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Buyers See Facebook Privacy Flap as Fleeting

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May 31, besides being Memorial Day, is unofficially Quit Facebook Day. It’s doubtful many marketers plan to participate. But that doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t pushing its luck with both users and advertisers.

The social networking behemoth has been enduring a firestorm of criticism over recent changes to its privacy policies, which have been criticized for both being overly complicated and skewed in favor of Facebook’s partners rather than its users.

Over the past few weeks, bloggers have encouraged people to ditch the site, while many users have taken to sharing tips and tools aimed at restoring their old privacy settings. And the current cover of Time magazine screams “Facebook Is Connecting Us in New (And Scary) Ways.”

Facebook executives did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Overall, advertisers are still enamored with the social networking site and its 500 million members. But the controversy is causing some to think twice. “From a marketer’s standpoint, [Facebook] added a barrier to entry,” said Bryan Wiener, CEO of 360i. “This is happening at a time when [marketers] are really interested in the platform. They’d finally gotten over the loss of control and were going to jump in with two feet.”

No one is suggesting that advertisers are going to dump Facebook en masse. But many digital execs are disappointed with what they see as yet another bungled PR effort by CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team—particularly given Facebook’s disastrous Beacon program in 2007.

Similar to that program, Facebook’s new privacy position forces users to opt out of sharing activities on other sites, ranging from what movies they’ve seen to where they shopped online. For brands, that could mean powerfully leveraging the social graph, or violating user trust.

“From an advertiser perspective, the ability to target people better is always valuable,” said Brandon Berger, vp, digital innovation at MDC Partners. “From a consumer perspective, I like the idea of a more targeted ad experience. The problem is when it happens in a frightening way…when you are on Pandora and you see your face. That’s not what I expected. I don’t need to disseminate my Facebook information everywhere I go.”

Others are not so conflicted and see the controversy passing. “We’re keeping a watchful eye on it,” said Jeremy Cornfeldt, managing director, digital, Media Storm. “But we’ve seen that happen a few times.”

Indeed, following the Beacon mess, Facebook has only continued to grow. And that’s what matters most, said Scott Shamberg, svp experience distribution, Critical Mass. “Are we worried about it? Not really,” he said. “Let’s be honest; there are 500 million users there. It’s going to have to be a lot worse” for advertisers to pull out. In fact, at deadline, the various “quit Facebook” groups had attracted just a few thousand users. That’s why Shamberg believes Zuckerberg is unlikely to feel chastened by the quit-Facebook noise.  

“They are going to push and push,” he said. “That’s their culture. They know for a fact they are sitting on a treasure trove of data. That’s their long-term biz model.”