OPINION28 October 2011

What Facebook thinks about market research

Opinion

Sean Bruich, Facebook’s head of measurement research, promised to tell Esomar 3D delegates what research needs to do better. But was he there to praise the industry or bury it? Tom Ewing reports.

Neither, as it turned out – the presentation was affable, helpful, and revealing about Facebook’s approach to research. Facebook has two goals in research, according to Bruich: it wants to understand the world around it and how its users lives are changing, and it wants to understand how consumers interact with one another and (crucially) with advertising on the site. To do this it looks at three kinds of data – basic usage data (who looks at what when), “revealed preference” data (people’s interests and social networks) and finally solicited data – quick polls and surveys.

“Facebook dislikes long, externally located surveys, preferring one- or two-question mini-polls. This obviously makes most sense if you’re sitting on as much data as Facebook is”

Bruich’s presentation answered many of the basic questions about Facebook data. Is it representative? Well, it’s as good or better than polling data. Is it predictive? Facebook users’ declared intention to see a movie strongly correlated with opening weekend take. Is it engaging? Participation rates in Facebook polls are sky-high, because the experience is embedded into Facebook and therefore ultra-convenient – nobody is being asked to leave their trusted environment and go into a bespoke survey space.

Bruich offered strong points of view on social media and influence, rooted in Facebook’s own philosophies and the culture of its social network. He feels the great advantage of Facebook over other social media is authenticity, which he identifies with the offline space, people’s real names and real-life connections. He also described – by way of an Oprah clip – how the popular Gladwellian model of powerful influencers doesn’t really work. Facebook suggests that influence isn’t top-down, it diffuses across networks via several thousand small platforms, not one or two big ones. And it turns out there’s no consistent predictor of which content or “likes” will become viral. On the other hand, Bruich claimed that small-scale social proof – seeing that your friends have seen ads – increases recall and purchase intention.

So what should research be doing? Facebook dislikes long, externally located surveys, preferring one- or two-question mini-polls. This obviously makes most sense if you’re sitting on as much data as Facebook is. But it’s a direction many panel providers and research firms are also looking to go in. Bruich pointed out that river sampling – plucking users out of Facebook into a longer survey – is less efficient because it tends to miss light Facebook users, who actually have higher ad recall than the heavier ones.

Bruich joined the chorus of conference sceptics about text analytics, making the now-familiar points about its shortcomings at understanding context. A focus on the chatter itself misses out on its “viral reach” – the potential these mentions have to reach others. He showed a copy of a General Motors survey from the 1930s, pointing out that the questions were largely the same today (he was too polite to mention that the 1930s survey was rather more attractively designed). GM made the results of that survey social by turning them into a “buyer’s guide”, directly connecting the research and the customer. It’s clear Facebook feels that for research to prosper it needs to become social once again. This was the central theme of Bruich’s talk – by focusing on individuals, be they respondents or influencers, research fails to take networks into account.

4 Comments

9 years ago

What is Facebook?

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9 years ago

In truth, Bruich told the conference little new about research on Facebook, beyond the possibility of huge reach for single-question surveys on Facebook pages - in turn leading to easily achieved specific sample profiles - and even finished with a plea for research agencies to approach Facebook with ideas and projects. More notably, he was light on detail on the implications of social media monitoring on Facebook, particularly given the focus of the previous day, and made no mention of any privacy questions - which would have fit well with the most hotly debated session the day before.

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9 years ago

I am curious why Facebook doesn't appear to be doing much data mining, or other advanced modeling/classification/insight generation. With such a large database, you'd think they'd be all over this. Or maybe they don't talk about it for competitive reasons. The point is many companies would 'kill' to have as much data as Facebook. I hope they are at least considering it!

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9 years ago

I understand why FB would want to keep its cards close to the chest on this subject. It seems they recognize that they can not be absent from the conversation, but they also must exercise extreme caution when disclosing how user data is being managed. We all know that in general, the internet population is fickle and easily spooked. Average FB users don't like to be reminded that their content is there for any reason other than what they intend, and if that dynamic changes there's huge risk of losing them.

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