Think you're in control? Think again. This week, OKCupid 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. (continued...)
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