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Lessons From The OKCupid And Facebook Debacles


by Paras Chopra

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Article Highlights:

  • Consumers do not want to be guinea pigs, in any manner.
  • A/B testing exists to help marketers learn about user needs--not to invade privacy or create the feeling among consumers that they are somehow being manipulated.
  • Online consumers see through hokey marketing ploys.

Public outrage about dating Web site OKCupid experimenting on its users for the sake of researching its pairing algorithm illustrates the thin line companies tread when they violate users’ privacy in the name of marketing--from both an ethical and common-sense standpoint.

It boils down to a simple fact: Consumers do not want to be guinea pigs, in any manner. While it’s true that most digital brands and services perform tests to optimize elements (such as Web site copy, advertisements, and layout), doing so with a service that involves people and their relationships is tricky. It goes straight to the heart of that element of trust every consumer has when interacting with a brand.

Even the biggest of companies have crossed the line: Revelations about OKCupid’s activities came on the heels of news that Facebook manipulated items in users’ news feeds without their consent.  

A/B testing exists to help marketers learn about user needs--not to invade privacy or create the feeling among consumers that they are somehow being manipulated.  That means always keeping a happy balance between data gathering and user privacy.

Here are some factors to keep in mind:

• Don’t chase your users:  A sure way to spook potential customers is to be too aggressive in retargeting.  Marketers love retargeting largely because it works--retargeting display ads to consumers who have visited a Web site has been shown to make them 70 percent more likely to make a purchase, for example. Nonetheless, a little goes a long way. Don’t seek to fill in every last digital space that a consumer may see after visiting your site. And put mechanisms in in place to ensure that someone who has already purchased a product will not continue to be shown ads. Failing to do so will only irritate your target audience.

• Don’t post fake offers: Remember hating that sales guy at the health club who pressured you to join today because the offer would disappear tomorrow? Online consumers see through such hokey marketing ploys just as easily. Posting a fake “Offer Only Available for Next 24 hours” when you actually have this offer on an ongoing basis can leave a bad aftertaste. This tactic may increase conversions in the short term, but at the cost of long-term customer acquisition.

• Keep prices consistent for the same product: It’s also not cool to show users different prices on the Web for the exact same product. If some users find out that others are being offered a lower price for the same item than they are, they may create a fuss on social media or elsewhere. That doesn’t make your brand look good. If you are going to A/B test different price points, you should offer two products that differ slightly to justify the price differences. Similarly, if you are a travel vendor, you should never increase prices (e.g., for airline or hotel rooms) based on the knowledge of the visitor’s past interests.

• Don’t make users log in: This belongs more in the category of customer annoyances. As much as your company is eager to get each Web visitor’s personal email to build your list, you need to respect the user to make that decision for themselves. Requiring logins also leads to cart abandonments and can have a negative impact on conversions. 

Being honest and upfront with users, while also making life as easy for them as possible, goes a long way.

About Paras Chopra

Paras Chopra is CEO of VWO