R eacting to Facebook’s study as a marketer

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Gary Smith Jul 3, 2014

Facebook's study

When news broke that Facebook had conducted a study where the social network deliberately attempted to manipulate the emotions of almost 700,000 of its users (by altering the types of posts that appeared in those users’ feeds), without bothering to inform them, there was – predictably – a major backlash.

The web reacts to Facebook’s study

At Mashable alone, there have been around ten articles riffing on different aspects of the study, and the rest of the web is buzzing as well.

Though legal (due to vague stipulations in Facebook’s Terms of Service), the study has been unanimously deemed “creepy” and hasn’t done much to polish Facebook’s already less-than-lustrous image.

On the emotional effects of Facebook’s study:

“Over the course of the study, it appears, the social network made some of us happier or sadder than we would otherwise have been. Now it’s made all of us more mistrustful.”

– Katy Waldman, via Slate

On our reluctance to ditch Facebook despite the social network’s transgressions:

“The most profound takeaway here isn’t that Facebook can make us feel things (we’ve known that for years). It’s not that Facebook lacks respect [for] you as a person, or has even an adolescent’s grasp of ethics. We’ve known that for years, too. The most valuable lesson for the company might be that it can keep creeping us out and violating its customers, over and over again, and none of us will ever delete our accounts. I’d love to read that study.”

– Sam Biddle, via ValleyWag

On the broader privacy implications at stake:

“The Facebook experiment should thus be a wake-up call that there are some very challenging issues ahead for privacy that we must think more deeply about. Facebook is in the spotlight, but move the light over just a little, and you’ll see many others.”

– Daniel Solove, via LinkedIn

From the rumored connection of military funding, to rumblings of ethical misconduct, and an investigation regarding data collection laws in the UK, Facebook is broadly in the blogosphere hot seat – like usual.

And yet, as Biddle opined, most of us are still going to be on it.


Why? It’s hard to say, but one thing is clear: Facebook has become ingrained into the daily lives of such a massive swath of interconnected individuals, worldwide, that Facebook can get away with quite a lot.

From all of Mashable’s articles on the whole kerfuffle, “How to Completely Delete Facebook From Your Life” is by and far the most shared, with 11k and climbing (the rest run from around 1k to 3.5k). Even so, the amount of users that are actually going to delete their Facebooks are negligible when compared to the social network’s 1.28 billion monthly active users.

Facebook’s response

“Sorry not sorry” has been the general thread in Facebook’s comments about the study.

Adam Kramer, the lead researcher, wrote in a public pseudo-apology:

“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused.”

In other words, we’re not sorry about the contents of the study or that it occurred, just the fact that it made for a nasty PR situation.

Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, had similar words, according to The Wall Street Journal:

“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated. And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”

Again, the message here is that Facebook is sorry for the “communication,” which they list as the root of the problem, not the study itself. As former Gawker staffer Neetzan Zimmerman humorously tweeted, trying to upset users was, in fact, the main thrust of the study:

Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickert, had a slightly more direct response – the study was done in the name of customer service:

“Most of the research that is done on Facebook – if you walk around campus and you listen to the engineers talking – is all about, ‘How do we make this product better? How do we better suit the needs of the population using this product, and how do we show them more of what they want to see, and less of what they don’t want to see? And that’s innovation.”

Well then. Thanks to the study, Facebook will get better. And – as marketers – we’ll probably see better targeting for ads. So… how should we react to that?

On the marketing side of the fence

We’re quite vocal when Facebook does something that adversely affects our business strategies. In this case, it’s an ugly situation that might also potentially help hone Facebook’s ad and post targeting – and that’s tricky.

As a marketer, you can’t just delete your account and say, “Oh, we don’t do Facebook because we object to their practices.”

Yes, organic reach is down, and Facebook is now pay-to-play – we’ve all been talking about that for more than six months.

And yet, Facebook’s just as important as ever for businesses, and marketers. The game’s just changing.

Facebook is a public business and it needs to make money – we all know that, and that is without a doubt part of the reduction in organic reach.

Content overflow, however, is also a major factor. With 1500 possible posts (or more) that Facebook can show at any time, Facebook’s algorithm decides which 300 gets a spot – and the chance is more likely than ever, one of those posts will rarely be from your brand… unless you decide to pay Facebook for a boost.

As a marketer, you can’t just delete your account and say, “Oh, we don’t do Facebook because we object to their practices.”

And, as many marketers have now pointed out (as the initial organic-reach-loss backlash waves subside): pay you should.

If you can’t afford to spend some money on Facebook advertising, you can’t afford to market anywhere. Do that well, and you have an extremely powerful marketing tool at your disposal.

If you’re ditching Facebook as part of a social media strategy – like Eat 24 – that’s a different story altogether.

Still, for most businesses serious about an online presence, Facebook is a must – and not something you can simply opt out of.


As disconcerting as Facebook’s privacy practices (or lack thereof) might be, as marketers, we need to learn to adapt to the network as it changes – whether we personally condone the social network’s shady practices, or not.

From a business perspective, it’s just too important to ignore – even (or, perhaps, especially) as it completes its transition from a free lunch to a pay-to-play lane of advertisement.

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