Category Archives: Blog

LinkedIn’s privacy policy change is really about context, not data

Privacy is currently a hot topic in the market research industry. Some of our colleagues are worried that consumers will stop sharing their data, as Greg Heist discussed in Greenbook earlier this month.

Often, the focus tends to be on researchers’ ability to access data – either data is entirely public, or it is entirely private. But I think privacy is much more than whether or not data is public. It is also about the context of that data. Who is accessing the data and why can be just as important as what data they are accessing. So that’s what I want to discuss with you today.


Image by Flickr user James Cridland

Do ‘oversharing’ teenagers care about privacy?

Teen social media use provides a fantastic illustration of the importance of context as part of privacy. Teens put a lot of their data online. According to a PewResearch survey in 2013:

  • 92% post their real name to the profile they use the most
  • 91% post a photo of themselves on social media
  • 71% post a city or town where they live
  • 53% post an e-mail address.

Being public doesn’t seem to bother them that much. Indeed, 64% of teens on Twitter have public profiles, and a good percentage, 12%, don’t even know if their tweets are public or private.

danah boyd its complicated

But, as any parent of a teen will tell you, privacy is very important to them. But for teens privacy isn’t a simple binary of putting personal information online or not – instead it’s about managing the context of who sees what and engages with what on their profiles. danah boyd, a Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research and Assistant Professor at NYU, has worked extensively with teens around privacy.

As she points out, “While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc.”

Teens try to manage the context of their discussions. For example, according to the Pew survey 58% of teen social media users use inside jokes or other ways to hide the meaning of their messages. They hide the meaning and the context of the messages, not the access to the messages themselves.

I don’t think this emphasis on context is isolated to children. The internet allows us to network, share our thoughts and see the thoughts of others. In many ways, the very public nature of it is the draw. Yet people are still concerned about privacy. To see this dichotomy in action, let’s take the new LinkedIn member blocking feature.

The need to be public, the need to retain privacy

The story of this new blocking feature actually began in April of last year when a petition was posted on asking LinkedIn to implement better privacy features.

linkedin petition on stalkers and privacy

A woman named Anne R. was being stalked by a man who had sexually assaulted her at work. After she left the job, he continued to harass her online. The problem was that, unlike just about every other social media website out there, LinkedIn did not have a block feature. She wanted a professional experience on LinkedIn, but her stalker had other ideas. She couldn’t control her situation, and that was the problem.

Her options at the time were to either change her name on the site or remove herself from the site entirely. But that, she argued in her petition, was in essence sacrificing her networking opportunities in the face of something she was powerless to prevent. In other words, she wanted her information to be public. Just not available to the man who was stalking her.

Anne’s problem wasn’t that her data was public. Yes, that was part of the situation, but what she was concerned about was the social context she found herself in. She wanted to carry on her life, specifically engaging in professional networking on a service that promised just that. What she got was a nightmare. She wanted her data available to other people who would respect the professional context, not to people who would victimize her.

And she wasn’t alone. Taking a quick look at the stories people shared on the petition website, we can see a variety of situations and people. These stories came from both men and women and covered a variety of topics, from digital stalking by an abusive former boss to fears of a harasser finding their phone numbers or where they work.

Taking care with context

Protecting our data from exploitation by companies or spying by our governments is important. I’m certainly not trying to belittle the importance of data management. But I think that treating it as just data removes the human element that is really at the root of these concerns.

People want to control what situations they find themselves in. They don’t want things taken out of context and used that way, or even just have an organization jump in when they were having a nice chat with a friend – regardless that it is on a public site.

As market researchers, particularly social media researchers, we have to understand what the privacy debate is really about. Many are worried that people will choose to stop communicating on open channels where we can access their data. While some behavior may change, I don’t think people will stop sharing on public sites entirely. People like talking and sharing with people they may not know, as well as just with their friends. But they don’t want these public engagements to be taken out of context, or for that context to suddenly change out from underneath them.

As social media marketers, we have to widen the privacy debate beyond the black and white of data access. We have to respect the context of the data, perhaps even try to protect it by helping our clients understand what types of discussions are okay to join and what aren’t, or what types of insights are good to use in ad copy or communications overtly, and which are probably best left as subtext. We need to help our clients respect consumers’ control over context online, not just the access to data.

