Socialveillance: Social Media Marketing by Stealth

I have been having a romance with the internet since the days of dial-up.  Long before Facebook and MySpace, I was trawling the web with Netscape and marveling at the information innovation I was experiencing through the pings and bleeps of a standard phone line.

As I write this blog, I’m sitting in an airline lounge in Honolulu. I’ve come to Hawaii for a vacation and to write the first draft of my book – The #SocialFirefighter; and true to technophile form, I researched and booked large portions of this trip online. I trawled Trip Advisor and navigated my way through a dozen different accommodation and flight booking systems.

And for the past month, every time I’ve logged onto Facebook –the ad’s that have appeared are all for accommodation in Hawaii. And not just random suggestions; very specific ads that fit my traveling style and preferences.

Happy coincidence?

Unfortunately not.

Facebook is spying on me. It’s collecting my data, storing it and mining it to model marketing strategies for third party advertisers that are targeted to appeal.

Welcome to the new frontier of the digital revolution: Socialveillance.


Socialveillance (social surveillance) is like a Trojan horse:  when you connect your apps to your Facebook or Twitter (such as via one-step login) it seems harmless enough. If anything, it makes digital life a little easier.

But like the people of ancient Troy discovered – letting a strange wooden horse in your front door without reading the fine print on the delivery docket can lead to disaster.

Like an army hidden within a wooden horse, connecting your social accounts to third party apps can leave you unwittingly exposed to cyber infiltration and ongoing socialveillance.

The Value of Social Data

To understand the value of social data, let’s take a quick look at traditional data mining enterprises: customer loyalty schemes.

If you are an Australian Flybuys or Everyday Rewards member you will equate earning points with doing your shopping at participating stores. Once accumulated, you can convert your points for rewards such as flights, vouchers and particular products. The value of a point is often $1 for 1 point on customer spend, but to redeem your points you need to have spent over $1000 to get the equivalent of a $10 reward.

On the flip side, Coles Myer and Woolworths are also in the play. They are tracking every detail of your spending habits from where, when, how often, which brands and what impact their marketing has on your regular shop.  Make no mistake – they are getting far more out of the ‘loyalty’ arrangement than you are!

These loyalty schemes are a gold mine of data for retailers – who then in turn use this data to formulate direct marketing strategies. Flybuys for example, now sends customers regular email digests from their local Coles store with a discount or sale on the products you regularly purchase.

Now think of these loyalty schemes in social terms – that once you’ve created a link between an app and social network, your data is shared, starting a process of building a consumer or user profile for each app’s target market or third party advertiser.

Instead of shopping, you use the app and social network  (together or in isolation) – building a data profile which includes your age, location, demographic, what pages you like, categories of Twitter accounts you follow and what your interests are. This can also extend to your online friends list – with apps often showing which of your contacts or friends also use their app.

I’m going to make a wild prediction –

Data will be the currency of the future.

Think of social data in future terms like a diamond – expensive, rare and limited in quality and quantity to those who can afford it.

If you are a Salesforce or HootSuite command centre customer, you will already know the value of social and online data as a critical part of a sound marketing strategy.

Guesswork marketing is on it’s way to extinction. The science of marketing will mature from the infancy we are seeing today, through to an alpha-adulthood where your social data will form a precise profile of you as a consumer, a voter and as a private citizen.

Companies will be able to statistically gauge with precision, the likelihood of your purchasing their product or service based on your social data set.  They will then target their social media marketing spend accordingly, and track it’s effectiveness in real time.

With social interactions high for everyday product and services purchases, the generation of social data may become more valuable than the transaction itself.

Edward Snowden’s expose of how Governments are collecting, storing and mining your data mirrors what is happening in the private sector with differing scale and intent.

Pervasive social propaganda will become the norm for corporate and Government messaging. We can already see evidence of this occurring in politics.

Social warfare will be cyber warfare’s new frontier: why spend tens of millions of dollars on missiles and aircraft when you can hack a country’s social and online streams and bring down an economy?  This is a real risk for state owned infrastructure and service providers, as even a hiccup online has a domino effect in creating misinformation that can directly impact economic interests. For example, by hacking a Government held Bank’s Twitter feed and carefully propagating misinformation, you could panic customers into emptying their accounts. Online trust is easily broken, restoring it- a long term proposition.

The days of traditional insider-based corporate espionage will end and the social spy will arise based on social data leakage and sophisticated phishing technology.

Data + Privacy (Social Media2) = Risk

Social media is now synonymous with risk, particularly for brands and corporate entities. Add into that equation the risks surrounding data and the game changes unequivocally.

Data is considered private in many countries or jurisdictions. Take the European Union (EU)  for example: any data housed by a company within the EU must comply with it’s privacy laws. In fact, companies are obligated to protect the personal data they hold.

Australia and the United States have similar privacy obligations protecting their citizens from unauthorised access to, and use of, their data.

The term ‘authorisation’ is key here, because many people do not realise they are giving their implicit authorisation for third parties to access their social data each time they install an app that has social connectivity.

If you sign into a social network with another, or use your Facebook or Twitter account to login to services such as TripIt or TripAdvisor, you have implicitly given your authorisation for the app or software to mine your data.

In many cases, if you don’t allow the app to sync with your contacts, friends or timeline, you simply can’t use it. It’s the ultimate form of brand envy for popular apps or social networks: everyone wants to use them, and by doing so you are giving away certain aspects of your online privacy in the process.

A Seismic Shift in the Social Media Risk Profile

If social data is the currency of the future, the ways in which that data is obtained, stored, analysed, on-sold and so on becomes  intrinsically integrated in the social strategies of brands, entities and Governments. This change in approach to social marketing, brand identity and online communications signals a shift in the social media risk profile.

The question of value – and whether that value is focused on the product or service, or the data collected in the process- now becomes a valid strategic point of concern for crisis communicators.

Customer outrage is seldom a lone affair – the cost to a brand or entity caught misusing, selling or inappropriately profiling social data will be epic.  And there will be little crisis communicators will be able to recover if no planning, risk mitigation and social strategy is in place. The Plan should be – to have a Plan before you Need a Plan.

If your company or brand is actively placing app users under socialveillance you cannot afford to be caught on the fly – legally, socially or ethically.  Your brand’s survival depends on it.