Regardless of what you do in life you will have heard the infamous sentence “we care about our customers”. And if you attend startup competitions or are in the Angel/VC field, you most likely hear from each presenting company how much they care about their users. Then 3 slides later in their presentation they tell you all about how they are going to gamify their site and use different tech tricks (A/B is the current buzz word, soon followed by the pseudo drip marketing emails) to monetize the users.
Gamifying a user? Monetizing a user? That’s caring for the user?
Let’s step away from tech for a moment; how do we feel about these messages:
“Your call is important to us and will be billed 10 cents a minute, you are a valued customer, please hold on and the next representative will be with you in 9829103 minutes”
“Thank for your email, we value your feedback and will respond to you soon. This email is not monitored”
Of course, you may think that these only happen at big companies and that, in the tech field and especially in the startup world, companies are embracing their inner Google of doing no evil. You may even believe that you are immune to any tech-Jedi-mind trick and will never be (ab)used as a user. Allow me be the bearer of bad news. Manipulation has worked for centuries and if you’ve ever been the victim of a manipulator you know how painful the aftermath can be. Yet, while in the midst of being manipulated, you thought that all was good and fine. I often bring up “thinking fast and slow” as a must-read to see how simple it is to disrupt people’s beliefs.
In the online world, it’s even simpler to manipulate people’s behaviors to fuel certain outcomes. Who is doing it? Almost everyone. Some are doing it willingly such as airlines or any other sites doing “yield management” for example.
Some slightly unwillingly because they’ve read that AB testing or engagement email marketing were the right ways to “engage and retain” customers.
The problem is that if you build in tricks to hook users, you are no better than the drug dealer down the street who thinks it’s ok to sell crack to underage kids. Drug dealers make a lot of money so there is an incentive to lure. But is making our users addict the same as making them engaged? I sure hope not.
Let me quote 2 tweets from Kathy Sierra, someone who likes to build badass users, and has seen the negative consequences of “gamifying” the users the wrong way.
If we *really* cared about our users we'd take all the persuasive/manipulation tricks (intermittent var rewards, etc.) and do the OPPOSITE
— Seriouspony (@seriouspony) September 18, 2013
It’s mesmerizing how companies focus tons of money on SEO, landing page optimization, AB testing…and yet a few months later wonder why their churn rate is so high. Incubators + VC play a big role in this scam because the main question startups hear is not how much revenue is coming in but rather what the users’ growth rate is. This puts pressure on companies to hook the user in using all means possible to fuel Growth Hacking. Here is a great article on the perverse side of Growth Hacking from Des Traynor.
What if the only relevant metric was the number of customers you gained from referrals from current customers…without any compensation offered? Would that change how you “cater to” and “engage” your users? Of course it would!
Take a second, which products would you recommend right now and put our credibility on the line for? Just looking at the software I am using on a daily basis, besides SmartNotify, the ones I would recommend in a heartbeat are Balsamiq and Stripe. And to make it clear, I do not make a dime from recommending them! From a pure website standpoint (not software product) it’d be tested.com and again, it’s not like the Mythbusters team send me freebies for saying this in a blog.
I recommend these products because they are really good, help my business, and do not try to waste my time with “branding” experience.
If we *really* cared about our users we would try to help them spend *less* time "engaging" with our site.
— Seriouspony (@seriouspony) September 18, 2013
This could not be truer and once again points to the peril of false metrics used to assess success (or potential for success).
Looking at our software, I have no desire for our current customers to “engage with our site”, I’d rather they spend their time with the software because the more they use it, the more they are willing to pay for it and the more likely they are to recommend us to their friends. Revenue trumps site’s visits or Klout score!
So to Kathy’s point, if people use your software all the time, and talk about it to others, it does not matter how much they engage with the site. Of course the danger is to once again fall back on tricks to get them to use the software (remember, gamification can be used for good or evil!)
Think of it this way: If you have to ask a 3 year old (or dolphin, or horse –yep done that too!) to do something you have 3 options: you can bribe, you can threaten, or you can help them find their path.
All 3 will work in the moment. The first 2 will fail long-term even though they can be rationalized in the moment, the 3rd one is the long-term path but is by far the hardest one and the results are not automatic.
Technology should be about solving a problem not creating addictions. Right now, most software and sites are creating addictions and the rise of gamification may not alleviate the problem (though it could help solve it). So here is a challenge: Will a few leaders dare standup and truly help customers?
What if we had a site with a “good behavior” chart to adhere to? I’d love to sign up our software, I am sure others would as well, so why don’t we get started and be part of the solution rather than the problem.
Would you join? You can comments here or reach out on Twitter @pyramedium