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Jay I. SinhaDomino’s Pizza has cultivated 10 million Facebook followers. Target’s page has collected 20 million. And Nabisco’s Oreo cookie page exceeds 40 million Facebook likes.

Such large numbers demonstrate a shift toward social media marketing and the expanding role of commercial branding in today’s online world, according to Dr. Jay I. Sinha, an Associate Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

Sinha’s latest research publication, “The Risks and Rewards of Brand Personification Using Social Media,” which appeared in the Boston Globe and MIT Sloan Management Review, digs into social media’s role in rewriting the consumer-producer relationship for today’s top brands. More than 92 percent of marketers responded in 2014 that social media marketing is important for their businesses, and 80 percent indicated these efforts increase traffic to their websites, Sinha noted.

“Social media marketing is the new big thing,” Sinha said. “It allows a company to stay close to its customers, being responsive, engaging them, and evolving with them through time.”

Tweeting its core values or responding to Facebook comments about a new product gives a company a human-like presence, Sinha said. This personification, he added, deepens consumer loyalty and buyer-conversion rates, or the number of consumers making online purchases. So whether it’s an international company like Domino’s Pizza, or a hyper-local grocery store chain, photographs, hashtags, and followers are a part of the new normative advertising pattern.

“In the past, a satisfied customer typically told three other people, while a dissatisfied customer griped to 11 people,” Sinha said. “Nowadays, each has the potential to tell the entire world – by virtue of being on social media.

The globalization of online marketing, to Sinha, emphasizes the need for well-written, interesting and visually appealing content. He indicates Whole Foods’ strategy on Instagram that focuses on striking food photography with the use of no captions, while Target uses #tbt, or ThrowbackThursday, to promote its 1980s-inspired fashion line.

Sinha notes the line between trendy and offensive, however, can be a tipping point.

“Firms should not regard social media as the space where they can emulate private individuals and espouse extreme viewpoints, launch attacks against business rivals, or castigate those who post negative reviews,” he said. “This is off-putting and unprofessional.”

To diminish the chance for error, using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest as primary social media platforms is enough, Sinha indicated, as many users are engaged with just two or three of those sites. He also urged firms to cultivate the smartphone app market with which millennials, or those between the ages of 18 and 35, are engaged. YouTube, he continued, is a way to corner members of the baby-boomer generation who aren’t as engaged on Facebook or Twitter.

Expanding on social media brand personification, Sinha said he is currently researching the “culture-jacking” phenomenon, which refers to a company’s attachment of itself to a trending topic in order to increase followers. Companies’ successes with this tactic, Sinha noted, is not foolproof, as there are several documented missteps.

“All of this shows that companies need to use social media with proper judgment and planning, and steer clear of topics that may be remotely controversial,” Sinha said.

Photo of  Attendees listen to Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, one of many premier panelists at the Fox School’s Privacy in an Era of Big Data Workshop.
Attendees listen to Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, one of many premier panelists at the Fox School’s Privacy in an Era of Big Data Workshop.

Google “big data,” and the first search result returns the word, “dangerous.”

The irony of using a big data factory to discover the risks of its own data was not lost on researchers and experts attending the Privacy in an Era of Big Data workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted by the Fox School of Business and Temple University’s Big Data Institute.

“Big data” is loosely defined as the collection and analysis of large data sets of complex information. As the scope of collected data increases, there is a significant need for advanced analytic techniques and the development of new methods of investigation. Temple’s Big Data Institute was established to harness the full potential of big data and enable further research on the subject with an interdisciplinary approach by bringing together seven related research centers across the university and the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Co-founder of the Institute Dr. Paul A. Pavlou, Chief Research Officer and Associate Dean of Research, Doctoral Programs, and Strategic Initiatives, along with Dr. Sunil Wattal, Director of the Center on Web and Social Media Analytics and Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, were awarded a grant from the NSF to further their investigation into unexplored links between big data and privacy.

“This is a topic that’s on everyone’s minds, and we’re here to get some useful insight on it,” Wattal said.

The workshop, held April 22-23, was a part of a weeklong event to encourage big data research from industry, government, and academia on the future of big data and privacy. The goal of the workshop, Pavlou said, was “to create a forward-looking research agenda into the future of big data.”