India’s love affair with WhatsApp

Whats app logo

Earlier this month, a news story broke: “India police use WhatsApp to trace missing boy”.

It’s an  interesting and highly contemporary story. Police in Bareilly took a photo of the pamphlet they had posted all over the city which carried a picture of the missing boy and his father’s contact details, and sent it by WhatsApp to nearby police stations and the boy’s family and relatives. They in turn forwarded the message to everyone in their WhatsApp address books. A man called Daanish  received the WhatsApp message from a friend known to the boy’s father, and recognised the boy in the photo as being on his train. And the rest, as they say, is news!

This story caught my imagination, as another WhatsApp user from India myself. So I thought I’d write a little bit about how I’m seeing the app work in my own social circle – and how I think WhatsApp fits so well into Indian society and culture.

Now, WhatsApp’s not reached the whole of India yet – in fact, the app only rolled out in Hindi between January and March this year. Previously Indian people had to use the English interface, which of course restricts uptake to a more urban and educated social sphere (only about 20% of people in India speak some English, and 5% are fluent.)

But this move into Hindi should see the app gain a wider user-base, making it increasingly important in both the research and the marketing mix. So far the app already has over 40 million active users, the company’s VP Business Development, Neeraj Arora, told Times of India in an interview last month.

What’s up with WhatsApp? 

I don’t currently live in India, but I too am on WhatsApp. The biggest group I’m part of is a bunch of women who were at school with me. When I recently sent out an email to the group, the response I got was, “Please don’t send email – send it through WhatsApp.” It appears that for them this new mobile app has for the most part replaced email, SMS and even social media options like Facebook. The volume of messages I get from this one group is amazing – every day 100 or more. One might be justified in asking whether being on WhatsApp is a full-time occupation. I know I find it hard to keep up.

The messages are quite varied: a chorus of “Good Mornings” every day either through images or text accompanied by a lot of emoticons, greetings for festivals (no matter how minor), images and videos of members of the group as well as their children – and grandchildren, lots of jokes (many of them surprisingly risqué), items of news about the impending elections and sometimes political cartoons (there’s a lot of that going around just now), philosophical or spiritual pieces that have moved or inspired them, as well as more practical things like planning a get together or a holiday, or asking for travel or shopping tips and advice.

It almost seems like their lives are being played out on WhatsApp. Does this sound familiar – like something that was said about Facebook users?

So why’s WhatsApp been such a hit in India?

1. Sociable and social Indian culture

Kinship and belonging are central to the Indian psyche. Indians love keeping in touch with family and friends, and want to know what’s happening with them.  While that can be said about people in other countries and cultures too, among Indians, the sheer size of the family group and the extent of obligation to keep in touch takes it to another level.

WhatsApp is a mobile app, and since the mobile is at hand at all times, the interactions can be almost like conversations and you never have to miss out on anything that’s going on.

Another feature that supports this need for relationships is that WhatsApp allows a fairly large group size (30 people). This means it’s perfect for family groups, friend groups, or company groups to share news, pictures, greetings, instructions, or for people to seek advice from a larger community. With a single message on WhatsApp, the word can go out to up to 30 people.

2. I’m the first to know, and you’d better know it! 

Who’s getting married? What job the prospective bridegroom has, when the baby is due, which colleague just got promoted… you get the gist. Indians love to be the first to know, and to be seen as people who get the news and gossip first.

Each group has a few members who dispense most of the news and gossip, and the rest react with appreciative comments, and quite possibly forward the tidbit on to their other groups!

3. Can’t do without SMS/text

With the advent of mobile and the possibility of SMS, Indians found a way to keep in touch at relatively low cost. A 2013 GSMA Intelligence report shows that non-voice revenues are growing at 16%, twice the rate of voice traffic growth.  And text messaging is 45% of what people are using mobile for. So, when WhatsApp came along offering ‘free SMS’, it tapped right into the Indians’ preferred mode of using mobile.

Whatsapp India 1

4. Love a good deal, and ‘free’ is even better

Using WhatsApp, people can at one stroke both eliminate their SMS bill and at the same time get additional features. The free 1st year (which means they’re hooked!), and low cost thereafter ($0.99) makes it ridiculously cheap, even by Indian standards.

