Cambridge Analytica: Datakreig is upon us

Photo Credit:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The new Agents of Fortune have emerged from the shadows

In the summer of 1940, the Nazi Blitzkreig overran the whole of Western Europe. Blitzkreig was a revolution in warfare. It used the concentration of forces, speed and communications to outwit the bigger and better armed allied powers of Western Europe. I use the word ‘speed’ advisedly; German troops used a lot of amphetamines, but that’s another story. Great Britain and France had prepared for a traditional war. They were outwitted and outmanoeuvred at every turn.

Over seventy five years on and Datakreig is on the rampage. The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal has remarkable similarities to the 1940 Blitzkreig. It represents a revolution in how power is acquired and disseminated (or more likely sold) by a new breed of digital data warriors. With or without the use of amphetamines, they are running rings around a complacent and out of touch old media, government and judiciary.

Yesterday I observed how this scandal was unfolding and how the public were reacting. Most used the situation to voice their political prejudices, citing this case as proof of the correctness of their viewpoints. In my opinion:

The fact that the now ex-CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix went to Eton is not evidence of a global elite intent on enslaving the rest of us.

The (big) dent in Facebook's share price doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for the big digital media firms.

The fact that Facebook holds an immense amount of personal data is not a crime IF it is gathered fairly and transparently and only shared with our full knowledge and explicit consent.

Nonetheless, there is something deeply unsettling emerging here. Lines must be drawn. But where?

Use of our individual and personal data for political purposes is unacceptable in a democracy

The way that the Trump campaign used social media data would be recognised and well understood by any marketing specialist or military strategist. But this doesn't make it acceptable within the political process.

Better intelligence and targeting than your competitors or rivals provides a serious tactical advantage. And Cambridge Analytica’s strategy worked better than probably even they had expected. A previous attempt to use it with Republican nominee Ted Cruz had disappointing results. Nonetheless Cambridge Analytica were surely not exactly grief-stricken having pocketed $5.8m in fees for this work.

The pooling and utilisation of personal data in this way is probably at least tacitly accepted by social media users as a fair exchange if it is just being used for advertising products and services. Irritating perhaps, but a reasonable price to pay for an essentially free platform. After all, most people would accept that old media advertising is fair and reasonable, provided it can be clearly identified for what it is, ie. not cloaked within editorial content.

But politics is not about commerce. It is about power. And personal digital data is not old media. It is or should be private. When our data is being passed to political groups, a line is crossed. Yet Cambridge Analytica may well not have broken any laws however unacceptable their actions may be – because the law is completely out of step with the nature and pace of the digital revolution. If and when legal actions and government interventions occur, we can fully expect that by the time they are enacted, the game and its tactics will have moved on.

This is a very unequal struggle

Data regulators are not adequately empowered to act independently of the judiciary. The UK Data Commissioner has a team of ten people working on this case. That’s ten UK civil servants with their hands tied behind their backs vs. a corporation with total assets in 2017 of $84billion.

The power and capital amassed by Facebook is more than monopoly power; FB had a revenue of $40.6bn in 2017, which is greater than the entire GDP of many countries.

Because the UK Data Commissioner cannot raid premises without a court order, the whole world knew they intended to examine Cambridge Analytics' servers long before they actually gained access. Facebook on the other hand entered Cambridge Analytica's premises on Monday. We can conjecture that both Facebook and CA will have erased without trace any evidence of possible malpractice long before the civil servants arrive.

And it has now emerged that Cambridge Analytica used ProtonMail accounts set to self-destruct without trace within two hours of being delivered. This fact alone suggests that they were intent on establishing a cloak of secrecy over everything they did. There will be no paper trail here…

Remember though that the whistle blowers have a deeply vested interest

The media forces which have ranged themselves against the new agents of fortune are the old agents of fortune. The New York Times, the Observer and Channel 4 Television News. The old guard are used to having the power to influence events. Usually in favour of their own proprietors' political and business allegiances.

