From the Washington Post to VentureBeat, to the lesser known Australian Financial Review, everyone seems to be considering the ethical and moral implications of Facebook’s 2012 mood manipulation study. But what does Facebook’s study mean for marketers and the larger advertising ecosystem currently evolving at warp speed?
In their study recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Facebook skewed what nearly 700,000 Facebook users saw in their news feeds. One “happy group” of users was exposed to mostly happy and positive content, while another “sad group” was exposed to mainly sadder, more negative content. After just one week of the study Facebook had proven that they had materially manipulated these users’ daily emotions. The happy group was more likely to post especially positive posts on their own walls, while the sad group was more likely to make negatively worded posts.
Yes, this study should probably send one or two cold chills down your spine. It’s a little unnerving to think that you could be off to a stellar week until Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies decide to algorithmically pour sour milk all over your Cheerios. It almost makes you want to disconnect from the Facebook Matrix altogether. But it’s more than likely that we won’t. We’re all hooked and Facebook knows this.
It’s more than likely that this study wasn’t leaked to every major and minor media outlet on the globe to let the average user know what kind of power Facebook wields over them. If we follow the money trail, there’s a pretty high probability that the study was actually meant for hungry marketers like you and I. We are the ones that Facebook has to convince to spend billions of dollars on its advertising platform. Facebook’s exorbitantly high 85.41 stock price-to-earnings ratio is already banking on the idea that the hundreds of billions we’re currently spending on traditional advertising- such as television and radio- is going to come flooding into their cyber pocketbook.
But this tipping point won’t happen until Facebook proves that their new breed of newsfeed advertising is more powerful than tried and true traditional advertising channels like television. This study goes a long way in helping prove this. After all, our job as marketers is to alter consumers’ emotions about our brands, and Facebook has certainly proven with this study that they can do this in a very unique, albeit unnerving, way.
But let’s not act like great television commercials haven’t had the power to alter our emotions and make us think. If you happen to be a pre-millennial, you may distinctly remember the eerie feeling you had in your gut after seeing Apple’s Macintosh Super Bowl commercial that played off of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. You may even be getting that same eerie feeling in your gut right now as you start to understand the far-reaching power of Facebook’s advertising platform.
John Gapper of The Financial Times nicely sums up Facebook’s Orwellian power as he discusses their mood manipulation study in his own column:
- “Facebook holds more intimate information about its users than other internet companies.”
- “Facebook wields incredible power over the behavior of users. This is partly because of its size.” He discusses another Facebook study of 235 million users – noting that their sample size is four times the population of France.
- Facebook “focuses its judgments on personal material,” unlike Google, which uses algorithms to analyze content across the Web. “An algorithm that selects from thousands of links about, say, Buckingham Palace feels like a service; one that weeds out the posts of friends and family feels like a moral guardian.”
- “Facebook has demonstrated that it can alter behavior,” he writes, citing other studies that show users who see more status updates will write more themselves and another that encouraged users to become organ donors by allowing existing donors to display in Facebook that they are donors.
- Unlike most companies that test products to see what appeals to users, with Facebook, “we are the product” being tested.
So, what do you think? Is Facebook making the world a happier place by harnessing their power to influence the greater population en masse? Or are they secretly trying to influence the buying behaviors of marketers by casually unveiling a study with such profound marketing implications?