This has encouraged its use, not only by ordinary people, but also by political parties. There’s a general election this year, and political cartoons and jokes against both candidates are all over the social media sites – including WhatsApp. And if the material is funny or interesting, people help in the ‘marketing’ task by sending it on to their groups. For example, I received a WhatsApp message this morning that read “India needs to be MODIfied” (Narendra MODI is the opposition party’s Prime Ministerial candidate).

5. Makes me feel SO good!

Indians seem to need validation and acknowledgement just as much as (if not more than) other cultures. Within a WhatsApp group there’s a great return on a very small investment. The app is very intuitive and easy to use and a wealth of emoticons enables an instant response that doesn’t require much thought. It allows people to maintain relationships and be part of the group with very little effort. As with Facebook, this small effort on WhatsApp brings its users rich emotional rewards – appreciation from many for passing on a joke, poem, piece of wisdom, news, and the sense of solidarity with kindred spirits.

What does WhatsApp’s success tell us?

The image below – which was sent to me on WhatsApp (of course!) – shows what WhatsApp means to Indian consumers

WHats app India 3Translated, it reads:

A way to share the secrets of the heart

A way to remind others of you

A companion who helps you forget your sorrows

And a way to keep your relationships even when you don’t meet!

Firstly, WhatsApp’s success tells us that relationships are important to people, and that’s a domain that marketers and product designers need to think carefully about. How can your product help people have better relationships with those around them?

It also reminds us that there’s definitely a place for products that are simple and focused, and put users’ needs first. The dedicated WhatsApp messenger has succeeded where Facebook’s messaging functionality hasn’t. So there’s a lesson in simplicity here too.

So, now WhatsApp’s included Hindi in its supported languages, we look forward to seeing how the love affair with WhatsApp will spread beyond the English-speaking population to a still wider Indian audience.

An Introduction to our Network Analysis for Market Research blog series

As social media researchers we help clients make sense of people’s online behavior, which is of course complex. While they have their uses, KPIs such as volume and sentiment can only get you so far. One key limitation is that they only measure what people say – not what they do as well.

Social media research is moving beyond keyword tracking, something we’ve been innovating here at FACE with Pulsar’s content and audience tracking technologies. To really dig into online activity, we need to analyse metadata, the information spun off by social behavior, just as much as the messages people produce. And we need to embrace a wider range of methodologies drawn from the field of computational social statistics.

We can do this through social network analysis (SNA), a research framework giving us the tools and concepts to investigate questions such as how content is shared and how communities are formed.

We are going to dive into examples in more detail for our ‘Network Analysis for Market Research’ blog series, covering topics including:

  • Visualising networks to make sense of large & complex data sets
  • Methods for identifying influencers
  • Identifying communities
  • Tracking how networks evolve over time
  • Mapping how information spreads
  • Overlaying networks with other metrics

For great examples of how we can benefit from investigating social structures using network analysis you need look no further that FACE’s research carried out by Francesco D’Orazio and Jess Owens for Twitter on How Videos Go Viral, & How Stuff Spreads: Gangnam Style vs. Harlem Shake in partnership with Datasift.


In our blog series we’re going to investigate methodologies used in these projects, provide additional examples of network analysis, dive into some theory & explain practically what this means for the process of social media research.

If you have any questions about what I’ve discussed in this blog or about our forthcoming blog series then please do get in touch.

Part 1 of the blog series has now been published. Read about Identifying Influencers with Social Network Analysis here

Meet us at… ARF Re:Think and Social Media Forum

We are getting ready for two conferences this month: ARF Re: Think in New York and Social Media Forum in London.

ARF Rethink

With a showcase of 50+ groundbreaking studies (cross-platform, social media, mobile research and more), 100 high-profile presenters, 2,500 industry peers (from P&G, Unilever, Apple, and Facebook along with many others) it’s looking like it will be a really innovative and exciting event.

The Face NY team will be manning the booth and our friends from Pulsar will demo their social intelligence platform.  Drop by to find out how we can help you better understand and connect with your consumers by combining qualitative insight, real time data and smart thinking.

Register and check out the details here.



Social Media Forum (#SMWF) Europe is a social and digital marketing conference which examines the latest developments in social marketing and how it sits within an organisation. #SMWF launches in London on 31 March – 1 April 2014.

