Does Facebook want to be a public utility?

August 4, 2010

“When I say utility, I mean we are trying to provide people with utility. Our goal was never to build something cool. It was to build something useful.” – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO


In the wake of Facebook’s recent privacy setting change debacle and last week’s public outing of 1/5 of FB’s user info by a well known hacker, there is a question that needs to be addressed that will have a profound effect on the future of the company:

Does Facebook want to be a consumer-based company or a public utility?

Facebook - the public utility

In its headlong rush for growth and aggressive goals for “opening up” user information for use by its advertisers, it is evident that Facebook put aside the needs of its users and their concerns for privacy.  A recent poll shows that a full 80% of Facebook users are concerned about the privacy of their personal information on the site.  But what is even more telling is that polls prior to the introduction of the confusing changes in privacy settings last May showed that a majority of users already had these concerns.

Rather than enacting policies and making statements to address these concerns, Zuckerberg seemed to do an about-face from his past statements about maintaining strict controls over the privacy of its users’ information.  Back in January 2010 he said:

“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

This seems like a particularly naive statement: where is the data to back up his idea that “social norms” dictate an opening up of personal information to be shared by all?  Independent survey data certainly did not support it.  Zuckerberg’s recent statements sound a lot like he stopped thinking about the company as a choice for consumers.  Instead, he has taken on the mindset of an 80s-era public utility CEO: we will decide what is best for our users unless and until the government steps in and regulates us.

As a user experience practitioner it is hard for me to accept that those updated user settings were vigorously tested (see this excellent chart created by The New York Times showing FB’s 170 privacy options).  A skeptic might even say that they were pretested to make sure that they were as confusing as possible to the average user.

Still, Facebook provides an incredibly powerful experience for many users (myself included) and its user base continues to grow, just passing the half billion mark. It is understandable that the company needs to increase its revenue from advertisers to fulfill its business model and reach profitability.  The question is, can the company continue on this same path without the full trust of its users or will it be bested by another technology – maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

The answer to this question is inextricably tied with the first one I posed at the beginning of this post. The future success of Facebook will be highly dependent on whether Zuckerberg and co. are able to demonstrate that their users come first and advertisers second. Some suggestions:

Test and re-test: There is a way to set up privacy settings that can satisfy both users and the needs of advertisers.  The only way to get there is to do user testing across a broad range of user personas, including those based on attitudes re: “trust.”

Hit the road: Zuckerberg should communicate to the world beyond his FB page posts (yes, old media still works – why else write an op-ed for The Washington Post?) and speak directly with users about the company’s goals for the future and its plans for securing users’ data.

Be patient: the company is sitting on a goldmine of information that can be beneficial to users in discovering cool stuff and allow advertisers to reach their target users more effectively.  But it may take some time to work out a system that will please everyone.

2010 may be remembered as the year Facebook and its young CEO grew up.  Or it could be remembered as the beginning of the end.  Only its users will decide.

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Reasons to be grateful: “random acts of generosity” for ecommerce

June 22, 2009

Interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about Hyatt’s new “random acts of generosity” marketing approach:  by offering their guests random freebies like free massages and drinks during their stay, Hyatt hopes to win over grateful customers and keep them loyal.  From the article …

Its even better to give ...Jeff Zidell, the vice president who oversees Hyatt’s Gold Passport program, underscores the importance of surprise — both that the favors are “unexpected” and that there’s no discernible pattern to which customers will get them.  The hope seems to be that these grateful customers will reward the chain with future business and also spread positive word of mouth.”

Building generosity into ecommerce

Companies building online interfaces for e-commerce should take note:  inserting seemingly random acts of generosity into the online experience could add up to big wins in terms of enhanced user experience.  Some of the ways companies can do this might include:

  • Save some “specials” or “giveaways” for later in the shopping process, perhaps during check out rather than promoting them up-front.  Specials might include price off or free shipping, a discount off of an additional item, etc.
  • A free coupon for their next order inserted into the package or even a free (low cost) item included right in the box.  Sort of like getting a “free” prize in the Cracker Jacks box, only you weren’t expecting it.
  • A follow up email after the purchase of a high ticket item with a generous offer attached.
  • Random “notes of kindness” sent via email to loyal customers with a coupon offer attached – even if it isn’t attached to a particular sale.

