NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The dating site OKCupid this week 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 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.
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.
“We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed. Even the (Federal Trade Commission) is getting involved,” Rudder wrote. “But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.
Rudder outlined a series of experiments that OKCupid has undertaken. Among them were removing photos from all profiles when the company launched its unsuccessful blind date app last year, and replacing a rating system involving separate scales for “looks” and “personality” with just one rating system.
And in an effort to determine how much match quality percentages influenced users’ interactions, Rudder wrote, “we took pairs of bad matches (actual 30 percent match) and told them they were exceptionally good for each other (displaying a 90 percent match.)
“Not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible. After all, that’s what the site teaches you to do,” he wrote. “But we took the analysis one step deeper. We asked: does the displayed match percentage cause more than just that first message—does the mere suggestion cause people to actually like each other? As far as we can measure, yes, it does.”
Rudder emphasized that OKCupid has to experiment to improve its product.
“OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website,” he wrote. “It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something.”
But 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.
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 SoHo-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.
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