Words Matter: Why Facebook Targeting Isn’t the Same as Russian Data Mining

Carnegie Higher Ed Oct 24, 2017 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Data Mining, Russia, Fake News, Inappropriate, Weaponized—you must be kidding!

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education uses these words and more when discussing Facebook targeting, a highly effective marketing strategy used by colleges and universities worldwide. While the entirety of the article thoroughly points out that the use of Facebook has yielded highly successful campaigns and details some of the reasons why it becomes a useful tool, it does so within a downright scary-sounding context. The industry has responded swiftly with articles posted all over Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs. So in this case, I’m simply adding my two cents.

For all of you out there who utilize name buys and/or your inquiry pool to e-mail students or send expensive mail pieces to their homes: did you know you were data mining?! Evidently, taking data provided to you by a student, or using data that is contained with a name you purchase for your search and separating out the e-mail and/or address to reach that student in a specific way, is mining data, according to The Chronicle. This is not only preposterous, but it strikes at the very heart of how prospective students are engaged with by higher education institutions.

It is a giant leap to compare a university messaging about an event or deadline to students who have inquired, applied, or been admitted to Russia feeding fake news to voters on their Facebook feeds to taint an election. These students are in the market for a higher education decision. This information is highly relevant to them, and in the case of many of these lists, they are hoping to have greater engagement with the college or university. This is useful to them and, let’s get real, not full of fake information.

Oh, and by the way, this has been going on for a very long time; especially—wait for it—Retargeting! Yes, that good-old, highly effective way of reaching back out to people who have been on your site before is under attack as well. Carnegie started using Retargeting for higher education eight years ago. Why do companies across just about every industry use it? Because it works! Higher education was actually late to the party here. By the time we were discussing it in marketing and admission offices, other industries had already been using it for over five years. If I have already engaged with a school’s website, how invasive is it for them to let me know there is an open house next weekend? Hmm…yup…very scary indeed!

We all want to be conscious of the privacy of students—no one argues that. But keep in mind when you select a strategy to employ that reaches them in their home, their online environment, or their e-mail, it does not mean you are mining any personal data from those strategies. You are simply leveraging the information provided to you to select how and whom to reach. What the article failed to articulate is that the data is never disclosed back to the college or university as to who was able to be targeted or any of the info contained in those users profiles.

Moral of the story? Russian operatives are not posing as admission marketers, and the information being provided to these students is useful and timely for them and their families. Oh, and don’t forget—it works! There’s no need to halt your use of street addresses to mail or e-mails addresses to e-mail, so why stop messaging Facebook accounts? It’s the new way of doing what we’ve always done—trying to engage with an individual prospect directly. The only difference is that it targets the way this generation digests information. Yup—it’s 2017 now.

Never miss an update.