with most of this information is of no concern to most of us. In fact, we are already sharing much more information through Facebook and Twitter in exchange for the utility this provides,” he said.

There is a grey area around what counts as responsible behaviour and how the law can maintain the free flow of information without infringing on personal privacy.

Damian McParland, a Partner in Millar McCall Wylie LLP, Solicitors, who specialises in media and entertainment law, comments: “Whilst large organisations like Facebook and Google no doubt comply with the letter of the law in relation to privacy and Data Protection, it is worth noting that these laws were not really designed with social media in mind. There are also obvious issues with regard to jurisdiction and conflicts of laws given the worldwide accessibility across a number of jurisdictions. There is an argument that the current legislation isn’t sufficiently targeted to dealing with the issues arising out of social media and the internet generally.”

There is still no resolution to the lack of clarity and regulation despite new legislation due to be implemented.

McParland adds: “From 26 May 2012 websites will be obliged to provide clear and comprehensive information about the use of cookies (small files which allow a site to recognise a visitor’s device) under the EU Privacy and Communications Directive. Whilst it is still somewhat unclear as to how this will manifest in practice, websites will be required to inform people there are cookies, explain the purpose of the cookies and obtain permission to store cookies.”

The new legislation, which says that you have to effectively opt in to cookie use rather than opt out of it, has been predicted to fail due to a lack of clarity and SMEs not being prepared for its implementation.

Richard Houdmont explains: “It’s actually been on the statute book for almost a year now, but the information commissioner gave companies a year’s grace. We are very, very close to that deadline and I have seen very little evidence that companies have taken on board the full impact of the legislation.”

Speaking with the ICO, Daniel Rowles was told that “it is not currently enforceable and large retailers will fight it legally – and win due to the lack of clarity”.

The speed of change and the struggle for companies to keep pace with the evolution of social media could lead to privacy becoming a problematic issue in the industry. Marketing experts are stressing the importance of professional and accountable marketing.

Richard Houdmont comments: “I would like to think that it’s not about legislation, it’s about brand equity and a professional marketer is going to be interested in maintaining the value of their brand by maintaining a good customer relationship. So it’s about seeing who are the brands with the white hats and who are the brands with the black hats. In that way we will trust.”

Daniel Rowles predicts things will get worse before they get better: “There’ll be lots of accidents and mess ups by companies exposing data by accident. Lots of test cases and litigation. Then, hopefully we will get stronger self-regulation and clearer legal guidance from bodies and government. However, the government is not suited to regulating in this area. They are too slow and lack expertise. Industry self regulation will be more important combined with increased transparency.”

It is transparency that internet users crave most. Then lengthy terms and conditions policies will not be looked upon with suspicion. The argument that, if people were really worried, they would read the privacy settings from top to bottom is valid; but it only seems to be made when there is a feeling that something within those settings should concern us. For privacy to be given a chance, trustworthy marketing and regulation will have to keep pace with innovation and information sharing.

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