We’re looking forward to talks from many industry thought leaders on how to drive engagement, manage brand image and understand great customer service. To name but a few: McDonalds, BBC, Walt Disney, Lithium, Philips, Unicef, Vodafone, Amnesty International, Wall Street Journal and Sky are all sharing their knowledge.

Our Chief Innovation Officer, Francesco D’Orazio (@abc3d) will join the panel discussion on ‘Interdepartmental cooperation for a unified social campaign panel’ alongside participants from Sony, Barclays, Yahoo and RSA. Discussion will touch on the following questions:

  • The practicalities of structuring and implementing a multi-channel social campaign
  • How to create unity across departments and resolve issues for the best outcome
  • Examining new trends and platforms in social and evaluating where the effort should be focussed
  • Looking at how different social platforms fit together with more traditional media

Social media expertise and top-level strategic advice is what we are all about so we’re really looking forward to this discussion.

The FACE and Pulsar teams will also be there to demo Pulsar and answer any questions.

Hope to see you there. Check out the event’s website for more details.

The ‘Absolute Value’ of listening to social media forums

Social media researcher Jess Owens (@hautepop) on consumer decision-making and why brands need to listen to social media forums:

There’s a new book out about how social media’s changed how people buy things.Absolute Value Simonson & Rosen

In Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen argue that amid more reliable sources of information, branding is losing its value:

“How people buy things has changed profoundly—yet the fundamental thinking about consumer decision making and marketing has not. Most marketers still believe that they can shape consumers’ perception and drive their behavior. [… But] when consumers base their decisions on reviews from other users, easily accessed expert opinions, price comparison apps, and other emerging technologies, everything changes. Counter to what we frequently hear, consumers will (on average) make better choices and act more rationally.”

So it sounds like a book we at FACE ought to buy, right?

But we wouldn’t want to be under-informed consumers!  If social media is so good for helping people reach informed decisions, we thought we’d first turn to social to see what people were saying…

Turns out it’s pretty contentious.

What’s driving discussion is the “bad news” Simonson & Rosen have for brands:  “…brands are less needed when consumers can assess product quality using better sources of information such as reviews from other users [or] expert opinion,” they said in HBR last month.  This was picked up by James Surowieki in the New Yorker with a long piece on The Twilight of the Brands

This is a big claim, and it’s driving reaction from the plannersphere.

Twilight of the brand? Don’t bet on it – says Edward Boche. He argues in defence of branding: it’s not just a label and an advert, it’s the shaping of the whole product experience.

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Isobar UK, was more practical. She tweeted:

“I think the idea of “perfect competition” implies a lot higher interest in many categories than consumers have and ignores the fact that many purchases are impulsive/emotional.” [12]

This is a great point. Sometimes we can overcomplicate things in the marketing world – but really, who researches the chocolate bar they buy at the station, or the toothpaste they pick up at lunchtime? What does drive those purchases? Habit, price – and brand recognition at the shelf.

Simonson & Rosen’s claim that there’s no such thing as “information overload” (and so everything can be researched) just doesn’t stack up against the common sense of what we know of our own shopping behaviour. Much of the time it’s not rational to spend time researching and making a rational decision, right? The automatic, stereotype driven instinct of Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” thinking is usually good enough.

So brand functions as a decision-making short-cut, making sure consumers have the stereotypes and emotional associations to mind when it comes to making a decision at the shelf.

No new ideas

‘Absolute Value’ ultimately reminds us of the Cluetrain Manifesto. Arguably Simonson & Rosen’s book is just fleshing out Cluetrain points 6-12, written fully 15 years ago:


6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.

12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

It’s funny how little changes, right?

The answer Cluetrain give is a lot more listening.

34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.

And companies have to listen to what this community is saying, and what it’s concerned about. Market research isn’t just about product testing: “Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think about it?” It’s got to be built on a solid foundation of listening. “What are you thinking about?” So the brand can go away and think about “How might we fit into that?”

This is arguably one of the strengths of social media forums and reviews: brands can’t talk back! The channel can’t be repurposed as a matter of comms and CSR. It’s just there for listening. So what can you get if you do that?

