Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Social123: the conclusion

Yesterday I shared my concerns about the practice of Social123 which, in their own words, consists in "providing a completely automated system that will find demographic and social data for your social followers".

It spurred some comments on LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ and got the attention of Scott Miller, Chief Sales Officer and Aaron Biddar, CEO of Social123. I appreciate their willingness to share their point of view. I want to point out that Social123 is certainly not the only company offering this type of service.

I had indicated I would do a follow-up, so here it is.

Spam or not?

S.H.) I hate spam… my initial email reply went unnoticed and you spammed me again… which actions do you take to prevent unacceptable use of the profiles you build up? (both for yourself, but also – and maybe even more importantly - your clients)
A.B.) None of the e-mails sent from Social123 are SPAM. We strictly adhere to the FTC’s guidelines for CAN-SPAM Act.
S.H.) Aaron provided the details from the CAN-SPAM act - thank you. Which, from a legal standpoint, they abide with. However, legal and ethic are two different things. I like this simple definition of spam: "Send the same message indiscriminately to (large numbers of recipients) on the Internet." It had never heard of them before, it was unsolicited, and based on the comments I received, the same message was sent to a large number of people. Call it legal or not, perception of spam is in the eyes of the receiving party...

Ethical or not?

S.H.) Is building up profiles something considered to be ethical?
A.B.) Ethical or not, data is king. Organizations like Hoovers.com, data.com (SFDC company), and KLOUT.com to name a few are good examples of using social data to enhance an organization’s knowledge of their prospects, customers or competitors.
S.H.) Oh! So framed differently, you tell me "data is king" regardless of ethic? Please allow me to have a totally different opinion! There are a number of very important differences between the companies cited by M.Biddar and what Social123 does:
  • data about companies (Hoovers, data.com) vs data about individual people;
  • building up social profiles (à la Klout) - which isn't done for the purpose of building up detailed individual profiles;
  • going "fishing" for profiles to be used in questionable marketing tactics vs enriching customer database profiles from data explicitly consented by said customer;

Legal or not?

S.H.) Could it be considered illegal in some jurisdictions?
A.B.) Gathering data is not illegal and all of the data we do collect is information people have made publically available. All of the data collected by Social123 can be accessed by any individual in the world. Our process has simply taken what anyone can do manually and automate the process. Twitter, for example, makes it very clear in their Terms and Conditions that “ What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!”.
S.H.) I'm not a lawyer, so I can't agree or disagree - but based on PIPEDA guidelines, I feel the result of such practice could be illegal in Canada. The combination of publicly available information ends up creating a PII issue because detailed profile information that are not shared on a specific social media channel (like Twitter or Facebook) ends up being combined to build a specific profile. Unless someone is connected to me they don't have detailed information like email, address or birth date. The massive build up of profiles which is eased by Big Data concepts and tools, is more susceptible of creating this PII issue - something that even the World Economic Forum is worried about. The other issue is I don't have any "right of regard" to limit the use of such made-up profiles, or make corrections if I think some info is misleading, inaccurate or inadequate.

Genuinely social vs commercially abusive

S.H.) From a social media perspective, the Twitter #measure community is closely knit… and it was easy to find out that your company spammed a lot of us… could this be a case of social media tactics backfiring at you? Isn’t your service susceptible of facilitating such situations?
A.B.) We have hundreds of customers and partners. It is inevitable that we are going to have some bad press. As I stated earlier, we go through a very extensive process to ensure we do not Spam. Many of the people who received more than one communication likely have multiple e-mail addresses or twitter handles.
S.H.) Thank you - I do have multiple profiles in the hope of keeping my personal and professional lives distinct (admittedly a hard thing to do!). Based on my inbox history, I can confirm both emails were sent to the same email address - I guess that's not the point here. In my opinion, spam is spam (as I defined earlier) whether it's sent to one or multiple of my accounts, it was still unsolicited.

Parting thoughts

When the Web became commercial in 1995, I was among those worried that commercial interests would kill the spirit of a great new medium. As they say, history repeats itself. Social media is about people; about people's interests. I've always been worried about the blatant and potentially abusive commercial use of social media. Whether what Social123 is legal or not is somewhat irrelevant, the potential for abuse is facilitated and consumers have no control over it. It is up to us - the marketers and the analysts - to be careful in our marketing tactics, to choose our partners wisely and define our ethical guidelines.