Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

Dislike a Service’s Recent Change? Remember, You are Not the Customer

I don’t know that this will make any of the changes we experience online any more palatable to those who dislike change, but perhaps it will explain a little more exactly why these changes happen. I also don’t expect people to like what I have to say; but as I’ve said before, I believe it’s a reflection of the reality to which we all eventually have to adapt.

One of the reactions that I’ve seen to assorted changes in free online services is the complaint that the service is completely ignoring the customer, meaning the users of that service. If the services really wanted to retain their customers, they’d change less, or change in more (presumably) customer-friendly ways.

Well, they probably do make those changes with the customer in mind.

It’s just that if you think that you’re the customer, you could very well be mistaken. You’re closer to something else entirely.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

The real customer of free online services

When it comes to free online services, the true “customer” – the person or organization for whom the business is structured – is typically either of two entities:

  • Advertisers
  • The service’s parent organization or company

By and large, advertisers are the real customers here. They’re the folks that pay the bills by paying the service for the privilege of placing ads on that service’s web pages. They’re the ones that the service is most likely taking into account when changes are made.

I include the parent company, because sometimes a free service’s real purpose is not to display ads, but rather somehow entice you into using other services offered by that parent company. Those other services could be services for which you do pay – making you the customer – or more free services.

So what, then, are you, if not the customer?

We are the product

You and I, we’re product. We are what are being “sold” to the advertisers.

In crude terms advertisers are purchasing eyeballs – in the form of page views. The free service we’re using is essentially selling us, or rather our attention to the advertisers who pay for that service.

Look at almost any free service, and you’ll find that the “real” customer isn’t you at all, and we’re often better considered the product that the service is attracting and offering to whomever the real customer is.

It’s in that “attracting” that things can easily get confusing.

Steaming Mad!That’s not to say we can be ignored

Regardless of whether we’re customer or product, the free services need users to make whatever it is they do work.

If we’re the customer, well, they’re nothing without us.

If, however, we’re the product, then they’re still nothing without us, because without us they have nothing to offer to their real customers: the advertisers.

What that means is that the services still need to pay attention to what attracts us to their offering. They still need to keep us as happy users of their service.

But that’s not an absolute.

Decisions might not be made in our favor

When it comes to making changes to products, the customer comes first. If that customer is advertisers, then you can bet that sometimes those changes will come at the expense of the users of that service.

Naturally, that can’t always be true, or the service would have no users, but it certainly can explain how some decisions might not be looked on favorably by a service’s users, but still be an important success for the service overall. A successful service would be all about balancing the desires of the advertisers and the users.

Even when it’s not about advertising – perhaps it is a corporate direction, mandate or funnel to other services – the service needs to attract enough users to make business sense. But not necessarily all users, or in the case of change, all existing users, need to be satisfied.

And don’t think for a minute that a free service isn’t a business of some sort.1

Voting with your feet remains the best option

Complaining about a service but continuing to use it actually does no one any good. You remain frustrated, but the company continues to be able to offer you and your eyeballs to their real customers.

The only real impact you have when services make changes you disagree with is to stop using the service. Yes, that might be a hassle for you, and only you can decide whether living with the service’s changes is more of a hassle or less than switching.

The good news here is that there are alternatives for almost any service you might find on the internet today. All it takes is a little research on your part, and a willingness to take action and change.

It’s nothing new

We like to think that the internet is this new world with new paradigms and new ways of dealing with things. In many ways, and in many aspects, it really is.

But in this regard, it’s not.

Consider this: the true customers of most newspapers and magazines are not the subscribers – they’re the advertisers. Much like users of web sites, the subscribers are the “product” being delivered to the advertisers who pay the real money that allows these publications to run. Even when there’s a paid subscription involved, the majority of most such publications’ revenues still come from the advertising they contain.

And of course you’re probably also familiar with free publications that are totally advertising supported.

In each case, they need subscribers and eyeballs to survive, so that the real customers can pay the bills.

Cynical much?

It’s possible that you might read this blog post as being overly cynical.

