There’s been a lot of talk in the news this week about Facebook’s secret Newsfeed experiment, and the ethical implications this has on both the website and its users. For those that don’t know, two years back, Facebook altered their algorithms to test the emotional responses of their users; people were exposed to a mix of positive and negative stories, and Facebook analysed whether this influenced their moods. 689,000 people were tested in order to examine ’emotional contagion’.
The study hasn’t gone down too well. Users are angry that they were involved in secret testing, the Guardian questioned whether the study would alter public trust in the website, and the New Statesman asked that if the site can influence mood, what’s to stop it going further, for example, by influencing how people vote?
It’s easy to dismiss these posts as dramatic, with the fear of a Philip K Dick-inspired future of self-aware sites altering public thought. And yes, whilst the power Facebook possesses over users can be frightening and there’s plenty of room for debate over the ethical soundness of the study, what’s most surprising about this is that people were surprised at all. Facebook isn’t the only website doing this sort of thing. To some extent, all major media outlets alter their algorithms and keywords to test the impact this has on audience responses, reactions and in-bound traffic; perhaps this story just made the public more aware of this.
Facebook’s official party line is that such tests improve the user experience in the long run, yet it’s hard not to think that this story was leaked for the benefit of advertising agencies too. Essentially, it could be argued that marketing hinges on being able to alter perceptions within the public, on altering the emotional response a consumer has towards a product or service. The study hints that Facebook is perfectly set up for this, and comes alongside the increased width size of side-bar adverts, as well their talks on pushing more videos on the users most likely to watch them. The study, and all debate generated around it, is a pitch, a way of letting advertisers know that Facebook knows what its users want, knows what makes them happy, and knows what appeals to them. And a market-base of 1.23 billion users isn’t something that can be ignored.
“On a personal level I’ve used Facebook less and less over the last year or so, I don’t think I’ve been exposed to any of this negative content but the general mix of dull updates alongside the growing advertising has put me off anyway. When I do use it, I find myself looking at more video content due to these playing automatically, so I I’ve probably been acting as a guinea pig for their latest advertising tests. I tend to use Facebook more now with clients and paid social campaigns as this seems to be the only way to generate any engagement, obviously the model Facebook was always looking for. These emotion tests only seem to confirm what the platform now is a huge database of customers segmented by Facebook to analyse and sell insights to advertisers.”
Jonny Pennington, Online Marketing Consultant
“Recent changes to filtering people’s timelines mean that Facebook is kind of overhyped as a driver of sales. A recent study commissioned by IBM in 2013 showed that around 1% of purchases on Black Friday came from social media traffic. Without getting into an argument about attribution models – and whilst certain industries will get more business from social media than others – I don’t think IBM are very wrong.
Facebook is more about building brand awareness, post sale loyalty and listening/engaging with your community. Building brand awareness is definitely crucial and the relationships people build on Facebook tend to be more personal than any other social media platform. There are intangible benefits we can’t track – maybe someone seeing something nifty on Facebook is more likely to go in store to purchase it.
But Twitter has taken the lead here with a recent survey showing that the main reason people follow brands on social media is to hear about special offers, free stuff and discounts.
You’re not going to see those discounts or freebies on Facebook – not unless that brand pays for their followers to see it. Case in point? Asos. 3.3 million page likes. Typical post gets under 100 likes. The sheer amount of fans that don’t engage with them drags down their organic reach like a rock around their necks. And there’s no easy way for them to fix it – unless they start over again. But why would brands trust Facebook enough to invest in them long term when they have consistently punished them? If Facebook truly wants to improve marketing revenue, they need to enable brands to “disavow” or mass remove non-engaging fans so they can recover organic reach.”
James Flacks, Online Marketing Consultant
Time will tell if social media advertising develops to have the same impact as television or more traditional means. It certainly seems Facebook is moving towards a future of more integrated, personalised and specific ads (if they haven’t done so already) and the study could be a step towards this.