A priority for attendees was establishing the balance of big data with privacy rights, in order to improve national security and further develop consumer marketing. Dr. Thomas Page, Technical Director for Core Infrastructure & Cloud Repositories at the National Security Agency, represented the government perspective on big data, with a keynote presentation.

“There’s a moral responsibility in this space. We’re doing this on behalf of the American people,” Page said.

Page called for a new focus when discussing big data. “Big Smart Data,” he said, avoids unnecessary or intrusive information from reaching analysts, and allows new public policy to be enacted that balances personal privacy and national security concerns.

Page’s keynote address raised concerns of a “zero sum game,” wherein consumers trade privacy for national security. Christina Peters, Chief Privacy Officer at IBM, noted that she believes the two are not equivalent. Citing instances of security breaches at Target and Home Depot, she indicated how a history of misuse or neglect has risked consumer information.

Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, discussed the trust contract held between consumers and big data collectors. He argued that big data factories have the most to lose. “Search engines have a lot more to lose than a human. When computers screw up they screw up big,” Varian said.

Google’s top search results for “how do I know” are: “if I’m pregnant,” “if I’m gay,” and “if I have AIDS,” all of which, Varian said, demonstrate Google’s desire to not only share a vast amount of information, but to also take seriously its responsibility as an online confidante.

“Search engines are the biggest privacy enhancers in the world. People won’t ask these questions to their lawyer, doctor, parents, or priest. This is the first time you can get this type of answer from a non-human,” said Varian, who also served as the featured keynote speaker at the Frederic Fox Lecture Series April 23, another event during Big Data Week.

Varian explained that the intended use of big data is to educate consumers on the difference between privacy and security. Since privacy is the restricted use of personal information, a responsibility of big data should be to protect the security of the data and manage the risks associated with personal data analytics.

A closing comment from the first day of the workshop was the idea that “big data is the new bacon,” as presented by Lael Bellamy, Chief Privacy Officer at The Weather Channel. Her support of improved data collection and consumer intelligence reinforced the notion that although big data is trending, it’s been around for a long time.

“It’s possible everyone can benefit from the Big Data revolution,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Dr. Rahul Telang.

A PhD student from Temple University’s Fox School of Business proved she can stand out in a crowd. Michelle Andrews received the Best Conference Paper Award at the 2014 American Marketing Association Summer Educator Conference Aug. 2 in San Francisco.

Andrews’ paper, titled, “Using Mobile Technology to Crowdsense,” employed crowdedness as an environmental factor that affects how people respond to mobile advertisements. The study for her research paper, which was co-authored by Xueming Luo, a Professor of Marketing in the Fox School’s Marketing and Supply Chain Management department, was conducted within subway trains.

In the context of a subway train, the measurement of crowdedness – a sometimes-abstract entity in research, Andrews remarks – becomes more precise.

“The reason we chose the subway train context was that it was unique,” said Andrews, who will earn her PhD in Marketing from the Fox School in Spring 2015. “During a subway commute, you’re surrounded by others in a public environment with little to do.”

Andrews, who signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding her research paper, could not specify which specific subway system she used for her research paper, but noted it was located in southeastern China, where, as Andrews pointed out, subways are mobile-equipped. That enabled Andrews and her co-authors to determine the number of mobile users within the specific dimensions of a subway train.

“We predicted crowdedness would increase immersion into mobile devices,” she explained. “We found that in congested trains, purchase rates were significantly higher than in uncongested ones.”

Andrews’ winning paper was co-authored by Zheng Fang, of China’s Sichuan University and Anindya Ghose, of New York University.

Also at the conference, Andrews’ research papers earned two further distinctions. The same paper that received the conference’s overall Best Paper Award also garnered the Best Track Paper Award in the Digital Marketing & Social Media track. Another of her research papers, titled “The Effectiveness of Cause Marketing” received the Best Track Paper Award in the Social Responsibility & Sustainability track.

“Michelle is so hard-working and innovative in her thinking for what’s coming next for the Marketing discipline, and the Best Conference Paper Award recognizes her for that,” Dr. Luo said. “Hopefully, this significant award will be influential, not only for our school but also for marketing on the whole, in demonstrating how to connect with consumers anytime, anywhere.”