OKCupid, Facebook not alone in studying consumers

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OKCupid, Facebook not alone in studying consumers
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)
Match Inc. CEO and OKCupid co-founder Sam Yagan and wife Jessica attend the TIME 100 Gala celebrating the "100 Most Influential People in the World" at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday April 23, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
In this June 11, 2014 photo, a man walks past a Facebook sign in an office on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that as a private company, Facebook had no obligation to adhere to rules on the use of human subjects in the study. But the journal says Facebook's data collection practices may have violated scientific principles requiring the consent of study subjects. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man poses for photos in front of a sign at the entrance to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif., Friday, June 7, 2013. Internet companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google have vast amounts of data on you. These include the photos and video you share, the email you send and receive and the musings you broadcast to friends on what you are thinking or eating. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Signage stands outside the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Facebook Inc. flag flies next to a U.S. flag outside the company's Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
This image released by Darden Restaurants on Monday, March 3, 2013, shows the new "Olive Garden" logo. In a call with analysts on Monday, executives at Darden Restaurants Inc. expressed confidence they could bring about a “brand renaissance” at the Italian chain with a new look and updated menu that presented food with “a sense of flair and sophistication.” (AP Photo/Darden Restaurants Inc.)
A basket of cheddar bay biscuits is displayed for a photograph at a Red Lobster restaurant stands in Yonkers, New York, U.S., on Thursday, July 24, 2014. Darden Restaurants Inc. and Golden Gate Capital announced that Golden Gate has completed the acquisition of the Red Lobster business. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A wood-grilled salmon dish is displayed for a photograph at a Red Lobster restaurant stands in Yonkers, New York, U.S., on Thursday, July 24, 2014. Darden Restaurants Inc. and Golden Gate Capital announced that Golden Gate has completed the acquisition of the Red Lobster business. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
THE FACE -- 'Sell, Sell, Sell!' Episode 204 -- Pictured: Team Anne (l-r) Tiana Zarlin, Khadisha Gaye, Sharon Gallardo filming their Alex and Ani campaign -- (Photo by: Steve Fenn/Oxygen Media/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
In this photo taken July 26, 2012, bracelets are divided by cards at an Alex and Ani jewelry factory in Cranston, R.I. Alex and Ani, founded by Carolyn Rafaelian in 2004, has expanded throughout the country and now sells internationally. The company was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce the charms for the 2012 London Games. It's the latest sign of success for the company, which has gone from a small manufacturing operation with 15 employees and a store in Newport to an economic dynamo with 16 stores across the country. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this photo taken July 26, 2012, worker Lucy Zaytounian, of Cranston, R.I., retrieves bracelets from drawers of inventory at an Alex and Ani jewelry factory, in Cranston, R.I. Alex and Ani, founded by Carolyn Rafaelian in 2004, has expanded throughout the country and now sells internationally. The jewelry is manufactured in the U.S. using recycled material. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this photo taken July 26, 2012, workers at an Alex and Ani factory assemble jewelry in Cranston, R.I. The company, founded by Carolyn Rafaelian in 2004, has expanded throughout the country and now sells internationally. The Cranston-based business was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce the charms for the 2012 London Games. It's the latest sign of success for the company. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
2005 RED Hot Prom Romantic Product Look 3 gold charm bracelets gold Alex and Ani
WASHINGTON, DC-APRIL 23: Deborah Ratner Salzberg is seen in the new offices of Forest City Washington, Inc, in Washington DC on April 23, 2014. Deborah is the President of Forest City, a real estate development company based in DC. The company's new building sits on an historic site along the Anacostia River called The Yards. Ms. Ratner Salzberg has been a Forest City director since 1995. (Photo by Charlie Archambault /For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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By Mae Anderson

Think you're in control? Think again.

OKCupid on Monday 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.

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.

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.

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