Facebook “Manipulates” Users, Gives Brands Important Lesson

Facebook published a study earlier this month showing how a user’s emotions can impact other users on the social network. In other words, if you’re sad and posting about it to Facebook, anyone seeing your posts is more likely to also become sad. According to Mashable:

“Researchers tweaked the feeds of 689,003 users to show a disproportionate number of positive or negative statuses for one week in January 2012. They found that the emotions of others on your news feed can affect your mood. So while the researchers, and Facebook, have been transparent about the study and its results, they did not inform users their news feeds were being manipulated. And nearly a month later, users are expressing outrage over the study’s ethics.

The Facebook Forest For Its Trees
Before considering any implications this may hold for brands, consider a few important details.

1) The number of news feeds tweaked represent .06 percent of Facebook’s user base.

2) If users were notified prior to the study, it could compromise the research results.

3) Facebook is a free platform.

So should Facebook have done things differently? Are the outraged consumers justified in their ire? To borrow a famous, and vague, Facebook relationship status: “it’s complicated.”

Big Data & The Privacy Paradox
Let’s step back and look at consumer confidence in their online privacy. It’s at a three-year-low and brands are the driving factor. Target’s retail data breach is just one reason. Yet despite the outrage and increasing concern, consumers don’t seem to be taking personal accountability for their privacy. Data activists are more comparable to the first environmental activists — considered a minority on the fringe and not representative of the mainstream consumer mindset. At the same time, trends like wearable technology and gamification have consumers more readily sharing their data with brands. Even Facebook takes its user data and creates videos for them with it. This and the shiny new of big data has raised the importance of brands tapping consumer data for business success.

Three Lessons For Brands
So how do brands get intimate with a new level of consumer data without simply reinforcing negative consumer confidence and risk being compared to Facebook?

1) Keep It Up: Continue to treat consumer data transparently and respectfully — within the spirit and letter of the laws put in place to date. Facebook is still suffering backlash from being less than transparent. And it should have gotten broad opt-in from a sample of users before hand in a way it would not compromise the study. Consider how much brands like Amazon use consumer data without any issues. If you start with transparency, you’ll always benefit from it.

2) Give Value: They key in getting and using consumer data is to approach it as more of a value exchange. Consider how Lowe’s, Amazon and Nike track everything from purchases to physical location to bring more value to their consumer relationships. The consumers benefit in all three cases and the brands increase loyalty, among other benefits.

3) Be Proactive & Communicate Clearly: By proactively discussing how brands use consumer data, and making it as short and simple a discussion as possible, brands may not increase the number of opt-ins they have. But brands will be less likely to create a misunderstanding with consumers. Facebook has clearly tried to follow this tenet in the past year or so. But it’s clearly not something practiced company-wide just yet.

Should consumers be surprised Facebook manipulated some of its users’ news feeds? It shouldn’t.

Brands and consumers need to understand that, when they’re using a platform free of charge, they are the product being sold.

Facebook may change its ways, but it will not likely lose users over this incident. Regardless, no matter how this news shakes out, it should not impede brands efforts with mining consumer data.


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David Germano
David Germano

David is the VP of Content Marketing for Empower Media Marketing, and runs Empower's Content Marketing division, Magnetic Content Studios. For more than 14 years, David has been helping brands develop sustained content marketing strategies and operate like media to build their own audiences. David is often speaking on the topic, and is a guest contributor to Content Marketing Institute.