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Survey under the surface: interpreting the NCI/NELL/Mulley Communications Facebook eye-tracking study


It was reported in the Sunday Business Post, and it got a bit of attention elsewhere, so I’d like to introduce you to the most recent Irish research to look at Facebook. Entitled ‘Face the Facts: An eye-tracking study investigating how Irish users engage with advertising and media on Facebook’ and authored by Caroline Fox, Abi Reynolds, Stephan Weibelzahl and Javin Li at the National College of Ireland, on behalf of Mulley Communications.

At the outset, this is not published psychological research but a usability report, so this critique will inevitably be somewhat at a remove to what is normally reviewed here. Moreover, given that this study did not use representative sample (40 participants, selected via convenience sampling, mostly aged between 17 and 25), media reports extrapolating from its results, (e.g. that 75% of Irish Facebook users log on every day), are unfounded. It’s simply far too small a sample to be generalised to the population at large; besides, Facebook’s own statistics state that 50% of users log in every day – a much lower figure, underscoring the unrepresentative nature of the sample.

Nevertheless, and besides this being one of very few eye-tracking studies of Facebook (none of which have been published in scholarly journals though, I might add), it has thrown up some interesting data from a psychological perspective. Moreover, given the implicit purpose of the study, advertisers should also read on.

As I said, this is not a journal article: no literature review, no hypotheses, no peer-review, no discussion, no references etc. but it would represent a very good starting point for a B.A./B.Sc. or even M.Sc. research project, (there’s a hint for some of you!) because it throws up quite a lot of issues, which can only be answered by more in-depth research, but also, again, because of the nature of the study, there’s a business (marketing/advertising) edge to the subject matter which could make further research very lucrative.

The aim of the study was “to gain a better understanding of the habits users exhibit when engaging with advertising and media in Facebook” (Fox, Reynolds, Weibslezahl & Li, p. 8, 2010). What this basically amounted to was eye-tracking users when they were on Facebook, with particular interest in their viewing of advertisements. From my psychology research background, I have issues with the ‘Research objectives’ and the study that was carried out, simply because too many concepts/variables are mentioned and too few things are defined, so I’ll have to leave those to one side, because, again, this is a usability report, not a journal article.

In that respect, given that this report is ostensibly looking at how the advertisements on Facebook are ‘used’ – this being a usability report – with an eye-tracking study, it would be preferable to carry out a more in-depth study with fewer participants – particularly those who have actually clicked on Facebook ads before, or simply observing the naturalistic saccades and fixations of Facebook users while on the site, without giving task/activity protocols as was done here. Alternatively, given that the study is really stretching what a ‘usability report’ connotes, a much larger sample should have been used and an experiment (i.e. hypotheses!) conducted.

However, what’s done is done, and now that some data has been collected, there are some very interesting points. It’s worth bearing in mind, despite the criticisms that I’ve just given, that I do believe that this report has unearthed findings worthy of basing future studies upon – both in terms of research and marketing.

Now while Fox et al. (2010) did look at a lot of things, what I found most interesting was that:

users spend more time looking at adverts when on their Profile page, than when on their News Feed page

Now, they also found that users go to News Feed first, and that they spent most of their time there. But that’s not the interesting point.

If 71% of users looked at adverts while on their profile page, but only 31% while on the News Feed page

this would suggest that users are more conscious of advertisements on their Profile page, for whatever reason.

This is of critical importance. It doesn’t really matter that users spend less time here. I know that there are many problems with this study, but this figure alone – we don’t need to look for statistical significance, confidence intervals, within-groups differences, or any of that – 71% is a lot more than 31%.

But why?

The first explanation is from the data:

Users spend more time on the News Feed page than on their Profile Page. In other words, when on their own New Feed page, they have more than enough fresh information there, without looking at ads. Hence, their Profile page is simply a different page, so they are more likely to look around there.

The second explanation is from the context:

The most active traffic on Facebook is the New Feed page: it contains the updates from all Friends and other Pages. When they look at their own Profile page, it will only contain updates that they have made themselves, and things which other people have posted on their Wall, which they will have probably seen before, and which is obviously only a fraction of the News Feed that they are used to. Hence, because there is less information here, they look to the ads.

The third explanation is from psychology:

When using Facebook, and looking at other peoples’ pages, the page that users land on is the Profile page. Everyone knows this, and users implicitly know this about their own page. Hence, when a user looks at their own profile page, they are looking at the ‘face’ that they are presenting to the rest of Facebook. Obviously they are going to be interested in the advertisements that appear there, because those are the products/services that other people will associate with them.


The advertisements that anyone sees on Facebook reflect their own interests, not the interests of the person whose profile they are looking at. Hence, you can never control what products/services that I will associate you with if I view your profile page. The ads that you view on Facebook depend on your interests, not the interests of the person whose profile you are viewing. So if you look at my profile and see ads for gay monkey porn, that’s because you’re interested in gay monkey porn, not me!

But this is really important for advertising – because, if this research is right, and users are most interested in the ads that appear on their own Profile pages, but currently have no way of controlling what ads appear there – then clearly there is a niche waiting to be exploited. Or at least, a new revenue stream that Facebook have yet to consider. More research – both qualitatively, interviewing users about their deeper attitudes to ads, pages, products, services and their relationship to them; and quantitatively, empirically eye-tracking users while on the site – is warranted in this area.

The simple point is that the News Feed and Profile pages represent the inside/outside, back end/front end  – private/public – of the Facebook experience: it is to be expected that users will view them differently. Though more research is needed here, both Facebook and advertisers ought to consider the difference between users passively viewing advertisments, and actively being associated with them. Of course, user ‘like’ Fan Pages, which Fox et al. (2010) do mention, but that’s quite distinct from having advertising on your own Profile page. Anyway, one way or another, more research is needed!


Fox, C. Reynolds, A., Weibelzahl, S. & Li, J. (2010). Face the facts: An eye-tracking study investigating how Irish users engage with advertising and media on Facebook. Usability report, retreived June 30, 2010 from Dublin, Ireland: National College of Ireland/National E-Learning Laboratory [On behalf of Mulley Communications].

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