Opt-In Vs. Opt-Out: Social Media’s Privacy War

Last week Twitter was abuzz with news about LinkedIn’s new social advertising using member’s profile pictures and established social connections. The ads were merely intended to show people what businesses their connections were following, which would lead to more connections. The ads featured the profile photos of the friends who liked the subject of the ad, and had been running since June in a trial period. But one blog post from a disgruntled member makes people notice that they’ve opted into this advertising, and the dissent goes viral. It’s all a matter of choice….or a lack thereof.

Opt-out advertising has been the choice of social networks since the beginning. Even before Facebook, did anyone really opt into junk mail or telemarketers? It’s so much easier on the network to assume their members know how to opt-out (and magically chose not to) rather than offer some incentive for them to opt-in.

Probably my favorite case of opt-out advertising gone awry was Facebook Beacon, launched in November 2007 and unceremoniously dumped in 2009. Ostensibly, the point of Facebook Beacon was watching you sleep to allow targeted advertisements and enable users to share their activities with their friends. Certain activities on partner sites such as Zappos and Fandango were published to a user’s News Feed. Facebook added in this service and was shocked! shocked! when users shied away from having their purchases broadcast to their entire social network. One guy had his proposal ruined when his friends saw he’d bought an engagement ring (and how much he paid for it) off Overstock.com, which posted the story to his facebook wall without his consent. Not only did Facebook have to bow to the uproar over Beacon by making it an opt-in feature and then finally doing away with it altogether, but they also had to pay a class-action settlement to the tune of $9.5 million.

Opt-out marketing is the lazy way to falsely increase “engaged audience” figures while setting a dangerous trap for yourself if the wrong angry blogger finds out their settings were changed without their choice. It is far better to offer an incentive to opt-in than hush money and PR damage control after people couldn’t opt-out.