Retail Social Strategy Fear: Facebook Data May Be Short-Lived

It's a rare retail long-term strategy meeting where social networks do not come up. How far do we go in sharing information with social networks? What's the best way to proceed? Usually, that discussion comes down to some variation of "how much should we use existing sites—such as Facebook—and how much should we do on our own sites?"

The big challenge with trying to answer those questions is that the established social sites are moving targets. Facebook, for example, on Wednesday (May 26) announced it will be offering tighter controls over consumer information. Where will this option lead six months from now? Your operation may put in a huge amount of cash to develop a spectacular site on Facebook, only to later learn that the site won't permit you to track user activity--even in your page clicking on your products. Facebook might prohibit you from knowing anything someone does in your site short of making a purchase.

The social networks aren't there yet. But when you decide where you're going to house your social operation, remember what you're buying. With an outside site, you're buying their audience and the tools and infrastructure they've created and that they maintain. With your site, you have total control.

A social strategy is all about getting to know your customers far better and, ideally, letting your customers get to know your brand and your people far better. Setting up shop in an environment where information access is always subject to being taken away is difficult to justify.

But, you may ask, "Why would they do that? It would make little sense." That's correct. But privacy fears—and the steps companies take to address those fears, both real and imagined—are not limited by logic. Today, the bogeyman of privacy, the frightening enemy that consumers want to be protected from, is advertisers. That's where much of Facebook's attention is these days.

It's a frighteningly small leap from advertisers—who are trying to sell consumers things—to retailers, who are doing the same.

Hold on, you say. "This consumer has chosen to sign up for my page. Of course they want to buy from me." No argument. Those consumers, though, might decide they don't want you being aware of what they do in your area. Silly, yes; but possible. And Facebook, Myspace and others in the social arena have little to lose by making silly gestures to make consumers feel safer.

That all said, it's probably a fine idea to set up shop wherever—and everywhere—you can. But don't get too used to whatever data you're getting from those areas today. It may be short-lived.