Many times, the best way to find out something about a group of people is to simply ask them. However, that isn’t always a surefire source for truth. The gap between what we do and what we say we do is wide enough to support entire industries.

For instance, the people who publicly tell you they back a particular candidate might vote for someone else behind the privacy curtain. We all like to be thought of as smart, progressive, dependable, creative, sexy, good listeners and caring. The temptation to bend the truth on a question is strong, even when we don’t know the questioner. We are just as prone to lie to the Gallup or Nielsen caller as we are to the woman across the street who can’t keep a secret.

That’s what has made the web a gold mine for companies who want to exploit the “Truth and Perception Gap.”

Asks versus Tasks

Websites are more than just a place to store media — they are interactive:

  • We track which website (or search) brought you here
  • We track which link you clicked
  • We track meta-data about which campaign brought you the link
  • We know your computer’s operating system
  • We know which browser you use
  • We know which screen resolution you have selected

… and that’s just for starters. SEO wizards can point to another four-dozen or so attributes about you they can divine without any additional sleuthing or cookie-abuse.

Once you’re actually here, we can measure your time on the site, which links you clicked internally, where you exited, and many other things of interest. We can also do A/B testing, where half of you see the page one way and half a different way, so we can figure out which layout or headline has more impact on driving you through the site.

All of these roll up into a bundle of best practices, and you’re taking part in these grand experiments without even realizing it.

Face to Face

This is the example. Don't click here.

I recently got this ad in the sidebar of my Facebook. It’s asking me about one of my friends.

Yes, I do in fact know Jay. We went to high school together, and I ran into him on a lunch hour about three weeks ago.

Do we talk on a regular basis? No.

Here’s the part that interests me: I haven’t commented on anything on Jay’s wall in quite some time, and I don’t recall him Liking or otherwise subscribing to any of my updates. So I’m not sure what Facebook is after here.

Obviously, the answer I give to this question will go into my EdgeRank algorithm. (EdgeRank is Facebook’s way of figuring out who to throw into your feed. The people that you share more “Edges” with in your life are likely more important to you — and will make the Facebook experience more “sticky.”)

So, what’s the problem here? It’s related to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: The act of observing disturbs the observed.

Double Think

I haven’t answered the question. I know how I would answer it, but I don’t know what Facebook will do with the information. I’m not against seeing more Jay in my timeline — but the EdgeRank algorithm would change for me in ways I might not like.

All of that adds up to a confused site visitor, which isn’t what you want at all. You want measurement and natural behavior to guide your decisions about how you shape your site.

If you ask your customers for feedback, be clear about what you are doing with it and how it will impact their experience.

If you measure your customers’ behaviors, be transparent about the fact that you are, but as opaque as possible about the process. You’ll get better results over time.

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About Ike Pigott

Ike Pigott

In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Simon J

    Ike, I think your last statement is quite interesting as you are suggesting that website owners tell their visitors that they are being tracked or part of an experiment but to make this participation virtually invisible.  Do you think its possible that, depending on your target demographic, people already know they are having stats recorded about the activity on the pages they visit? OR do you think it would be a total surprise and they would feel offended, cheated, violated? If they are asked if they’d like to participate before the participation are they not already participating anyway?!

  • http://www.san-diego-marketing.com/ San Diego Marketing

    Yeah, I agree. If a company wants to gain feedback, it should be as transparent and as clear as possible. In doing so, the collected data would be much more accurate and relevant.

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