Facebook scandal leaves agents asking, 'Do I need a new marketing platform?'

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary committees on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10 about the use of Facebook users' data to target U.S. voters in the 2016 election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary committees on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10 about the use of Facebook users' data to target U.S. voters in the 2016 election. Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP

Since news broke last month that the political data firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed the private data of millions of Facebook users to influence voter opinion in the 2016 election, the social media platform has been the center of a national debate about consumer protection and privacy.

The news has also sparked a movement among Facebook users to drop the service, adopting the hashtag #DeleteFacebook. Several high-profile individuals, including Cher and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, publicly announced that they have deactivated their accounts.

Travel agents in recent years have become entrenched in Facebook, using the platform for lead-generation and to build rapport with clients, among other uses. Travel Weekly's 2017 Travel Industry Survey found that of agents who use social media for marketing purposes, 93% use Facebook, far and away leading all other social media platforms in popularity; its closest competitor was LinkedIn, with 37% of agents reporting they use it for business purposes.

Given its huge user base, Facebook is an attractive place to market. As of December, Facebook reported an average of 1.4 billion daily active users and 2.1 billion monthly active users. But with all the negative consumer sentiment swirling around the company of late, the travel industry is closely watching how Facebook's users are responding.

While most believe that only time will tell if the platform will become a less-effective tool, concerns do exist.

"I think it's too soon to tell, but I do think that there's a valid concern," said Andy Ogg of Ogg Marketing Group and Travel Professional News. "Facebook has really damaged the trust between the platform and its users. Trust is very hard to get back once it's broken."

The issue began when a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan, using Facebook Login (the ability to sign in to apps using Facebook credentials) passed data from an app to Cambridge Analytica in 2015, according to Facebook.

Kogan's app was downloaded by about 270,000 people who, in doing so, consented to give him access to information such as content they have liked as well as limited information about friends.

Passing that data to Cambridge Analytica and another party violated Facebook's rules, and Facebook last month announced it had suspended the parties involved. Though only 270,000 people downloaded the app, the net of data Cambridge Analytica received was much larger because it extended into their networks of friends.

The incident has been highly scrutinized, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week appeared before committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to talk about the privacy questions it has raised.

Facebook has emphatically insisted that the incident was not, as many have called it, a data breach, because "people knowingly provided their information [to Kogan's app], no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked."

Phocuswright analyst Mark Blutstein said some users might leave Facebook as a result, but the only way to measure that will be looking at average daily and monthly users when the company releases quarterly financial information in the future.

"I think they will probably lose, but it won't be as big as some might expect," Blutstein said.

So far, the agent services company CCRA has not heard any concerns regarding Facebook, according to chief marketing officer Maggie Fischer. She also said she doubts agents would decide to leave Facebook, because it's the most powerful marketing platform among social media sites.

Passport Online offers agents its ESP service, which posts to Facebook on their behalf. Vice president of business development Marilyn Macallair said the company had not noticed any marked differences in engagement on posts.

"I think the jury's still out," she said. "I think that clearly what's going on with Facebook is a wake-up call, and something like this was bound to happen, but Facebook as an entity is so integrated into the travel agent mindset that it's going to stick around. But I think that people are going to be taking pause about what's happening and what kind of data is being used."

Catherine Heeg, founder of Customized Management Solutions, said she has heard some concerns from agents about the platform, but that most are viewing it as a "glitch."

"I still think that it's the best channel for reaching the majority of people, no matter what their age or what their demographic is," Heeg said. "Advertising on Facebook ... it's phenomenal the amount of targeting that you can do and how specific you can get in your targeted audiences. There's really, in my mind, no other tool out there like it."

In Ogg's mind, the recent news about Facebook presents agents with an opportunity to start looking at other social media platforms. While it is owned by Facebook, he said Instagram is a powerful marketing platform. Pinterest, Twitter and a Yelp listing are also viable choices with opportunity for agents.

"I do think that it's probably a great time to diversify and begin putting efforts into other social media platforms, with the current news and the status of Facebook in today's climate," he said. "I do think that diversifying your efforts would be a great idea."

He said that agents should also focus on building their brand and the assets they own directly, such as their websites.

Cruise Planners CEO Michelle Fee agreed that diversification is important with marketing efforts. Cruise Planners uses Facebook to market on behalf of its agents, but Fee said that's only a slice of its larger marketing plan.

"You have to be everywhere, almost," Fee said. "That way, you don't have all your eggs in one basket, and if and when something happens, you can make changes easily and quickly and make sure that you're still being able to get out there and communicate to potential travel buyers. I think there are a number of ways you can get out there."

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