Has the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal forced brands to think differently about their presence on social media platforms, and how they interact with customers?

In March this year, the news broke that the personal data of millions of Facebook users had been stolen by a voter-profiling company called Cambridge Analytica and used to influence voters in the 2016 US presidential election. In the ensuing public outcry, people began to question the disproportionate power of tech giants over their lives. Meanwhile, the nefarious activities of bots and trolls – on Twitter especially – only added to the growing sense of distrust in social media. Recent figures suggest that up to 15% of Twitter users may be fake or automated, along with 60 million illicit Facebook accounts.

Since then, Facebook has promised to clean up its act, and EU legislation in the form of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has given individuals more control over their personal data. So now the dust has cleared, do people still distrust social media? And how are brands adapting to this new landscape?

Assessing the impact

“The scandal made people question whether they can trust tech companies, but everyone’s still using these platforms,” says Majid Bahi, CEO of Socially Powerful, an influencer marketing agency based at Workspace’s The Record Hall in Hatton Garden. “There was a decline in trust for the first few months but then people forgot about it and went back to their usual routine.”

Luke Abbott, Social Media Account Director at ad agency Red Brick Road, agrees. “There are more social users in the world than ever before,” he points out. “Cambridge Analytica has not stopped people from opening social accounts and, given the number of people using social media, it’s important for brands to be there.”

Anthony Noguera is the owner of Accelerated Intelligence, an agency that does social and digital marketing for several household-name brands in the entertainment industry, based at Workspace’s Metal Box Factory in Southwark. In his view, people are still too trusting of what they choose to follow on social platforms, with their tendency to form “echo chambers of opinion” that validate their existing views. “Too many people are happy to be spoon-fed, and that allows social [media] to propagate terrible falsehoods. So you’re only seeing what you already agree with.”

By contrast, Abbott thinks people are getting better at spotting untrustworthy or fake content, even if they sometimes help to spread it themselves. “People share urban myths all the time, but they’re getting wiser to lies.”

The presence of untrustworthy content in our feeds explains the recent trend for brands getting behind social or political causes, says Abbott. “You’re seeing brands trying to fill that trust gap,” he says, citing Burger King’s support for net neutrality and Lush’s SpyCops campaign.

Top athletes don rainbow laces to show LGBT support

How do you achieve trust when ultimately you’re still trying to sell something? “You’ve got to be true to your brand,” says Abbott. “Brands have to follow those causes which matter to them and their audience.” Having formerly worked on Paddy Power’s social media account, he mentions the bookmaker’s rainbow laces LGBT campaign, where high-profile athletes wore rainbow-coloured laces to support participation of LGBT people in sport. “They took quite a mature approach which was new and brave but still felt genuine.”

Whether they are influenced by trust issues or not, the way in which people are using social media is undoubtedly changing. “There’s been a shift away from Facebook to other platforms,” says Abbott. “Some of it’s driven by trust but others have just got tired of Facebook,” he adds, noting the irony in the fact that Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Many people are leaving their Facebook profiles dormant and migrating to Instagram, which acquired its billionth user earlier this year. “Teens use Instagram as their Google now,” says Abbott. Brands need to stay on top of these changes. “You’ve got to go where people are,” says Abbott.

Make social media personal

Simply turning up to the party isn’t enough. Social media is such a powerful way of engaging with existing and potential customers that brands must compete fiercely with each other for users’ attention.

“It’s important to be ahead of your competitors on social [media],” says Mary Visaya, Social Media Associate at flower-delivery firm Bloom & Wild, which is based at Workspace’s Vox Studios in Vauxhall. Visaya is quick to integrate new features, such as Instagram’s “Tap to shop” and “Tag your friend”, in order to give her posts the edge over rivals.

Another big change has been the rise of so-called dark social: the use of private group messaging on apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram, instead of public posting on Twitter or Facebook. Brands should keep alive to this development – and the more personal relationship it facilitates with the customer.

“We’re experimenting with WhatsApp as a customer-service option,” says Sara Gordon, VP of brand at Bloom & Wild. “It’s really interesting as you get this different level of contact with people. One woman was sending us voice and video messages on WhatsApp and we were getting back to her with voice messages. As a brand you have to decide what your tone should be in new channels, including voice in more casual ones like WhatsApp.”

