Case Study: The Entertainment Technology Center @ USC Puts Facebook under a Microscope

The Situation

The Entertainment Technology Center @ USC (ETC@USC) brings together next-generation consumers and top entertainment, technology, and electronics companies to ascertain the impact of new technology on the consumer.  The ETC’s goal is to better understand how consumers are currently using technology and how best to reach these users.

Through its “Digital Feedback Series,” the ETC@USC interviews 20-30 college students each week to provide data to the entertainment technology industry regarding trends among next-generation consumers. This research has proven to be an extremely valuable resource to ETC-member companies and has helped to shape their technology strategies. Recent events surrounding a popular social networking site illustrate how the Digital Feedback Series tracks these consumer trends months before they are apparent to the market.  

During the summer of 2007, Facebook, the wildly popular social networking site that took students and then the world by storm, began to allow users to make substantial page format changes. An ever-increasing library of applications gave consumers flexibility to fill their profiles and other pages with content and widgets that spoke to them. Marketers, too, jumped at the opportunity to use Facebook applications and advertisements as a way to reach younger consumers.   

At this same time, because of Facebook's heavy usage by young consumers, many ETC-member companies were beginning to market their products and services on Facebook and were also expanding social networking capabilities on their own sites. With its close ties to next-generation consumers (i.e., students at USC), researchers at ETC@USC’s Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab (AACL) started a roundtable discussion with students and with ETC@USC sponsors regarding Facebook and to discuss prevailing attitudes on social networking. ETC’s consumer research found that the power and plethora of applications came at the cost of detracting from the simplicity and organization that made Facebook wildly popular. 

An infinite number of applications resulted in crowded user pages, making the site less appealing to its previously loyal fan base. As marketers rushed to use Facebook to advertise their wares and reach millions, site loyalists decried that the community was “losing its uniqueness and becoming too similar to MySpace.” Young consumers who felt that Facebook was “theirs” complained that it was becoming too commercial and was at risk of losing its “cool” factor.

Students all agreed that Facebook had slowly become “overly concerned about marketing” and that it was “losing its ability to connect with its core audience.” Nearly all of the interviewees suggested that Facebook should find a better way to separate information about users from applications and marketing messages, to allow the primary purpose of the social site to remain true to its core: connecting people.

ETC’s Digital Feedback Series, delivered to ETC members, highlighted the issues with Facebook and the potential backlash that was brewing. Thanks to ETC’s consumer research, member companies were able to see this coming long before Facebook made any public comments about it.  As a result, ETC-member companies were able to make changes to the social networking capabilities on their own Web sites, improving the consumer experience and enhancing their communities' sense of ownership. They were also able to prepare for the backlash against Facebook and anticipate the changes that would be implemented to that site—thereby modifying their marketing messages in the short-term and planning ways to reach consumers in potential future layouts.  

Facebook ultimately announced and implemented a re-design, relegating applications and the bulk of marketing opportunities to separate “tabs” on a user’s page—a path that ETC discussed with its member companies as a potential solution long before Facebook addressed the concerns or implemented changes.


The ETC@USC started receiving a large amount of complaints from Facebook users about the clutter in October 2007, a full six months before Facebook announced changes to their site, which addressed these problems in March 2008.


The Results

With direct access to today’s digital content users, ETC@USC is able to provide a voice to the users and direct this feedback to the decision makers of today’s digital content and technology.  Using this information, ETC’s member companies are able to make informed decisions that help them compete in today’s aggressive marketplace. Facebook currently has implemented a system of tabs, making it easier for users to simply connect with friends. This story is an example of how the AACL and the Anytime/Anywhere Consumer Research helped ETC- member companies keep their finger on the pulse of young consumers and track leading-edge indicators before they were known to the rest of the world.

The latest round of feedback is now echoing the sentiment that Facebook is “back on track.”  And ETC-member companies are ahead of the curve on using Facebook and Facebook-like features as a way to reach next-generation consumers.

This case study was written by KC Blake,

director of business development for The EntertainmentTechnologyCenter @USC.