So we should also recognise that the whistle blowers are not without their own motives. Old media has been losing billions in revenues to digital platforms for years. They have tried every trick to get in step with the digital revolution and have mostly failed. The Cambridge Analytica situation is possibly the best news old media has received in years. They can fully expect that in the coming weeks and months their digital nemeses will likely have their wings seriously clipped.

Datakreig deploys pace and opaqueness to assure its goals are accomplished

Tech knows it can easily exceed the pace at which government and regulators can respond. Digital media owners know that their opaqueness, resources and pan-national organisations make them able to out run and out gun regulatory controls.

Cambridge Analytics represents a new revolutionary guard. Whether they acted legally or not is a moot point. Data regulations and enforcement are hopelessly out of step with digital media. The big digital media firms can afford the best lawyers and tech heads to ensure the not very digital regulators are outwitted at every turn. Just like blitzkrieg, they use speed and camouflage to leave the forces of justice choking in their dust.

If we wish to live in a democracy, we can and should demand that legal lines are drawn over how our personal data can be used. Government action requires though that we wait for their painfully slow next moves. I'd venture that a much more effective response is to vote with our consciences, our smartphones and our wallets...

For my views on Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional hearing click here

Why doing more social media is a dumb strategy

By Neil Patrick

Because it's not how big your numbers are, it's what you do with them that counts.

I think this year will mark a turning point for social media platforms. It’s a perfect storm which has been brewing these last couple of years. Consider this:

Teens are leaving Facebook in their millions. Why? Because their parents are there and they don’t want to be seen in the same place, or have Mum and Dad see what they are saying or doing. (‘twas always so right?) They are also fed up with online bullying, sexual predators and relentless advertising. The selfie generation are choosing to make their social networks private not public. So they have migrated to Instagram, WhatsApp and other platforms where they can retain privacy.

Brands are failing to get the leverage on social media they aspired to because they bought into the myth (literally investing billons) that social media would enable them to build a huge audience of committed followers for a fraction of what they were spending on old media. It didn’t work because old media advertising methods don’t work on social platforms where trust and affinity is created more by listening and engaging with people than telling them stuff about you.

The platforms themselves are under increasing pressure from the public and regulators alike to stamp out the activities of the undesirables, everyone from ISIS terror cells to child groomers and political extremists. In doing so, many people who express politically 'unacceptable' sentiments are getting their accounts suspended, while the real villains duck, dive and re-emerge under new names as soon as they are shut down. This builds resentment and alienation amongst people who place value on free speech.

Meanwhile the earnings by the platforms are in many cases getting nowhere near the level they need to achieve a sustainable business. Twitter made $91m profit in the fourth quarter of 2017 on revenue of $732m. The first quarter in their 12 year history they have made any profit at all. The market responded positively to this news, but I see little prospect of this being a mark of turnaround, because new users are not growing. Meanwhile operating costs look likely to increase as they have to apply more resources to regulating user activity. 

We are fast reaching social media saturation. For every PewDiePie millionaire teen YouTuber there are thousands of other wannabes. And the queue is growing every month. Just last week I encountered a YouTube star called Huw who has become the number one most followed YouTuber on organic vegetable growing. Huw has 75,000 channel subscribers. Building this following has taken him 6 years. And he’s earned just £12,000 from his success. That’s an average of just £2,000 a year, or £166 a month. Huw is a young man however and I am sure he'll succeed in his career. It's just that it won't be on YouTube.

Social media is starting to come of age and in maturity, the holes and shortcomings are coming into plain sight. The myths are being outed.

The myth for business users that creates the greatest damage I think is that success is rooted in big numbers. This is a case of the platforms believing their own hype. This deception carries right through to the analytics they provide to users. Look at your Facebook, or Twitter or Pinterest analytics and you’ll see what I mean. They focus on short term numbers – the last day or week or month. They also encourage us to strive to constantly get bigger numbers. More followers, more shares, more comments. More is always better right? No it’s not actually.

