Posted December 1, 2011 8:16 am by with 4 comments

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OK I ‘ll get the cynical and sarcastic part of this thought out of the way right out of the gate. Why on earth would anyone turn to Walmart to make decisions for what gifts to buy for your friends and family? Well, when you consider that the source of the information is your friends’ and family’s information on Facebook you can relax and think “Ok, well maybe this might work.”

Walmart has used the talent of one of its acquisitions, Kosmix, to develop @WalmartLabs which is their arm for putting together apps like this one called ShopyCat. All Things Digital reported

Wal-Mart has launched its first Facebook application that helps people buy better gifts for their friends.

The application, called Shopycat, makes product recommendations based on the items people have liked or talked about in their news feed.

It is not particularly flashy. The logo is a picture of a cat sticking its head out of a shopping bag. The tagline reads “the right gift every time.”

This is an interesting approach to taking social signals to get information that will help shape a decision by a customer. There are two questions that come up, at least for me. First, is about permissions. The article says

The application is available to Wal-Mart’s 10 million fans on Facebook if they give permission to install it.

OK, so if I were to give permission to install the app where is the permission by my friends for the app to scan their news feed come in? Am I able to give permission to an app to scan , scour and collect data on my friends without my friend opting in as well? Seems a bit presumptuous doesn’t it? My friends are my friends but I am not so sure that part of being a friend is allowing a large retailer access to your information just because I am too dense to really know what my “friend” might want as a gift? If I am missing something here please explain it to me (anyone at @WalmartLabs reading and / or listening?!?).

This is where Facebook and privacy gets a bit dicey. As soon as my information shows up in a friends’ feed (which is the only reason you post anything anyway, right?) have I then given up the right for that data to just stay between me and my friend? Is that information about me now fair game to anyone my friend has given permission to? A slippery slope indeed considering the latest rulings by the FTC as it relates to Facebook’s privacy practices.

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I admit that I could be playing the role of an online paranoid here but how else can an algorithm, which is all that Shopycat is, know ANYTHING about me unless there was some permission granted by someone? In this case, however, it’s not granted by me implicitly for this app but I suspect that deep in the recesses of the Facebook terms and conditions I have agreed to this kind of thing. This is why people are suspect of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook and advertisers in general.

The second area I wonder about is one that ATD’s Trciai Duryee points out in her piece

The technology also sometimes fails. When Harinarayan (of @Walmartlabs) viewed gift ideas for me, it recommended a number of Sony products. Months earlier, I liked Sony’s fan page in order to gather information for a story — not because of any deep admiration I had for the company’s products. An algorithm would have a hard time knowing that.

This kind of result speaks to the reliability of Facebook likes. I know of several occasions where I have done the same thing just to get some information. If I don’t go back and clean up by unliking the page then it appears as if I care about what’s there when it’s likely that after the initial need is met, I don’t.

Marketers need to be very cautious as to how much faith they place in the reliability of so-called “social signals” especially Facebook likes. One of the downsides of the ubiquitous nature of these likes is that it has watered down the meaning of the term “like” the same way that Facebook did with the word friend. Just because something is liked on Facebook doesn’t mean that it matters to the user at all, especially in the way that marketers might hope for.

So while this kind of experiment is interesting it also brings up many questions about the two things that marketers should be most concerned about: privacy and data reliability. Is there a perfect solution for business problems like this? Not now and there may never be. As all of this gets hashed out over time it is likely that we see and experience today will play out much differetnly in the future.

Your thoughts?

  • I could see this app being very inaccurate and people buying horrible gifts for their friends and family. I know that I’ve liked some things just to get a freebie, or share some FB love to people who have done the same for me. Does this mean if I like Victoria’s Secret, I will get a bra for Chrismas? LOL. I guess we’ll see after people use it and start blogging more about it with their feedback. Great post Frank 🙂

  • Cynthia Boris

    Amazon has (had) something like this. It was very accurate for some people, like my husband who is very clear about his interests on Facebook, but mine was all over the place. I just love the name – ShoppyCat! Points for cute. (Insert YouTube video of Amazed Cat)

  • Facebook is the popular social network shift and i think that it is best suitable for every type of gift ideas an will really be suitable for the people that mostly use facebook for different purpose

  • Oh, it might garner more false leads for me, since I have a habit of liking random things on FB. Why don’t they just make a sort of gift registry, it would be a much welcoming choice for all parties.