As Hyatt and the researchers that have studied the role of gratitude as it relates to customer loyalty have  discovered, customers like it when companies offer them an unexpected benefit.  And these random acts can add up to big benefits for your company at a time when customers have less money to spend and more places to spend it.



Capturing the spirit of Web 2.0

June 8, 2009

The new world order?

As I head off to this year’s national UPA (Usability Professionals Association) conference in Portland, I got to thinking about all of the hype around Web 2.0 and how it is changing EVERYTHING.

Image from tangyslice.com

Image from tangyslice.com

As the above tag cloud illustrates, Web 2.0 can be defined in a number of ways and can be pretty confusing to the uninitiated. However, one thing is for sure: if you are a marketer and you haven’t embraced the idea of technologies that support customer collaboration, sharing, and control using so-called “social media” then you are in the dark ages.  Right?

Sure, you say, that’s fine for those cool new music sites and iPhone apps but what if I am selling shipping services, heart valves, or cupcakes, what then? I can set up a company or brand Facebook page, allow customers to digg a page on my website, or send them Tweets about new stuff we’re doing. But is that really taking advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer? And, what if my customers are reluctant to participate in these new social media?

Choosing a Web 2.0 strategy

One of the pitfalls of trying to keep up with this new world order is to be too reactive.  Companies want to stay competitive and may be attracted to some of these new tools or services and then try to fit them into a vague strategy that demands Web 2.0 type of interaction with customers. But which tools?  And what do customers really want?

Now, which ones should I pick?

Now, which ones should I pick?

The problem with this “follow the wave” approach is that you may be spending money on stuff that nobody cares about or that just isn’t a good fit for your company.

Whether you are already fully invested in Web 2.0 or just getting started, here are some suggestions for meeting the challenges of the Web 2.0 world:

1) First define your brand: Recognize that your customers still have the same needs they had before – i.e., they want to be listened to and treated well. Choose any new services or tools based on this simple premise and keep coming back to it. Ask yourself: does this cool new (tool, service, etc.) support great customer experiences and my vision for my brand?  If not, then maybe it’s not right for you.

2) Give and take: Provide a feedback loop that will bring you good information about how your customers are feeling about you and that makes customers feel as though you care about them. Don’t give them the tools for communication/collaboration and just sit back and watch. Stay in touch.

3) Build the spirit and sensibility of Web 2.0 into the online experience: Although your customers still have the same basic needs, that doesn’t mean their expectations haven’t changed.  Web 2.0 has raised the bar re: customer expectations of the quality of the online experience.

Use “polite interfaces” and/or “adaptive interfaces” that speak to your users in real life language and give your website and your brand some personality. Provide a level of personalization that creates real value. Even if you don’t offer popular Web 2.0 tools, you can create pleasurable and meaningful experiences for your online users in other ways that don’t require a large investment (I’ll go into more detail about this in a future post).

4) Learn from your mistakes: Don’t be content with the status quo. There is going to be something new right around the corner that your customers might want. If participation rates slump for a particular tool, move on. Be willing to adjust as technology and customer desires change.

5) Do research: William Goldman’s famous quote about the entertainment industry is relevant here:  “nobody knows anything.”  Don’t assume that your competitors have this thing all figured out.  The only real way of knowing  if you’re making the right decisions is to do research.

Once you embrace the spirit of Web 2.0 there are a number of ways of collecting and analyzing information that can provide insight and are cost effective.


Letter to GM: it’s time to get serious about the user experience

December 3, 2008

 
Rick Wagoner
General Motors
300 Renaissance Center
Detroit, MI 48265

cc: Allan Mullally, CEO Ford; Robert Nardelli, CEO Chrysler

Dear Mr. Wagoner,

By now you are probably tired of hearing every so called “expert” who has studied, analyzed or written about the auto industry — or simply driven a car — give you advice on how to survive this recent crisis, but I just wanted to tell you one more thing.  Like the advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: “Plastics” my advice can be summed up in a word (okay, two words): “user experience.”

As you struggle to consolidate your brands, close factories and dealerships and figure out a way to continue operations before you run out of cash I urge you, no, I beg you – please do not forget to invest in satisfying your customers’ experiences. 

Your recent decision, along with your esteemed colleagues at Ford and Chrysler, to fly your private jets to Washington to ask American taxpayers to fork over billions to help you continue operations not only set the wrong tone, it is indicative of your company’s inability to understand the emotional needs of your customers and those that left the fold years ago to buy from your European and Japanese competitiors.

