Does “ethical social media marketing” sound like an oxymoron? With all of the recent revelations about all the exciting places our Facebook data goes without us knowing about it, I’ll bet many people who use Facebook Ads as a part of their marketing strategy are wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into right now. Is it ethical to advertise on a platform like Facebook? And knowing that there’s little that any one of us can do to change Facebook’s ingrained behavior, what can we do to make sure that our own businesses are doing the right thing?

I sometimes wonder if we are actually living in The Matrix, with Facebook feeding us endless cat gifs and conspiracy theories while they harvest our souls—er, I mean our data. Most people are apparently okay with that bargain, or at least they were until they learned that Facebook was keeping track of a lot more than the results of the “What Superhero is Your Dog?” quiz that you took the other day.

Businesses were okay with that bargain, too, since Facebook let us use that data to buy ads that they said would be shown only to the very specific audience we were targeting. Even when it became obvious that Facebook was burying posts made by company pages unless you ponied up and “boosted” them, we figured that was a cost of doing business. And Facebook would surely never share their actual data, their crown jewels, with just anybody, and would definitely never share data with personally identifiable information in it…right?

I guess we should have known better.

Ask for Permission, Not Forgiveness

I’m going to quote Steve Jobs here, and I’ll bet you’ve seen the quote already but he was so good at stating complex things so clearly that they immediately seemed obvious that there’s no way I can do any better:

“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for. In plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means. I’m an optimist. I believe people are smart. And some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they’re tired of you asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

See? It seems so obvious. And Mark Zuckerberg was even sitting in the audience when Jobs said those words. So maybe it isn’t obvious to everyone. And even businesses with the best of intentions have fallen short when it comes to telling people exactly what they do with their data—often because they don’t really know exactly what they are doing with people’s data.

Who’s Watching Your Website?

I can all but guarantee that if your business has a website, it has code for the Facebook Tracking Pixel, Google Analytics, or both.

If you’re earning some money by running third party ads on your site, you probably have code for Google Adsense or another ad network in there, too.

Then there’s your email opt-in form, code that your online store uses to keep track of who has been to the site before, and code that lets customers create accounts on your store.

Everyone who buys something from you gives you at least their name and billing address, and probably a shipping address, too.

Your payment processor might let people save their credit card data, but that’s on their system and it never gets transferred to your own website so you’re off the hook on that one. Even so, that’s a ton of data, and most of it isn’t even in your control!

Do your website visitors know that they’re being watched when they visit your site? You might assume “yes”, and they probably are in a general way. But to meet the Steve Jobs Standard you need to make sure that they do know, in a totally comprehensive way.

Embracing Radical Openness

As I said earlier, your business all by itself isn’t going to make Facebook, Google, and other big companies change the way they use and share your data. But if you truly care about who controls your personal information, my opinion is that the single best way to effect change is at the ballot box. Make sure your elected representatives know that you take your privacy seriously, and they’d better stay on Facebook et al.’s case to make sure they don’t forget it.

For proof that this can work, we just have to look to Europe.

As of on May 25th 2018, any company doing business in the EU needs to tell customers and visitors to their websites exactly what personal data they collect, what they do with that data, and who they share that data with. Further, a business can’t collect anyone’s data without that person’s explicit consent. And the business has to make it obvious how a person can request a copy of any data collected about them, or ask for that data to be destroyed.

This rule is called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the hope is that it will lead to some or all of those practices extending beyond the EU. Even if your company doesn’t do any business in the EU taking the open, proactive, person-centric approach to data mandated by the GDPR seems like the right thing to do.

Doing the Right Thing is Good Business

Let’s get back to the original question: is it possible to practice ethical social media marketing? I think that the answer is yes—but it’s not going to be as easy as turning on an option on your website. Ethical social media marketing requires us to take some concrete actions:

  1. Be totally, 100% open with our customers and website visitors about what info we’re gathering and why.
  2. Use our collective power as citizens and consumers to get technology companies to clean up their acts and keep them honest
  3. Remember that “customers”, “visitors”, and “users” are words that represent people—human beings just like ourselves.

Social media is neither ethical nor unethical in and of itself. The ethics of how it is used and what it is used for come from the people who use it. We can each make our own ethical decisions, and even if Facebook and other giant tech companies seem like untouchable juggernauts, remember this: they are made of people, too. Human beings just like ourselves. And with the right mix of empathy, action, and cooperation I believe we can make this better, together.

P.S. If GDPR compliance for your business has you feeling a little overwhelmed, I can help. Schedule a phone call with me here, no strings attached.