There’s value in social media reviews yet

Looking back to the book “Absolute Value’, it ultimately reaches a conclusion that’s still good news for market research.

“Today, products are being evaluated more on their “absolute value, their quality,” Dr. Simonson said. Brand names mean less. The results suggest that companies should spend less money trying to shape consumer opinions in traditional ads, he said, and more on understanding what and who are shaping those opinions.”

Now, we disagree with Simonson & Rosen on advertising’s supposed death – how do people start talking about a new product on a forum if they’ve not been exposed to it through broadcast media to spark an interest?

But it’s a useful set of pointers for what might be worth researching.

And as Simonson & Rosen indicate, social forums and reviews are a huge information resource for this kind of study.  Sometimes they’re the most valuable sources for our research projects. Despite the rise in social media and social networks (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and so on), forums, reviews and blogs continue to be active sites of discussion – “Web 2.0” isn’t dead! Forums can be particularly valuable for research because they’re more in depth – people talk about details that couldn’t fit into Twitter’s 140 characters or that might bore their Facebook friends.

What can you get out of it as a researcher?

Firstly forum discussions give great insight into “System 2” decision-making: the rational thought-out stuff. This is most relevant for higher-ticket purchases such as mobile phones or personal electronics such as high-end audiophile headphones, or hair styling tools.

What kinds of things can you learn?

  • What factors do people mention most often in their comparison and decision making process? E.g. price, design, particular functionalities,
  • Which brands do people mention as the competitive set?
  • What strengths and weaknesses are associated with each brand?
  • What are the tensions and trade-offs they articulate? E.g. in headphones, it might be a fundamental tension between “warmth” and “clarity” of the sound. These “insights with tension” can be great creative inspiration for later product and comms platform development.
  • Who are they citing as people they’ve listened to? E.g. “My brother said that __”
  • What are the expert sources they’re citing, e.g. websites, reviews, or other forum members

But even for FMCG products, there’s sometimes a treasure trove of information. Take a look at this Mumsnet thread on shrinking chocolate bars with the above questions in mind.

mumsnet is chocolate getting smaller

But there’s another side as well – the bigger picture. Are you really listening if you just use forums to answer a fixed set of questions?  They contain a wealth of wider information about the context of people’s lives and the topics they’re passionate about. If you’re making baby buggies, read up on what mums say about the pleasures and difficulties getting out-and-about – and the wider question of how people negotiate the role of “staying at home” or “going out to work”.

Or sites such as Money Saving Expert‘s forums contain lengthy personal financial narratives, telling the story of how people ended up deep in debt – or the dreams of financial security they aspire to. It’s not exactly the quick, instinctive decision-making of the “System 1″ brain – but it is highly emotive.

From the “mortgage-free wannabees” trying to make my dream a reality!!  to threads talking about Why do you spend?, the wealth of insight is astounding. Often people talk about the families they grew up in and how this shaped their attitudes to money, spending and status – and they talk about how they’re trying to do better for their kids. Sometimes it’s pretty heartbreaking stuff to read.


Simonson & Rosen’s book, Absolute Value, is a useful reminder that consumer decision-making involves information gathering from many sources, many or most of which brands can’t control. It pushes the emphasis onto improving customer service and after-sales care over comms and marketing. Ultimately it’s a case for improving the product and product experience – make the object talk-worthy enough that it spawns all the positive word-of-mouth needed.

That said, all these things remain part of “brand”, the nexus of perceptions and associations people hold about a product. The claim that “brand is dead” is, shall we say, premature.

Where do we disagree with Simonson & Rosen? It’s not a brand new idea (Cluetrain got their first), and it holds more true for higher-spend, features-led techie product categories than others.

But mostly we disagree with the emphasis on rationality. Really studying social media forums shows that, yes, a certain amount of rational comparison and assessment is going on, to be sure. But forums and reviews say just as much about the emotive sides of purchase too – needs, hopes, fears. We wouldn’t call this irrational behaviour: what a purchase delivers socially and symbolically is just as much a source of value – and a valid reason to buy it  - as its objective functionality. That’s brand again.

And that’s why brands need to listen to people on forums.


Stay in touch with Jess on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Or, if you think forums could hold the key to your brand’s business challenges, speak to our Client Director James Hirst, on 07961 527 366 or email