What you can learn about marketing your business from Facebook’s psychology experiment

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Facebook users are not fans of the social network’s recent admission that it secretly manipulated the feelings of 700,000 of its users for research purposes.

While Facebook has often come under fire for the way it treats its user’s privacy, the tech giant is now answering questions about the emotional manipulation.

For one week in 2012, Facebook tampered with users’ news feeds by showing them a disproportionate number of positive or negative stories in order to study their emotional responses to the social stimuli – without their consent or knowledge.

The study, which was made public after results were published in Slate and The Atlantic on Saturday, showed a user’s emotions could be affected by the moods of others on their feeds – a phenomenon it dubbed “emotional contagion”.

“Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness,” said the study’s authors.

“These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

Facebook has defended its research, saying in a statement the methods used were consistent with its data use policy.

“We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible,” said the social media giant.

“A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow.”

But while users feel the study was an exploitative move by the social network, marketers say businesses can learn from Facebook’s study.  

Digital marketing expert Michelle Gamble, from Marketing Angels, told SmartCompany all good marketers know advertising is based on the manipulation of emotion.

“The study of neuroscience is really influencing the world of advertising right now, so I’m not surprised Facebook is using it,” says Gamble.

Gamble says it is important for marketers to frame their social media messages positively if they want a positive response from Facebook followers.

“Making people feel good is always a good idea,” says Gamble. “But it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

For example, Gamble says, a not-for-profit company trying to tap into follower’s empathy can frame its message by pushing a “what you can do to help” post, rather than a sad or angry call to action.

Gamble says the other big lesson businesses can take away from Facebook’s study is the power of testing.

 “You’ve got so much power to optimise your marketing now,” says Gamble.

She recommends creating alternative versions of online marketing and testing user responses.

For example, try creating different landing pages or ‘split test’ different headlines, copy or creative options to different groups in your email marketing.

Gamble says testing through Google Adwords and experimenting with different types of posts, such as photo or link posts, is also a good idea.

And if Facebook users get up in arms about being marketing guinea pigs, Gamble says they have to remember the service they are using is free.

“I don’t think they can get that upset when Facebook is a free service,” she says. “People always get annoyed with Facebook, but they’re so addicted, they’ll go back.”

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Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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