Reality Check, Your Privacy Concerns and Most Ads Aren’t Worth Squat

8 Jun

A version of this post ran as a guest editorial on and iMedia Connection.

Let’s get something straight: Online privacy doesn’t mean squat to marketers. And while we’re handing out head slaps, understand this: The vast majority of money they’ll spend on advertising is a complete waste.

Do I have your attention? Good, because quite honestly I’m tired of all the hand-wringing from privacy advocates and self-anointed business experts over the twists and turns at Facebook. Let’s start with the privacy nonsense.

The latest paranoia has to do with confusion over what it means to your profile that Facebook is now a publicly traded company. In fact, far too many profiles I see are slapping up a couple of paragraphs of quasi-legal speak that conclude, “The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law. UCC 1-103 1-308 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.”

Setting aside the fact that a company is publicly traded versus privately held has no bearing on the issue. Here’s the real truth: Nothing you post changes the terms laid out in Facebook’s privacy policy. More importantly, there is nothing you share on Facebook that even a halfway intelligent marketer can’t find elsewhere and easier.

Really, what do you possibly have posted on your wall or in your profile that’s such valuable data that Company X would be desperate to learn? You don’t store credit-card information on Facebook. Your birthday is public record, as is your home address. And no marketer gives a care that you have questionable taste in music. But that picture of you on the beach–we’d all appreciate if you’d pull that down.

The reality is that marketers have a far more in-depth view of you from your offline activities. Your credit-card purchases provide a rich tale of your shifting tastes and weaknesses. Census data tells me all I need to know the makeup of your neighborhood.  Even the newspapers and magazines you subscribe to–the same ones reporting breathlessly about online privacy concerns–are eager to make more money by selling their subscriber lists.

People blow a gasket about ads served on Facebook, but they think nothing about incessant interruption by ads on TV or the deluge of junk mail in their mailbox (the real one). And don’t even get me started on the threat to your credit from using a credit card at that cute, little bistro downtown. The fact is that you wish you had the control over your privacy in the real world that you have online.

What you have to understand is that marketers are all about efficiency. Our job is to find the easiest way to convince you to buy our company’s products or services. So, yes, it is helpful to know that you love pictures of cats with dumb headlines, but only so we know to advertise on that site, not because we plan to blackmail you into buying our product.

Which brings me to the other brutal truth: Advertising sucks, or rather the vast majority of advertising is worthless, and it’s obvious that you know it. Hell, even a trained monkey would be appalled by many of the ads splashed across the Internet. How do we know ads are so bad? Because we call it a success when an ad gets a 0.1 percent click-through rate. That’s right, a successful banner ad will only have one-tenth of one percent of the people who see it click.

So you can imagine the marketing world’s sheer delight at a news story the other day reporting that four out of five Facebook users have never purchased an item they saw advertised on the site. Really? You mean that 20 percent of Facebook’s 900 million are willing to spend money if we advertise there?! Get my sales rep on the phone!

The story went on to note that Facebook’s ads were less successful than direct mail or email campaigns. (Insert head-smack here.) Of course ads to nameless individuals who are busy looking for stupid pictures of cats are going to fall short of results for one-to-one communication sent directly to people with a known set of preferences.

That’s why companies, and their agencies, are in a mad scramble to create content for Facebook that grabs your attention enough so that you’ll share your name and contact information. Oh, and where do you think marketers got those names and addresses for direct-mail and email? Thanks again for your misdirected concern over privacy.