Data Stories: Annicka Campbell on the Digital Love Project

While I was perusing social data proposals for SXSW panels, I came across the Digital Love Project submission. “The Digital Love Project is a study of the full life cycle of romantic partnerships through ethnographic analysis of digital-social picture and video sharing. Through review of thousands of visual-social data points – from first glance to ultimately tying the knot – we observe trends about romantic partnerships that change the way we think about driving relevance.” I thought this would make a great Data Story, so I reached out to one of the researchers, Annicka Campbell of SapientNitro, for an interview. 

1. What was the genesis of deciding to do the Digital Love Project?

My co-author Melissa Read and I both have backgrounds in the social sciences – I was trained as an anthropologist, and Melissa has a PhD in digital marketing psychology. We’re both fascinated by the behavioral implications of social media, and so a few months ago we decided to embark on an ethnographic analysis of romantic partnerships as expressed through social. Our theory was that our findings would illuminate new ways for marketers to build more meaningful relationships and experiences for consumers online. It’s been a pretty fun (and often funny) experience, and we’re hoping that this combination of marketing insight and humor could translate really well for SXSW Interactive attendees.

Annicka Campbell of the Digital Love Project

Annicka Campbell of the Digital Love Project

2. How has displaying relationships on social media changed how people behave?

Great question. Since the term ‘relationship’ is so broad, we’ve focused on analyzing people in serious romantic relationships. We found that the relationship sharing process has become somewhat standardized; we identified a set of relationship milestones that couples are almost expected to share in social. This could mean posting joint vlogs or “selfies,” crowdsourcing engagement proposals, or having wedding attendees post with a customized hashtag. We’ve even seen instances of people updating their Facebook relationship statuses at the alter, which is obviously on the far end of the spectrum. Call them the digital rules of engagement, perhaps. We actually think that these behaviors are making romantic relationships more interactive and collaborative than ever before. Of course, there can be negative implications of this behavior, as well.

3. What social media publishers get the most love from those in love? What channels are people using to display their love?

This is such a great question. What we’ve found is that it often hinges on age – age of those in-love, and the age of the relationship. For teenagers, tools like Tumblr and Facebook provide a very public space to flirt and date in the passive presence of their friends, which I think is really important at that age. What really surprised us is that this is also true for more mature people.

Right now, we’re really focusing on the impact of geo-location in romantic relationships in our analysis. A few years ago I met an ex-boyfriend through Twitter’s “Nearby Tweets” feature. It was really convenient, initially, because he lived across the street from me! Of course, when we broke up, the geolocation API haunted me every time I left my apartment (at least for a few weeks).

Melissa Read  of the Digital Love Project

Melissa Read (Ph.D) of the Digital Love Project

4. By studying Facebook relationship changes, researchers were able to find out that breakups spiked highest around the holidays. What are some of the interesting takeaways you’ve learned about relationships by studying them online?

I loved the findings of David McCandless and Lee Byron’s project – and of course, how beautifully those findings were visualized. Some of what we’ve found is similar, particularly during wedding season, back-to-school season, and spring break.

We also found that social media is being used a feedback tool for people in relationships. This might mean instagramming a photo of a dinner cooked together as a way to express appreciation to them. Conversely, this could also mean using Facebook to give negative feedback to your significant other. I’m fascinated by the way some couples use social media tools like Tumblr as sort of a ‘relationship backchannel’ where they document and discuss the life they share together, with both their online and offlline friends. I think that our long national obsession with the negative effects of oversharing and narcissism online is passing. We increasingly view social media as tools to grow meaningful relationships, and perhaps even contribute something of value to our culture. Just look at Facebook introducing a same-sex marriage status option a few months ago.

5. What do you want people to take away from what you learned, especially marketers? How do marketers reach in-love couples besides targeting wedding ads at the newly engaged?

We’ve found that there are very tactical takeaways for marketers as it relates to engaged couples. As the economy continues to improve, we’ve seen that the wedding industry has really rebounded, as well – we spend $74 billion dollars per year on weddings, and that fact alone has obvious implications for marketers within that industry. We’re seeing event marketers using Pinterest to drive sales, planners using tools like Evernote to make the planning process more collaborative, and photographers incorporating Instagram into their toolkit.

Again, the tactical implications for that industry are interesting, but we’re trying to think even bigger. The idea that social media are being used as to establish, build and optimize romantic relationships in new and innovative ways – well, switch out “romantic relationships” with “consumer-brand relationships” and we have the beginning of a really interesting discussion

Footnote: Melissa and I would like to thank the members of the SapientNitro Marketing Strategy and Analysis Internship program for their significant contributions to this research program

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