Having worked on advertising campaigns for a couple of automakers (US and Japanese) over the years I have some sympathy for both you and your dealer network in these trying times; I know how difficult it is to research, manufacture, market and sell products that have a long product development cycle.  However, the experience also provided me with keen insight into how customers are often left out of the process.  Going forward, here are a few suggestions that I hope you will consider:

  1. Hire a ‘Chief Experience Officer’ immediately: this would be the senior executive responsible for understanding customer experiences across all communication touchpoints among all of your audiences.  Make sure this person reports directly to your CEO.  And, give him/her veto power over dumb decisions (like flying private jets to important public meetings or killing popular programs while ignoring your fan base).
  2. Keep us in the loop: stay in touch with customers over the next year or two about what your plans are, even if it means having to tell us bad news.  If there’s going to be pain, own up to it.  You won’t be fooling anyone by communicating via the typical corporate-speak – or worse – by giving us the silent treatment.  Two-way communication has to be part of the new GM paradigm.  Which leads to …
  3. Be a good listener:  don’t rely solely on your research department for insights.  Put someone in charge of reading blogs, emails and snail mail from customers that has the ear of your CEO.  Keeping an ear to the ground while putting your nose to the grind stone is difficult, but an absolute job requirement in this new economy. And blaming the press for the public’s “misperceptions” about GM’s lineup of fuel efficient cars (as your Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has done) isn’t going to cut it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to look overseas: Your brand Opel is a well respected name throughout Europe.  Right now Saturn is the only division that has announced plans for using the Opel platform (the 2010 Saturn Aura is essentially the Opel Insignia) – but ask 100 people on the street and I’ll bet you’ll have trouble finding 1 person that might know about it.  With Saturn going away, don’t lose sight of Opel for helping you create cars in the US with some European sensibility and style.
  5. Do something fun that surprises people: when was the last time someone beyond the gear-head crowd thought “Wow, GM gets it.  They know how to reach me by doing something fun?”  Think Mini Cooper, and the VW Beetle.  Fun is the intangible gift that keeps on giving and can create a positive halo acrosss all of your models.  And don’t say “Chevy HHR.”  The 60’s was Detroit’s heyday for youthful, fun design, not the 50’s.  Some ideas: how about a US version of the ’66 Vauxhall XVR or an updated 60’s era Opel GT? Or what about making the Chevy Volt fuel efficient, fun to drive and affordable?
  6. Walk the walk (don’t just talk the talk): When you introduced Saturn to the world back in 1990, you promised a “different kind of company, a different kind of car” and really tried to create a new way to approach the customer.  Now it looks like you will be closing or “consolidating” the Saturn brand.  What happened?  You wrote the words but forget the music.  You and your predecessors gave up on Saturn’s mission after only four years  by making the division just another GM brand and failed to provide the kind of experiences — and cars — that could compete effectively with the Japanese.  

If you start to rebuild your company and your product line from the bottom up (i.e., putting the customer first) I’m confident that you can become a leader again in cars, not just trucks.  But, I’m already bracing myself for the slogan “A new GM” and the multi-million dollar ad budget that will go along with it.  Don’t make the mistake that Microsoft is making with Vista.  Why not demonstrate the change and trust the customer to create the label this time?


Online behavioral tracking at a crossroads: will companies do the right thing?

April 14, 2008

There are two new vendor systems being introduced in the U.S. that will significantly enhance the type of information that will be made available to advertisers regarding the Web navigation and search behavior of users. 

(Nice place to visit but do you really want to answer questions there?) 

NebuAd and Phorm, are promising the first “consumer-centric behavioral targeting network.”  If their business model looks promising, expect to see similar systems put in place soon by old standbys like DoubleClick as well.  Essentially, these firms will be working with ISPs to track sites visited and searches performed by their customers and provide this information to advertisers in order for them to customize their ad pitches accordingly.

While these firms are poised to deliver the kind of contextual advertising experience long promised by the interactive properties of the Web, they are entering into some very dangerous territory when it comes to compromising the privacy of its users.  According to The New York Times, at least one of these firms, NebuAd, is being cagey about what and how it is going to alert the people it is monitoring, leaving it up to the individual ISPs to alert their users.  NebuAd has also so far refused to share information about its ISP partnerships.

Whatever side you might be on re: the privacy issues and relative merits of the different technologies used by these companies, their failure to act in a responsible way should be cause for concern: if these firms drop the ball on effectively notifying users they may be shooting themselves — and their advertising clients — in the foot.  And the wounds could be deep.

