Monday Jun 30, 2014

Emotion Contagion

Facebook recently released the results of an experiment it conducted in 2012 on emotion contagion. Social experiments have shown that a person's emotional state can be influenced by those around him.  If your friends are having a bad day, you tend to unconsciously synchronize to their emotions and thus they "bring you down."  Facebook wanted to see if this type of influence thrived in social media, so they manipulated the newsfeeds of almost 700,000 people during a single week. 

[I'm going to avoid a discussion on the legality of this experiment (it was, read the terms of service) and the ethics (definitely a gray area) and simply focus on the the experiment and its potential impact to retail.  Facebook is known for pushing boundaries, getting its hand slapped, then patiently waiting for society to catch up.  In many cases what was controversial five years ago has become mainstream today, either because Facebook waited or it actually influenced society.  But I digress.]

In general, those exposed to more positive posts in turn made more positive status updates.  And the same was true for the reverse.  But it was actually a tiny impact -- something on the order of one tenth of one percent.  Of course when applied to large group (like shoppers) this could have a meaningful impact.  Below is an explanation posted on Facebook by one of the study's authors:

So how might this impact the average retailer?  Retailers already monitor social media using Natural Language Processing to gauge brand sentiment.  This experiment indicates sentiment may be influenced indirectly by exposure to other unrelated posts.  In other words, get your customers in a good mood by posting LOL cats, then slip in an offer to buy your products.  On second thought, manipulating emotions is bound to backfire.  Let's just stick with great deals and superior customer service.

Wednesday Jun 11, 2014

In-Store Tracking Gets a Little Harder

Remember how Nordstrom was tracking shopper movements within their stores using the unique number, called a MAC, emitted by the WiFi radio in smartphones?  The phones didn't need to connect to the network, only have their WiFi enabled, as most people do by default.  They did this, presumably, to track shoppers' path to purchase and better understand traffic patterns.  Although there were signs explaining this at the entrances, people didn't like the notion of being tracked.  (Nevermind that there are cameras in the ceiling watching them.)  Nordstrom stopped the program.

To address this concern the Future of Privacy, a Washington think tank, created Smart Store Privacy, a do-not-track service that allows consumers to register their MAC address in much the same way people register their phone numbers in the national do-not-call list.  A group of companies agreed to respect consumers' wishes and ignore smartphones listed in the database.  The database includes Bluetooth identifiers as well.  Of course you could simply turn your bluetooth and WiFi off when shopping as well.

Most know that Apple prefers to use BLE beacons to contact and track smartphones within their stores.  This feature extends the typical online experience to also work in physical stores.  By identifying themselves, shoppers can expect a more tailored shopping experience much like what we've come to expect from Amazon's website, with product recommendations and offers that are (usually) relevant.

But the upcoming release of iOS8 is purported to have a new feature that randomizes the WiFi MAC address of smartphones during the "probing" phase.  That is, before connecting to the WiFi network, a random MAC number is used so as to keep the smartphone's real MAC address secret.  Unless you actually connect to the store's WiFi, they won't recognize the MAC address.

The details on this are still sketchy, but if the random MAC is consistent for a short period, retailers will still be able to track movements anonymously, but they won't recognize repeat visitors.  That may be sufficient for traffic analytics, but it will stymie target marketing.  In the case of marketing, using iBeacons with opt-in permission from consumers will be the way forward.

There is always a battle between utility and privacy, so I expect many more changes in this area.  Incidentally, if you'd like to see where beacons are being used this site tracks them around the world.


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