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Monday was Facebook’s 15th birthday.

I marked the occasion by reviewing a slew of last week’s news about Facebook that I missed the first time around. Articles like “A handy list of ways Facebook has tried to sneakily gather data about you” from TNW and coverage of the spat that resulted when Apple realized that Facebook was ignoring rules for how iPhone apps can collect and use data [see Recode’s coverage of the incident].

I glanced through novelist and futurist Bruce Sterling’s blog post cataloging the horrors of the platform, “All Things Facebook.”

I also learned that Facebook quietly blocked or disabled ad transparency tools, including one developed by ProPublica

The key takeaway from these and others that I bookmarked for reading later: it was a bad news week for Facebook. In contrast, the bright spot was Facebook’s stock price, which surged on strong quarterly earnings.

In short: a typical week for Facebook.

Reaching a tipping point?

I continue to wonder when people will get fed up with the way Facebook operates and sign off, permanently. Or when members of Congress will get fed up enough to regulate Facebook’s data-gathering and other business practices. What does this mean for those who rely on Facebook as an important conduit for sharing news and engaging stakeholders? Or as a way to reach stakeholders and potential stakeholders through advertising and sponsored posts?

Last year, there was a rash of bad news about Facebook related to the 2016 election. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we asked respondents in the Survey of Digital Advancement that we conducted with CASE whether or not “recent privacy concerns concerning Facebook's use of personal data” would impact plans to sponsor or post content on the platform.” A substantial majority who responded for their institution (63 percent) said that it wouldn’t. Some 27 percent of institutions saw some decline in their overall engagement from Facebook after February 2018, respondents reported, while 51 percent did not.

The unremitting bad news this year indicates that it’s time to watch engagement on Facebook carefully and not just assume that it’s business as usual on the platform. How are posts performing? Is advertising on Facebook working? Or is there a drop-off in performance that you should explore?

It’s also worthwhile monitoring what’s happening on institutional Instagram channels. Many consumers don’t realize that Facebook owns Instagram, just as large majorities of Facebook users don’t realize they can change the defaults on their Facebook profile so that they won’t receive certain kinds of advertisements in their newsfeed. But recent reports that Facebook will create a unified technical infrastructure for Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp to make it more difficult for regulators to require that Facebook divest itself of these apps has alarmed privacy advocates and some regulators.

Exploring alternatives

While you may not see a decline in performance on Facebook or Instagram, it’s still a good idea to revisit other channels that can create and nurture engagement — especially those that an institution can own rather than borrow from a tech monopoly like Facebook.

That most certainly means email (yes: you may hate email but it’s still an effective engagement channel). And especially texting.

In a recent edition of her email newsletter, Ashley In Your Inbox, Ashley Budd, director of digital marketing for alumni affairs and development at Cornell, described how she and her colleagues pulled off a campaign based on text messaging. They let campus colleagues know about the campaign, in case anyone checked to see if it was legit; used their first and last names — people could check them out on LinkedIn or to make sure they actually worked at the University; and asked those they texted whether they wanted “more information” rather than the spammy-sounding “link” or “download.”

A turnoff? No way! Budd writes, “Early results tell us this approach worked. Positive sentiment was up, and opt-outs were extremely low. … I was uncomfortable using my full name at first. I thought my inbox would be flooded with comments about the message or other questions about Cornell … [but] I got zero responses like that. I'm still in shock.”

I hate interruption marketing spam as much as anyone, especially text messages, but there’s growing evidence that the right kind of texting works, not just with prospective students but also with alumni and donors. With the right touch, it could offer a real alternative to many institutions.

Michael Stoner is president and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first marketing agency.

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