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Don’t Ask If You’re Not Going To Listen

If you hang out with business people often enough, you’ll hear at least one conversation about when – and if – you should listen to your customers. The old wisdom used to be “the customer is always right.” The new wisdom was “customers are stupid and we know better than they do.” The current wisdom is, well, who the hell knows what to do with all that customer input.

Well, here’s a rule that seems simple to me: If you ask them what they want, you probably ought to listen. Especially if your company is hoping to make a living by attracting and retaining users – and as far as I can tell, 99.9% of the startups in this city are some sort of online community play that are hoping to either charge users for using, or sell those users to advertisers, or both. Okay, maybe only 98%.

If you are building such a business, then you know that your primary product – whether you sell it or just use it internally – is aggregated user data. (If you think it’s something else, you have problems.) Your primary market is advertisers. (Again, if you think it’s someone else, you have problems.) However, the only way to get any of that is to amass a mass of users and get them to stick with you, which probably means listening to what they have to say.

I have often been told that a user’s instinctive need for privacy precludes them giving you tons of user data. Then, I was listening to KUOW and they were interviewing folks from and and they were talking about user data. Users, it seems, were spending 20 minutes or so filling out complex user surveys in order to have “proprietary technology” deliver them potential mates. Needless to say, such complex data could be delivered to any number of people who would pay for it for a variety of reasons. It never occurred to me that online dating would be the ultimate research laboratory for how user data can be used to deliver a customized (ie, sticky) user experience that keeps your community engaged AND gives you tons of data that you can turn around and sell.

This I’ve got to see. I went to both sites, filled out complex user data forms (100% honestly with a fake name and no pictures) to see if they could deliver the perfect man for me. And therein lay a whole mess of lessons for all of us, that I will now promptly share with all of you, (along with more information about me than anyone really needs to know.)

The short version? 2 weeks in, they have still given me no reason to pay to join. They have delivered me more crappy matches than a weekend of frat parties. And they have completely discredited themselves in my eyes. This, my friends, is a cautionary tale, and not one about dating – it’s a cautionary tale about not listening to your customers.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m combining my experience with both sites into one…. The results have been remarkably similar, though the survey process was different for both.

1. Window Shopping Is Not Just For Main Street Browsing was fun. Turns out, there are loads of cute guys in Seattle (I already knew that.) So without asking me to pay, I could just look at pages and pages of guys and was perfectly happy. Once I realized that I could narrow my search to just guys who claim to be my type, I was there even longer. What’s better, I could save them and look only at the things (I mean guys) I liked, if I was procrastinating or something. The lessons:

* Good content matters – it increases both the click-through and the time on the site. And by tracking what users look at, you’re getting data. * The ability for a user to design their experience in real time matters. * Let users easily save the things that they want to save – whether it’s guys, shoes or articled – and they will return. They may even share.

2. You want me to pay you for what? I got a notification that some guy had sent me an email because he liked my profile. Woohoo! But wait, I clicked on the “see email” link and they want me to pay to see the email. Hmmm. Okay, I get that. So I thought I’d check him out and see if it was worth paying to read his words of adoration for me. But, they wouldn’t even let me see who emailed me. Now, why would I pay money if I don’t even know what I’m going to get? Really! The lessons:

* This is why crack dealers (successful entrepreneurs by most measures) give away free samples. Let your customers know what they will ACTUALLY get from you if they pay for your service. Give it to them free a few times and if they like it, they’ll pay for it. * Think about it this way – because shopping psychology is the same whether it’s shoes or services – would you walk into a shoe store and give them money without picking and trying on a pair just because you trust them to give you what you want? No.

3. I Told You I Hate Smokers In my attempt to have an absolutely genuine experience, I answered their surveys with brutal honesty. I cannot stand smokers, guys with long hair, any sort of organized religion and would not be interested in anyone under 40 or over 50. Further, I am a fitness buff and have some pretty good body art. I told them all that. I figured that they would listen. So imagine my surprise when they sent me an email with their top matches for me, and, no joke, the first one was an overweight 35 year-old Christian smoker with long hair who is turned off by tattoos. I kid you not. The lessons:

* When you tell your users you will give them something, and then miss the mark by a million miles, you make yourself look like an idiot, lose credibility and probably customers. It is way better to offer low expectations and exceed them than to promise the moon and not even get close. * If you are not able to offer the user what they ask for, it’s okay to say nothing. I know this goes against the wisdom that says you need to constantly remind your users that you’re there, but you don’t want to remind them that you’re stupid. So be careful. * User data is only useful if you use it. Obviously with dating sites there’s a pretty clear reason that they collect user data. What’s yours? Why are you collecting it and what do you really want it to do? Effective use of user data is inherently narrow – but there are a lot of deep / narrow markets out there – find them and fill them. (Or don’t use it at all.) 4. Ask Me What Really Matters To Me On a dating site, you know that the reason people are there is to find a real “match.” For pretty much everyone, that’s going to include sex. (I promise, I’ll connect this to business, and not in that way.) One site had no mention of it at all. The other allowed users to say how important it was to them, but not what kind of sex they liked, at all. So, you have a population of people looking for a love connection and they can’t tell you if they like of be “loved” by being tied up and spanked or by being cuddled and kissed. That’s ridiculous. Sex is one of those things that makes or breaks a relationship – which is what these sites are selling – and they don’t want to talk about it. I knew then and there that there was no way these sites could find a match for me because they weren’t willing to discuss the, um, hard details. The lessons:

* Do you know what really matters to your users? Are you afraid to ask them? If you don’t know, and don’t want to know, ask yourself seriously why you’re bothering. Now, more than ever, the web is full of crap. At this point, the only way to set yourself apart is to be honest, direct and willing to meet your users needs. (Wow, just like dating!) * Your users really don’t care what you want. I think that too many people start web sites and web businesses because they see a market need, want to fill it well enough to get bought, and so they design features in order to meet their own needs towards that end. But your users don’t care about your bottom line, and if they think that’s all you care about, they’ll not be using you for long. It’s about them, their needs, not you. * Every feature you design, page you put up, email you send out needs to be directly related to your user needs. Otherwise, save your time and money. You may think it’s cool, but they won’t care.

5. Why Are You Stalking Me? Since joining those sites, which I will now promptly unjoin, I have been getting at least 6 emails a day. Too many. The lessons:

* People are busy. As important as they are to you, you are not that important to them. Less is more. Quality is more important than quantity. * Every contact you make with a user is part of your brand. Refer to all the above points and make sure that you only speak when you have something ON TARGET to say, and do so in a way that is respectful of your users.

So I’m out. I wasn’t using them for their intended purpose anyway, but now I know that I wouldn’t. In two short weeks of off-target communications that did not deliver, they lost me. Not a great way to retain users. And they were promising something far better than the rest of us…..

However, there have been plenty of non-dating cautionary tales in this fair city about what happens when you forget who you users are, why they’re there and what they mean to you. But that’s another blog post. (One on what we can learn from failure. Oh Judy’s Book, why did you do me that way? I thought you were the greatest thing in the world.)


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