SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Imagine having to tell all your friends and neighbors that you like something before actually seeing it. That's the way some advertising is headed and E. Mitchell Church, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of computer science and his student researcher Samantha Passarello, are trying to determine why and if that is a profitable business concept.
The SRU researchers are using a $4,700 grant from the University's joint Faculty/Student Research Grants Program to support their "Mandatory Endorsement Solicitation in Online Social Networks" research project.
"With the rise of social network technologies, being 'well-liked' has become big business," Church said.
"We all know that companies compete for a variety of endorsements from users of online social network sites such as Facebook, which uses a 'Likes' button, Google+, which use 'thumbs' and Pinterest, which uses 'pins," among others," he said.
"The practical and monetary value of these endorsements is substantial. User endorsements get people talking about products and companies are trying to capitalize on that fact and make people 'pre-endorse' a product or service, before they have even sampled it," he said.
CHURCH"They do this by employing an unusual method, which we call 'like-gating,'" he said. "'Like gates' are virtual gateways that block users from viewing a company's social network content until these users have endorsed, or 'liked' the company," he said.
"These 'gates' are unusual from a marketing perspective for two reasons: First, they are a form of mandatory endorsement solicitation. In order to see any of the company's content, users are forced to endorse the company, and broadcast this endorsement publicly to other social network users. Second, like-gates solicit endorsements before customers have even had a chance to sample or browse available product offerings. Both of these characteristics of like-gates go against decades of research and practice around the way that companies usually solicit referrals and endorsements from customers. These factors make the study of like-gates important and timely," Church said.
"Our project will be one of the first to investigate this new social media phenomenon," he said.
The researchers are looking at some 250 companies, including Old Navy, Gerber, Nestle, NBC, Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, J.C. Penny, Ford and Toyota "and a lot of other big companies," Church said.
Passarello, an information technology and information systems major from North Huntingdon, said her interest was piqued by seeing "the multiple ways people and companies use Facebook. When I was recently forced to 'like' WPXI's Facebook page in order to vote in a contest, I questioned why that 'like' was so important to the station."
"I ended up 'liking' the page so I could vote, but I 'unliked' it immediately after," she said.
By participating in the research, "I hope to understand the basic concepts of what it takes to implement a research project. There is a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking that goes on behind the scenes, but I am able to apply what I learned in my classes to the project. I think research is important and I love learning and exploring new concepts," she said.
"Being involved in the research is affecting my other academic work in a great way. This project relates to a number of classes I am taking so I am able to apply concepts I learn in class to the project. It's interesting to see how what I learn in class can be used to solve real-world problems," she said.
"We're hoping to come to some conclusions about how mandatory endorsement solicitation affects both companies and consumers. I hope we can share our findings at a conference," Passarello said.
Church lets his partner keep him up-to-date on the particulars of Facebook's rapidly changing environment. "She keeps me up on the latest working of Facebook and other social media since she is among those who are on it on a regular basis," he said. "I have pretty much stepped back from social media."
"We began to think that this system of forced, pre-endorsements was flipping the referral-based business model on its head. It seems a bit strange to have to tell family and friends - those linked through the social network connection - that 'this is a reputable business before actually having access to the company," he said. Now the system works more like the old-television show 'Let's Make a Deal,' where the customer/player is not sure what is behind Door Number 3," Church said.
"We are collecting data to see how companies using these methods perform in the marketplace. We just want to know if this works or not," Church said.
"Not a lot of research about mandatory endorsement exists, so our study should gain some attention," Church said.
He said he has read that young people spend up to 90 percent of their Internet time on Facebook, which could mean that Facebook is actually becoming the Internet for all intents and purposes. "And that means the only chance for a business to make use of word-of-mouth advertising may be within Facebook sometime in the future."
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