The Holy Grail of Advertising?

I came across this incredibly fascinating article in MIT Technology Review titled “What Facebook Knows”.

It’s about Facebook’s internal “Data Science Team” that spends its time figuring out what helpful, useful, interesting information can be gleaned from all the data Facebook has compiled about its 900+ million users.

Most people don’t truly know how much information Facebook has about them. Not only does FB have access to the information we post in our Facebook profiles and time lines, but also tracks our activity on the web through the websites we visit and apps we use.

And a lot of this tracking can be done even if we don’t click the Like button on the site or app we’re using.

Yes, there is certainly a scary Big Brother aspect to all of this, but that’s not what this post is about. The scientist in me is fascinated by what can be learned from all this data and how the Data Science Team is combining math, programming and social science to “mine our data for insights that they hope will advance Facebook’s business and social science as well.”

They’ve figured out some pretty interesting things already such as…

  • The whole “6 degrees of separation” idea is wrong. It’s actually 4.
  • Developing a “gross national happiness” index that calculates the overall mood of a country based on Facebook activity by measuring key words or phrases that indicate positive or negative emotions.
  • While the information we share is strongly influenced by our close friends, the information we’re exposed to is much more strongly influenced by the collection of the more numerous, distant contacts we have.

Some of what this team is trying to do is show that this data can be useful as, for example, an accurate and cheap way to track social trends (providing useful data to economists and other researchers).

But, at the end of the day, Facebook has to make money to please their shareholders so there are certainly marketing/advertising implications involved in what this team is researching.

As a marketer interested in the potential of Facebook advertising campaigns, there were a few sentences about halfway through the article that jumped off the screen at me…

“The most valuable online ads today are those displayed alongside certain Web searches, because the searchers are expressing precisely what they want. This is one reason why Google’s revenue is 10 times Facebook’s. But Facebook might eventually be able to guess what people want or don’t want even before they realize it.”

Being able to predict the products and services you might be interested in before you even realize you have a need for them would certainly be a game changer in the world of advertising.

Could you imagine…

  • Baby product ads showing up before you’re ready to tell the world you’re expecting?
  • Ads for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys showing up for people who an algorithm indicates are going through marital difficulties?
  • When your stress levels are starting to peak, ads for massage therapists, vacation packages or chocolates popping up when you’re online?

There are certainly risks to having ads being perceived as too invasive and Big Brotherish as Target found out when sending ads to expectant mothers in their second trimester.

But there’s no doubt that being able to target products and services to prospects based on what their behavior patterns indicate they’d be receptive to is an incredibly powerful opportunity for marketers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Do you think this would be the Holy Grail of advertising or Big Brother at its creepiest?


Image courtesy of Dave Malkoff