Facebook Polls could be pretty useful

At the recent World Economic Forum, Facebook Global Markets Director Randi Zuckerberg demonstrated Facebook polls. This, accompanied by an interview in the Telegraph, has sent the blogosphere aflutter in two separate directions.

In one corner are those excited by the prospect of 120,000 responses in 20 minutes (as a question on Barack Obama’s stimulus plan received). In the other are those concerned with online privacy and civil liberties (Given the tone of this Comment is Free article on phorm, it is surely a matter of time before the Guardian whips up a fresh batch of hysteria on the matter. And this comes from a Guardian reader).

I’m in the former category. In limited situations, it has the potential to be a valuable tool.

This is something of an about-turn since my recent rant against online polls. However, within a limited sphere of usage I can see the value. If someone wants to quickly know “what”, then this seems like a valid option. If they want to know “why”, then they should look elsewhere.

What are Facebook polls?

If my understanding is correct, a Facebook Poll is a question that appears within one’s newsfeed – similar to a sponsored ad. The user can then answer or ignore the question.

Questions are targeted to a specific audience, and basic quotas on responses can be set. Facebook has since denied that it will use personal data for Facebook Polls, but I would think that this is just semantics. Behavioural data and interests may not be used, but the poll would be pretty useless if basic age, gender and location information wasn’t monitored.

Despite this recent chatter, it should be pointed out that Facebook Polls aren’t new. Ray Poynter ran an experiment during the London Mayoral elections, and it was only last month that they were put on hiatus. This merely marks a repackaging of an existing product.

Another necessary correction is the conflation of Facebook Polls and Engagement Ads. Engagement Ads are a separate product – namely advertising widgets that can be shared and commented upon. Jeremiah Owyang has a summary here.

What are the benefits of Facebook Polls?

The nature of Facebook offers several benefits to a polling tool

  • A captive audience regularly refreshing their news feed provides a fast response
  • Real-time response mechanism allows immediate analysis
  • Relative unobtrusiveness and simplicity could give a decent response rate
  • Scale of either large response, or decent response among a targeted niche (if permitted)
  • Traction among the public allows for decent tracking over time

What are the uncertainties surrounding Facebook Polls?

A rudimentary polling tool is bound to be limited. Areas that need to be explored include

  • How limited will the infrastructure be? Not only in types of question, but even character limits (Shouldn’t be a problem for Twitter users)
  • How attentive are the users? They are going to be multi-tasking and processing a great deal of information – how much thought will they put into an answer? (But in some cases, gut reaction is desired)
  • How representative will respondents be? Not only in terms of non-Facebook population, but also with the heavy user and participation bias within Facebook (Though present research panels are hardly a beacon of quality in this respect)
  • Will demographic info used for analysis be accurate? People are projecting a public persona and so may be tempted to lie on some matters. However, I cannot see age, gender or location being any more innaccurate than present survey panels
  • What sort of buy-in would it receive from the industry? There is little point using Facebook Polls if no-one trusts or uses them

What is the future of Facebook Polls?

How could Facebook Polls expand? Matt Rhodes is sceptical that this will evolve into a research community. I’m less so.

Poll users can be directed to a group or page, where questions surrounding a certain topic can be explored in more depth and with more nuance. They may not evolve into a full “community”, but if visitors can be persuaded to return then they will have some value. This evolution would also support a recommendation or sharing service whereby respondents can be recruited by friends – engagement that is part of the Facebook experience (though it would have to be handled better than the various Ninjas vs Zombies widgets).

Furthermore, if these people were to opt into sharing some of their personal information then a very rich understanding of behaviour and opinion could emerge. People are on Facebook to talk and procrastinate – we should try and utilise this state of mind.

Meanwhile, looking further ahead, Read Write Web ponders the introduction of a “sentiment engine”, whereby prevailing moods and attitudes can be judged through a contextual understanding of status updates.

This would be great if a robust analytic tool could be developed, but in the meantime it would be overcome by bored people proclaiming their hunger / tiredness / hangover.

Though unproven, I can see the potential in Facebook (re)launching this product, and it will be interesting to see how it develops.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenpoff/

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Simon… Thanks for really breaking this down into the benefits and drawbacks of the poll approach on Facebook. I think your take on it is right on – without fairly comprehensive tools for analysis, a representative sample and a general acceptance of the data among researchers at large organizations, it’s unlikely this tool will have much impact.

    I just blogged about this over on our blog (http://www.pluggedinco.com/blog), but think your analysis of the news is much more thorough 🙂

  2. Thanks Matt. I do wonder who the target market will be for this product – I imagine product/brand managers but then they would surely have more robust tools in place already…

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