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.
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:
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.
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.
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.