I don’t think so.

I’ve been quite comfortable with this “way of things” for years. I see it as benefiting us consumers in innumerable ways. Think about the hundreds if not thousands of services we have available to us for free on the internet. It’s truly amazing.

Though of course, they’re not truly free. As I’ve said elsewhere, advertising is the “price” we pay for our free services. I’m perfectly willing to let a good service benefit (and thereby continue their very existence) by “renting out” my eyeballs.

Heck, Ask Leo! depends on it.

I’m hopeful that while you may or may not agree with the changes you experience online, you’ll at least have a slightly better understanding of exactly why the changes might not seem to take you, the customer, into account.

Because ultimately, you’re not the customer at all.

Footnotes & references

1: Even Ask Leo!.

14 comments on “Dislike a Service’s Recent Change? Remember, You are Not the Customer”

  1. Nailed it. Don’t liked it much. So much of how we view thing is based on fundamental misconceptions which are cleared up by rethinking. This has been a good one in that sense. BEST THING I HAVE READ THIS MONTH. [ok i know it is the 6th].

      • I’ve been experimenting with Bing as my search engine for a while. So far it’s better than I remember it being.

        The real issue is that the search engine is just the tip of the Google iceberg. Google services are so prevalent – even the advertising on Ask Leo! is provided by Google – that for all practical purposes they’re impossible to avoid completely.

        • I’ve been experimenting with Bing too, not for reasons of privacy, mostly to see if a less personalized search might yield more relevant results. I seem to remember liking the old Google better. I thought that the overpersonalization might have been a major cause in the degradation in quality. I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, although I prefer Bing’s simple layout.

          • Just open an incognito window (or non-chrome equivalent) and redo the search if you want to compare Google vs Google-personalised.

  2. I have been moderator of a few and member of several Yahoo groups. I believe that Marissa Mayer will destroy that company.
    Maybe I’m wrong but the facts are I barely participate on these groups except for one that I still help moderate. However, I check messages about once a day, vs. several times a day before. For years, this group averaged 200 – 250 posts per week. Currently, it is 60.
    We may not be customers, but Ms Mayer isn’t serving Yahoo, the advertisers or the product very well and it all has to do with those “changes” you talk about.

  3. While you are 100% correct, it might be more understandable to say we, the users of the service (MSN, Google, etc.), are not the PAYING customer.

    • We are still the USERS and you can’t go on putting a website out for ‘advertisers’ solely. It’s pure folly. ‘Voting with your feet’, as Leo suggests, is not useful either, as it doesn’t really do anything for those who need to use it. Leaving doesn’t impart what the needs are for change…it’s basically the old girlfriend storms off and you never learn why, only to repeat it routine.

      As for the comment on Yahoo, I agree about Ms. Mayer’s lack of prowess, and I would add that Y! is primarily an aggregation service that adds some original content (which they tend to get a lot of flack for) and an email provider. They started as a search engine but they’ve never really been successful as one, getting their search from Google in the early days and eventually giving up on their own engine and borrowing Bing. They allow comments on the article, many of which are somewhat acidic and anti-Yahoo, as if it’s an inside joke.

      Maybe their advertisers like that. When they changed the Yahoogroups, however, they basically killed off a lot of formerly vibrant groups (there are supposed to be over 100,000!) which had struggled to survive after a few notorious attacks on their email system (which was a primary feed source and still is a useful tool) had to be shut down for long periods of time.

      It only goes to show that ‘free email’ is not only a hugely important feature, it is a sore spot that can disrupt and degrade the user experience dramatically across the entire site. Building features like lifestyle articles, music and shopping around it is nice, but in the end it’s still email, even with cellphones and instant messaging.

  4. Yes. you are right. Money talks, and as a user of a free service, you don’t have a very large voice. Change is inevitable and constant. Roll with it or stop whining. There is always another way.
    My $.02 CDN

  5. Great article and becoming more and more true in all forms of broadcasting be it internet or any form of media marketed at the public.

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Typically that's off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.