The Dangers of Messing With Expectations

Sure, you have numbers to hit with your various tech initiatives, but reaching your goals shouldn't mean doing things that actively annoy or deceive your users. A recent effort by Google to boost its Google+ platform—and the ensuing backlash—is clear proof of the problems a "growth hacking" approach raises.

Sure, you have numbers to hit with your tech initiatives, but reaching your goals shouldn’t mean doing things that actively annoy or deceive your users. A recent effort by Google to boost its Google+ platform—and the ensuing backlash—is clear proof of the problems that a “growth hacking” approach raises.

Being the most trusted voice in the room comes with huge responsibility.

You’re the one setting the initiatives, defining the tone of the conversation, and creating the motivations that lead to true, sustainable growth.

But one wrong move can shatter that image. It may encourage growth and produce nice numbers for that big initiative of yours, but sometimes the statistics matter less than the intangible elements that don’t always show up on the balance sheet. I’m talking about trust and respect.

Even the big guys—the ones who have the attention and prestige—struggle with this, because they’re focused on the wrong thing. I can’t think of a better example than the headache Google’s currently facing.

Sure, it’ll boost their numbers, but are they the numbers that really matter?

Google’s Growth Gaffe

As we’ve noted here a few times in the past, Google’s influence on the online space is massive enough that if it decides it wants to change its business model, it can affect the lives of millions of people without batting an eye.

Drop RSS? Done. Change the way emails are organized to de-emphasize marketing blurbs? Easy.

But the company’s decision to allow random Google+ users to send messages via Gmail shows there’s only so much meddling you can do with users’ expectations before they start to push back.

Part of the problem? The move was opt-out, not opt-in, meaning users could find themselves receiving unwanted emails from a social network they don’t necessarily use. And it’s led to online criticism from tech-minded pundits and mainstream media outlets. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has even called for Google to reverse its policy.

Now, to be fair, what Google did to Gmail last week isn’t all that dissimilar to what Facebook does with its messaging, or the way that LinkedIn allows people to pay small fees to make contacts with potential business partners.

But the problem is that Gmail has been with us way longer than Google+, and it won its user base without any of the stunts that G+ has had to rely on. It’s what a lot of us use for basic communication—and at the office, some of us may even use it in its Google Apps form. Email seems as essential as air, and though many efforts have been made to kill it, it’s not going anywhere. So messing with something so basic naturally draws our ire.

Sure, it’ll boost their numbers, but are they the numbers that really matter?

Respect Your Users

When decisions like these are made, they often divide users, especially when they feel like the changes are handed down from above, with little room for user input.

Something a little less privacy-invading but kind of in a similar vein is something my wife pointed out on our new Roku—an upgraded version from the one we bought a few years ago. The version of Netflix on the device, while largely better than the version on the first-generation device it replaced, has a feature that’s an annoyance for anyone who likes looking at the credits—a dialog screen that tries to push you to the next episode, shrinking the credits into a small box in the corner and automatically queuing up the next episode if a user doesn’t respond.

Now, a feature like this isn’t the end of the world—and for people who love watching an entire series in a weekend, it certainly has its benefits—but there’s currently no way to turn this feature off if you don’t want it. And as the myriad customer support threads and blog posts show, it’s just ticking people off.

It’s a decision that will get people to watch more, but is that the metric that really matters? I’d argue maybe not—that happier customers matter more.

(For what it’s worth, the company claimed it would allow users to disable the feature, but then blew a deadline. Oops.)

Growth Hacking’s Failings

We all have bosses we want to please, and often the best way to make people happy is to juice up our numbers. There’s even a buzzwordy term for it: “growth hacking.”

But there’s a danger in letting our need to boost metrics outstrip concerns about reputation—and there are plenty of examples of building growth at the cost of reputation, with an undercurrent of sneakiness. (Rap Genius is one recent example worth heeding.)

As you work to expand your association’s online initiatives, I’d like to make a point here: You shouldn’t let efforts to spike usage numbers or traffic come at the cost of your users.

You expect your technology vendors and clients to offer high-quality service. And your members expect the same from you. Associations are at the center of a lot of people’s careers and interests, and the resources you offer—from networking to technical solutions to industry campaigns—should be immune to meddling. It fails to meet member expectations, and harms your reputation, to think otherwise.

Your bottom line is happy members—not great numbers.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!