Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2010 file photo, a couple walks through the surf together in Cannon Beach, Ore. OKCupid on Monday, July 28, 2014 became the latest company to admit that it has manipulated customer data to see how users of its dating service would react to one another. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
OKCupid not alone in studying consumers
First Published Jul 29 2014 05:52 pm • Last Updated Jul 29 2014 05:52 pm

New York • Think you’re in control? Think again.

This week, OKCupid became the latest company to admit that it has manipulated customer data to see how users of its dating service would react to one another. The New York-based Internet company’s revelation follows news earlier this month that Facebook let researchers change news feeds to see how it would affect users’ moods. The fact is, big companies use customers as unwitting guinea pigs all the time —online and in the real world.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

OKCupid’s claim, that its research was aimed at improving its services, is common. But some find that manipulating situations in order to study consumer behavior without consent raises troubling privacy concerns.

"Every company is trying to influence consumers to purchase their product or feel a particular way about their company," says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "The question is, when is it manipulation, when consumers are in some ways tricked, and when is it just influence?"

In a blog post on Monday OKCupid founder Christian Rudder detailed the experimentation: The company removed text or photos from profiles and in some cases told people they were a 90 percent match with another date-seeker instead of a 30 percent match. Rudder was unapologetic and said the results are being used to improve the sites’ algorithms.

"If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site," Rudder wrote. "That’s how websites work."

Facebook’s recent disclosure set off a firestorm on social media services and in the press. During one week in January 2012, the company let researchers manipulate 689,000 users’ news feeds to be either more positive or negative to study how the changes affected their moods.

But Internet companies aren’t the only ones studying unsuspecting customers. Retailers have been at it for decades.

Brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants have long used data drawn from customer loyalty programs, satisfaction surveys and exit interviews, to figure out how to best target consumers. For example, Darden, which operates the Olive Garden, analyzes customers’ checks to see what types of dishes people tend to combine. The restaurant chain also analyses how long customers wait for a table. Darden says the research, along with customer surveys, helps the company improve the customer experience.

"We collect all sorts of information about any interaction we have with guests to understand who our customers are, and who is visiting the restaurant," says Chris Chang, senior vice president of technology strategy at Darden.


story continues below
story continues below

While Darden’s methods are considered traditional, retailers are beginning to use more high tech ways to study consumer behavior too.

Alex and Ani, a New York-based jewelry and accessories maker that runs its own stores and also sells goods at department stores nationwide, works with technology company Prism Skylabs to use data taken from video footage create so-called "heat maps." Using video they can track how customers flow through the store, and rearrange displays and move them to places where customers linger.

That’s just one piece of data the jewelry company uses, says Ryan Bonifacino, vice president of digital strategy. Once the company has the traffic patterns, they also evaluate timestamps on receipts and other point-of-sale information in an effort to create a profile of what types of people are shopping in the store and customize products to them.

"It’s not about one individual coming into a store, it’s about understanding the journey" of customers as a group, Bonifacino says.

Another example is Forest City, a Cleveland-based real estate developer, which operates malls around the country. The company works with U.K. firm Path Intelligence to identify shopper patterns through mobile phone movements. The system uses cellular data, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Forest City emphasizes that it does not collect personal data or any data that could be used to identify an individual shopper. The company has used the data to determine whether it should move an escalator in one mall to make the flow of traffic more efficient. Another time they were able to tell a retailer whether they should change locations or not.

"In the past, we would have used a gut feeling or anecdotal evidence, more low-tech ways to determine whether or not we should move the escalator," says Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president digital strategy.

The use of "big data" and other ways to study consumers are likely to get more pervasive. The key to conducting studies without sparking outrage — both online and offline — is transparency, says marketing expert Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates.

"Big data is everywhere, and people know that and are willing to deal with it," he says. "If you tell consumers this is what you’re doing to make sure you’re meeting their needs and be able to offer the right merchandise, they’re usually accepting and understand."

That’s true for Lucas Miller, 24, of Phoenix, who wasn’t fazed when OKCupid disclosed its experiments.

"In terms of tracking behavior, I’m far less worried about for-profit companies doing it than I am about the government," he says.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.