Already Phorm is under fire from advocacy groups in the UK for behaving like big brother.  Here is an example of what a viral video campaign could do to set off alarms in the U.S.:

There have been too many instances in which the failure of an industry to police itself of potential abuses (see our current mortgage crisis) has resulted in serious blowback from consumer groups and the general public.  These behavioral tracking firms, which are currently flying under the radar for the most part, may be in for some serious heat if they don’t take pains to police themselves.  This means coming up with a workable system for notifying Web users and providing them with a simple way for them to opt out of having their online behavior tracked (what some ad executives are calling “unavoidable notice”).

Rather than each company coming up with its own rules for disclosure, they should be establishing a consistent system with the help of a reputable third party non-profit oversight firm, similar to what Icann does with the contentious issue of Internet addresses. 

The NAI (Network Advertising Initiative), made up of several companies with interests in the online ad space, including Google, AOL and Yahoo, has committed itself to self-regulation of online data mining practices.  However, so far their consumer protections  don’t appear to go far enough, especially around the definition of “Robust Notice.”  The problem may be that they have too much of an interest in making these types of systems work to provide truly enforceable oversight.

Without stricter oversight, these firms and their advertising clients may find one of their worst nightmares coming true: sitting in Congressional hearings and having to answer questions to House members that barely understand how to send email, let alone the difference between a “cookie” and Internet protocol addresses (two of the ways that these companies are tracking information).

This should be enough of a disincentive for these firms to act now.  Advertisers, who will likely be an easy target if any potential abuses of this information become widely known, would do well to help pay for oversight if the tracking firms are unwilling to foot the bill.

Additional video:
Behavioral targeting 101 with Darren Johnson:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=PTyHM0SvAK8&feature=related 


It’s not that you’re painting the wrong picture, it’s the frame

April 11, 2008

I’ve been doing some research for an article I’m writing about the importance of breaking down the barriers that exist between user experience practitioners and marketing researchers, and I’ve come to  an important realization. 

As much as the experts rail on about the importance of making “customer experience” a core competency within organizations, things are not going to change until the stakeholders force a change in the “frame.”  

I’m not talking about HTML frames.  I’m talking about frames as they are used in langauge.  According to George Lakoff, professor of Linguistics at UCLA, Berkeley and founder of the the Rockridge Institute,

“a frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking.”  

Rakoff goes on to say …

“reframing is telling the truth as we see it – telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation. “

Some examples that Republicans have used to reframe issues in their favor (with the help of the much maligned GOP researcher Frank Luntz) include:

Old                                       New
Tax cut                                 Tax relief
Estate tax                             Death tax
Global warming                    Climate change
Logging/Clear cutting          Healthy forests initiative

Although Lakoff’s and his progressive institute’s main concerns are the framing of political language, particularly that used by Democrats to counter the Republican successes of the past eight years, framing can be used by anyone to score points for their side. 

Like the Democrats, most of the folks on “usability” or development teams have been using the wrong language to make their case, ignoring the power of framing when they speak to management.  When it comes time to ask for funds for “usability testing,” managers from the various business units who otherwise claim dedication to “usability” often come up short when it’s time to commit dollars.

I have a suggestion: instead of asking to fund “usability,” practitioners should reframe the issue by asking managers to support and enhance the ongoing satisfaction of the customer experience.  If a product developer asked a manager in one of big three car companies for money to improve the stabilization system in their best selling car in order to improve the driving experience wouldn’t she get the funds?  When film directors ask producers for more money to blow stuff up in their movies to improve the viewing experience don’t they usually get it? 

Those involved in creating online customer experiences have to start talking about the funding of their goals in broader terms.  They have to emphasize the importance of creating satisfying customer experience across all touch points with their customer, with the online experience as an essential piece that helps drive a stronger relationship with the brand.  And, as with successes seen in the political realm, this reframing has to be consistent and persistent.   That means using this new language in every piece of written communication and every interaction with stakeholders.

Reframing the issue in this way may go a long way to increased understanding of the importance of creating usable and persuasive interfaces for customers.

View the excellent PBS “Persuaders” series:  a must see for anyone communicating within organizations …
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/view/

George Lakoff’s lecture on “Moral Politics” and language targeted to values rather than issues:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=5f9R9MtkpqM