Andrew Theodore, CEO at Social Vend

Andrew Theodore is CEO of Social Vend. Based at Workspace’s Q West in Brentford, his company provides interactive vending machines on behalf of brands for experiential marketing purposes. A couple of years ago, the machines were mainly used for social media purposes, as the name suggests. Typically, members of the public were asked to share a Tweet or Instagram post with a brand’s specific hashtag in return for free swag from a vending machine, but Theodore has noticed a shift in attitudes recently. “Two years ago everything was so socially driven. It was all about reach and follows and likes.”

However, brands now understand that forcing people to post on social media is a bit transparent. “People’s Instagram pages are heavily curated works of art nowadays,” says Theodore. “You’re not going to post a picture of yourself grinning next to a product for 10p off your next purchase. And if you did do it, you’re definitely going to delete it as soon as you can.”

These days, it’s more about engagement and “creating a memorable brand experience for someone in that moment”. Instead of social media posts, email addresses are the new gold dust for brands. “We’re doing a lot of very simple user journeys at the moment,” says Theodore. “Fill in your email, tick the GDPR opt-in, get your reward. A lot of brands are desperately building up their email lists again after GDPR and our machines are the perfect vessel for it.”

Are influencers on the way out?

Instagram influencer, Chiara Ferragni, followed by 15 million on the platform

If brands are no longer paying for members of the public to spread the word on social media, is the same true of those who court followers for a living? Influencer marketing, where brands pay influencers or celebrities to promote products to their followers on social media, has also experienced a crisis of trust. The booming business – worth $1 billion in 2017 – is fuelling greed among certain influencers who are tempted to buy followers in order to raise their price. Those with more than a million followers can receive up to £75,000 for a single post.

In June, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, Keith Weed, called on the ad industry to clean up the influencer-marketing space, announcing that Unilever would never buy followers for its brands or work with influencers with fake followers. However, according to Bahi at Socially Powerful, it’s easy to spot influencers with fake followers if you know what you’re doing. “When we’re looking at potential influencers to work with, we look at their audience data,” he says. “There are a few parameters that we check using our models, including engagement rate and geography. If 50% of a UK influencer’s followers are from the Philippines, they’re probably fake.”

Another perennial gripe about influencer marketing is the difficulty in measuring return on investment, but that all depends on what you want to achieve, says Bahi. Influencer marketing has many uses, after all. “Some brands see it as a pure branding exercise or as a way of measuring sentiment before and after a campaign.” Other times it might be a “tactical initiative to try out a new product.” With huge amounts changing hands, however, it’s easy to waste money by deploying budgets in the wrong way.

Consumers are also getting wise to it. They can spot the difference between influencers who can talk authentically about a product and those who are in it for a quick buck, says Abbott. “It’s a trust issue,” he says.

For Anthony Noguera, the type of post is as important as the person doing it. “People have trained their brains not to look at ads on webpages, and in a similar way, a single post by an influencer saying ‘Go and see this movie/buy this record’ becomes largely invisible.” Instead, brands should stick with the same influencers and get them to create content in their own style and voice. “If you’re talking about a product in an organic way over a long time, that is far more likely to influence your audience,” says Noguera.

Both Abbott and Noguera agree that influencer marketing is particularly effective for reaching younger audiences. That’s not because they’re less savvy, though – quite the opposite. “Younger audiences are completely au fait with this sort of messaging,” says Noguera. “They understand that they’re sponsored, but as long as the brand fits and doesn’t feel shoehorned in, they’re quite happy to look at it.”

So is this really a brave new world for brands on social media? Not quite. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are still important for brands – in fact, more important than ever– but it’s a world that’s changing fast. Brands must be flexible in their approach as platform usage changes, while remaining true to their values and tone of voice. Influencers aren’t going anywhere, either – but companies should spend time finding the right fit before parting with eye-watering sums.

Read about the pioneers using technology to rebuild trust into our daily lives or check out homeWORK online or pick up a copy in any Workspace lobby area to find out more.