It is for the platforms because this increases the money they can charge advertisers. For content creators it’s a pyrrhic victory however. Why? Because whilst having 100,000 subscribers is great if you are a YouTuber, that audience creates (a smallish) ad revenue stream for you. But 100,000 Twitter followers counts for very little. 50,000 LinkedIn connections? Meh.

Just like the platforms themselves, the investment of work, time and money to achieve anything resembling a commercial success is just too high. And the hurdles are getting ever higher as the competition for eyeballs grow exponentially as more and more people pile in.

If you are using social media as part of your business strategy, the time has come to get real and face up to reality. Social media is still here and it is still powerful. But only if you go about it in the right way. Here are the things I think we should face up to:

A thousand or ten thousand or a million connections have no value in and of themselves. Sure they might make you feel good, but if they are not in some way making your business more valuable, they are worth almost nothing. If you see success as simply making these numbers bigger, you are chasing the wrong goal.

No one cares what you do. What they care about is WHY you do it. This is why most businesses large and small struggle to get social media working for them. Because what they do is simply to make profit for shareholders. ‘Buy my stuff because it’s great’ has no currency on the social web.

But we have a nice mission statement. So what? Does that mission live and breathe in everything everyone does everyday? And does it make people want to help you? 

The only way to have people care about us is to show we care about them. This means that we listen more than we speak. That we talk about what people care about – and usually that is not ourselves. And that we demonstrate our care for them through our online actions more than our words.

So a million follows or likes or whatever might be the result of years of effort. But it’s worth nothing unless it delivers a return. That return on investment is also set to decline. Unless we rethink what we stand for and why anyone else would give a s**t.

What non-marketers should know about the state of marketing today…

By Neil Patrick

There’s a whole generation of marketing folk faking it...

This post is about the state of marketing in the 21st century. This is something I care deeply about because marketing has been my career for my whole adult life.

To be frank, I am concerned about the condition of my profession. Mark Schaefer, one of my favourite marketing gurus, cited the subtitle of this post in his excellent Grow blog late last year:

"Every CMO I talk to tells me they can’t find the right people to fill marketing jobs. And yet, I have a lot of friends having trouble finding a job. The disconnect is in the skills gap.

Keith Weed, the CMO of Unilever, claimed in an interview that there is an entire generation of marketers who are “faking it” and called for an overhaul of the marketing function.

Marketing titans like P&G acknowledge that their biggest brands are struggling to find relevance and, over the last few years, fired thousands of marketing professionals who aren’t keeping up.
The truth is, the marketing jobs are out there but CMOs can’t find the RIGHT skill sets they need to fill them and this is creating a true employment crisis."

I am sad to say that I agree. Marketing has always been a profession which is misunderstood by those outside it. But worse, today, it's now also a conundrum to some people within it.

The reasons are complex, but one of the main drivers is the pace of change brought about by the transition to a digital economy. This change is so rapid and profound for marketing that whole new skill sets are required. And few marketers are keeping up.

I am fortunate to know a great many senior and excellent marketing people. But even these folk, despite their impressive resumes are struggling to keep up with the pace of transformation.

I also know or know of others who at best are fudging it and at worst being downright deceitful about how they can help their employers and clients achieve their goals.

You’ve probably heard the idea, star of a thousand social media memes, that we should 'fake it until we make it’. Sadly this idea seems to have taken hold amongst some marketing people.

According to the very brief Wiki page, ‘fake it until you make it’…

“…is an English aphorism which suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life. It echoes the underlying principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a means to enable a change in one's behavior.

In the 1920s, Alfred Adler, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, developed a therapeutic technique that he called "acting as if". This strategy gave his clients an opportunity to practice alternatives to dysfunctional behaviors. Adler's method is still used today and is often described as "role play". 

So the origins of this idea are highly specific; it’s a cognitive therapy for people with mental illness. Which is a very different thing to ubiquitous career best practice.

No. Just No. (Sorry Steven)

And if you are a marketing professional or aspire to be one, I'd venture that such a mindset is downright dangerous for you, your business and the reputation of your profession.

