by Walker Smith
The word is out. Big headlines. Facebook is running experiments with users’ news feeds. Apparently, shock and outrage are in order. But, honestly, I’m not sure why. From the outside looking in, it appears to be nothing more than garden-variety brand marketing, and ineffective to boot.
For one week two years ago, Facebook stage-managed the order in which people saw posts in their news feeds. Some saw happy posts at the top of their news feeds; others saw sad posts. The experiment was designed to see whether the emotional sentiment of the posts users saw first affected users’ moods or posting. In its analysis of this experiment, Facebook found “emotional contagion,” which is to say that the sentiment of news feeds did affect the sentiment and amount of users’ subsequent posts, and thus, presumably, the mood of users themselves.
Two things stand out. First, the observed effects were tiny. The argument has been made that even small effects over a large population of Facebook users add up to a big shift. But this argument is sleight-of-hand. The bigger cumulative impact of a small effect is still small relative to Facebook as a whole. Critics claim that the one-tenth of one percent observed effect adds up to hundreds of thousands of posts per day. That’s true, but every minute there are over 290,000 status updates and over 130,000 photo uploads. Per day, that’s over 417 million status updates and over 187 million photo uploads. A few hundred thousand is a lot but still a miniscule percentage of the total. In short, even cumulatively, a small effect is a small effect.
Moreover, statistically speaking, the size of the sample used by Facebook almost certainly had too much power. Nearly 700,000 users were included in the Facebook experiment. In a sample that large, almost everything will turn out to be statistically significant, a problem known as Type II error. This is a classic power problem with over-large samples, and the usual interpretation of such miniscule effects is to regard them as merely suggestive until validated by more precisely designed follow-up research. Huge samples make everything statistically significant, including a lot of observed effects that are nothing but chance fluctuations in the data. Simply put, there is no cause for alarm that Facebook has mastered mind control.
Of course, what has outraged people is less the results of the experiment and more the fact of experiment itself, which leads to the second thing of note. To put it bluntly, what Facebook did is in no way different from what every brand marketer has been doing for well over a century, long before Facebook. Brand marketers are in the business of manipulating the emotions of an audience. Brand marketers who cannot do so are not long for their jobs. Indeed, brand marketers crow about their proficiency in swaying the mood of their audiences. The engineering of content to make people feel happy or sad is the job description of advertising creatives.
The legendary marketing researcher Ernest Dichter, the so-called father of the motivational approach to marketing that took root in the 1950s and 1960s, defined his task as the “mobilization and manipulation of human needs as they exist in the consumer.” Psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote the definitive how-to on persuasion, and in this 1984 bestseller (now in its 5th edition), Influence: Science and Practice, he described scarcity appeals as a technique of persuasion that creates “an emotion-arousing quality that makes thinking difficult.” Emotional response is what it’s all about. Yet this is precisely what has prompted a fierce outpouring of criticism about Facebook’s ethics in conducting this experiment.
If there is an ethical problem with this Facebook experiment, then there is an ethical problem with the entire way in which the consumer economy works. This eruption of indignation is a false controversy. Whether advertising, art, music, movies or Facebook, every aspect of culture is crafted in a carefully calculated (and often experimentally tested) manner to affect the audience in emotionally specific ways. Facebook just wants to manage its product in the same way as a movie director or a novelist or a comedian or a painter or an advertising copywriter.
Some of the ethical questions raised have been about informed consent, confidentiality, anonymity, privacy and terms of service. There are human-subjects standards for academic research. There are trade industry guidelines for marketing research and opinion polling. None of these policies were violated, as, in fact, none are violated in the run-of-the-mill research conducted by marketers thousands of times each and every day. Consumer research of the sort conducted by Facebook is routine to the point of banality. As one of the editors for the academic journal in which the Facebook study was published put it, “Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.” No doubt this is true, just as it is for every brand marketer.
Every ad is copy tested for emotional response. Every color or musical selection or aisle layout in a retail store is tested for emotional response. Every catalog and Web page is constructed for emotional response. Brand marketers never stop running experiments to see what works and what doesn’t work, to find what yields the right emotion and what doesn’t, to determine what context is most favorable and what is least favorable. This is how brand marketing works, and it’s far from new. This is how brand marketing has worked since the very invention of modern marketing at the beginning of the 20thcentury.
Not that modern marketing hasn’t had its vocal critics, ranging from Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders to Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Yet criticism notwithstanding, brand marketers and consumers have managed to coexist in symbiotic harmony.
So why, then, has Facebook’s experiment provoked such hostility? Because in today’s digital era, the motives of digital marketers are perceived to be more about their own data than about the well-being of their customers. It appears to people that digital marketers have lost sight of the fundamental truism first articulated by management consultant Peter Drucker in 1954, “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer,” and later reiterated in 1983 by Harvard marketing guru Ted Levitt, “The purpose of a business is to get and keep a customer.”
Brand marketers who experiment with better ways solve consumers’ problems are forgiven such scheming. Digital comes across as different. The typical publicity around digital is all about technological wizardry, wunderkind genius, Silicon Valley riches, gizmos galore and Big Data in the petabytes. This is inward looking and self-reflective, celebrating the company not the customer. It puts the product on a pedestal, leaving the solution as an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, consumers feel neglected, ancillary and, when push comes to shove, exploited.
Traditional brand marketers have been no less susceptible to the temptations of self-adoration and self-promotion, but traditional brand marketing has always been relentlessly and obsessively customer-focused. Customer-centricity has been the watchword.
Trust is a fragile commodity nowadays. What upsets people most is secrecy and opacity. People are more than willing to negotiate the exchange of their private information for a worthwhile benefit or return. But people become indignant when they discover that their private information has been used without their knowledge or consent. This is the sneaking suspicion people have about digital marketers, and it is one they never really had about traditional brand marketers. The revelations about Facebook have confirmed to people yet again that digital marketers put data ahead of people.
The imperative for brands is the same as always. Put customers first. Solve problems; don’t sell products. Yet this traditional idea seems to be new to our digital era. Facebook has been wrongly vilified for doing nothing but what brand marketers have always done, but it has been rightly decried for forgetting, or at least appearing to forget, that brand marketing, even with all of its indulgences and excesses, is first and foremost a consumer business not a digital empire.
This blog post originally appeared on Branding Strategy Insider.