Ethical Issues in Customer Research Leads Facebook to Create New Research Policy

Marketing researchers are always on the lookout for new sources of customer information. They are especially interested in designing new approaches for gathering information through the use of experiments. Often this involves creating a situation where one or more groups of respondents are exposed to different situations, and the reaction of customers to a particular situation is compared against customers who are exposed to something different. The information gathered can then be directed to marketing managers, who may see the results as evidence that a change in strategy should be considered.

While experiments can be done in many different venues, such as within stores or inside customers’ homes, the Internet is where the majority of marketing experiments are now being conducted. The principal advantages of testing on the Internet include: the ease by which experiments can be created; the low cost of implementation; and the wealth of data that can be generated. The most obvious example of Internet experimentation is the test of advertising placement on websites. By exposing visitors to ads in different locations, ads of different sizes or ads with different messages, websites can get a better picture of what will generate higher revenue.

While Internet ad experiments are widely used, researchers are continually seeking other online experimental options. However, some of these ways may be more intrusive, especially when conducted on social media sites. This is leading many to question the ethics of the some experimental research design. For example, back in June information about an online experiment by Facebook was disclosed leading to ethical questions regarding how the research was conducted (see the actual study here). Even though the research method was not illegal, many complained the experiment was conducted without Facebook users’ consent. While a researcher who was part of a group that conducted the study defended the methods used, the outcry was not lost among Facebook executives.

As discussed in this story New York Times story, Facebook has rethought how it will conduct online research. It has told its in-house researchers, and the world, that there will be limits on what and how data will be collected. It will certainly be interesting to watch whether other companies also open up about their online research methods.