The trouble is that some people have got much better at faking it than they are at delivering the goods. And in an age where change is so rapid, the people who hire marketing people unless they are marketers themselves are easily misled by the all the jargon and persuasive patter.

If you hire or engage with marketing people, but are not one yourself, here’s my top 10 things I think you should know:

1: Successful digital marketing doesn't hinge on search engine optimisation (SEO). 

Because ranking high on Google does nothing to increase customers’ love for your brand, product or service. It’s just good housekeeping. No more no less.

2: Unless you’re an online retailer, selling things from your website is not the be all and end all.

It is people's obsession with turning their online presence directly into £s which distorts and corrupts their vision about how presence should be designed. And it leads to pop-ups, sign ups, redirects and other irritations which alienate the very people we want to love us.

For many products and services, the only time people will visit your website is to check you out. As often as not, those people will not be potential customers, they will be real competitors. For some businesses, a traditional website is actually a handicap. And the best website in the world is not going to help you unless people find something there to make them love you.

3: Social media enables you to build a tribe of loyal supportive followers. 

It can. But only if you have a strategy which gives your prospective customers something they want to engage with. And which integrates your social media with the rest of your business. Social media is not a digital advertising platform, despite Twitter and Facebook telling us that advertising with them will turbocharge our business. (Hint: they have their own agenda…).

4. An effective social media presence for your product or service must differentiate you.

It is pure folly to look at who has the most YouTube subscribers, or Twitter followers or Facebook likes and copy them. Because the chances are, they are not your role model and don’t know what they are doing either. 'Me too' might be the latest trendy hashtag, but as a marketing strategy, it's a non-starter.

5. Young people who have spent the whole of their (brief) adult lives using social media are not automatically experts on using it for marketing.

They are just familiar with the platforms as a user. This is not without some value, but it is limited. It’s like appointing someone as a car designer just because they know how to drive.

6. Marketing and advertising agencies are hideously expensive.

There’s a reason big agencies have plush offices and slick sales people. And it’s not because they are experts at what they do. It's because they are experts at extracting money from clients who should know better. This industry 'norm' evolved in an age when big TV and press campaigns and media commissions made a fortune for agencies as well as media owners via opaque cartels. They continue to do this because when their marketing clients are under-skilled, they can still be bamboozled.

7. There's a whole new wave of online influencers that are potentially more valuable to you than Kim Kardashian (probably)

If you look at YouTube, only three of the top 500 most subscribed channels are brands (Time Warner, Disney and Sony Music). The other 497 are people with little or no marketing budget, no big teams of advisors and little in the way of help. What they do have is passion, persistence and a love for what they do. They are in marketing speak, ‘authentic’. This authenticity and focus means they are accruing ever more power and influence. And they are the people who will make or break your brand online.

8. Marketing, Advertising, Social Media and and Sales are not the same thing.

Business owners often conflate these. In essence, marketing is how you create preference for your brand versus your competitors. Advertising is how you build awareness and interest in your products. Social media is how you connect with and build relationships with the people that matter to you. Sales is how you monetise that interest. Mixing these up creates truly horrible outcomes.

9. There are no shortcuts to building a world-beating brand. 

It takes consistent effort, month in month out. And if you are unclear about how what you do is different from your competitors, and cannot articulate that difference in an engaging way, you will have a hard time using digital (or any other media) to grow your business.

10. The digital age requires a transformation in marketing thinking way beyond anything that has gone before.

And this is why so many marketing professionals are struggling to keep up. It demands that the very ideas of how businesses grow are completely reinvented. There is very little from the traditional tactical marketing toolkit, which has currency today.

I’d urge every business owner to ask themselves this about their marketing: “Why and how will we make people love us online?” Answer that question successfully, and you will be better placed than most to get to the forefront of the digital marketing revolution.

Oh and keep your fake antennae in a state of permanent alertness…

Finally if your marketing person or people are doing a fabulous job for you, I'll be happy to hear about it in the comments. They do exist and deserve the attention we reserve for endangered species...