Just Because You Offer A Free Service, It Doesn't Mean Your Users Aren't Customers

from the blurring-the-lines dept

The world of Twitter got its collective knickers in a twist earlier this week when the company made a change to the settings of its service. The particular change was pretty small, but seemed to disproportionately effect "power users" and early adopters, so, of course, the uproar over it was pretty intense, and Twitter changed the change. The details of the change aren't all that important, but like with the response to Facebook's recent TOS change, it's dragged out some rather interesting opinions. A personal favorite of mine is the response to the backlash that since users aren't paying anything for these services, they have no right to complain. Apparently users should "pay up" so they have the right "to voice [their] displeasure as a customer rather than as a user" -- and this coming from a guy who writes a blog about open-source software. It's one thing for a business to ignore complaints that don't come from customers or potential customers, but in the case of free services, to imply that users' opinions don't count because they're not ponying up any cash is fairly ridiculous. Most free services rely on their users to create revenue in other ways, such as by providing traffic to monetize; alienation of users that results in a downturn in traffic, and in turn, ad revenue, has exactly the same effect as losing paying customers' repeat business. The distinction between "customer" and "user" is, in many cases, becoming increasingly irrelevant. And never mind that in many instances, such as with Twitter and Facebook, it's impossible for users to become paying customers. It's hard to imagine that either company thinks it's okay to ignore its users simply because they don't pay.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    MadJo (profile), May 15th, 2009 @ 3:59am

    I guess we shouldn't submit bug reports for Alfresco products, because we never paid for their products either.
    On the other hand, he also never paid to have the priviledge to have his software (Alfresco) be put my networks. I demand that he pays up before he starts complaining about that.

     

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  2.  
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    Bazza, May 15th, 2009 @ 4:29am

    Ah this hairy old chestnut.

    It reminds me of dramas in online games. They can be down for an entire day, or week for that matter. They come back at the subscriber with "well you only list a dollar or two".

    Hardly in the spirit of things.

     

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  3.  
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    Jake, May 15th, 2009 @ 4:39am

    Re:

    Quite; it seems he's confusing 'free' with 'open source'. If Twitter was the product of a handful of hobbyist programmers who were juggling maintenance of the codebase and server with a full-time job doing something else I could sort of see his point, but even projects like that are expected to be responsive to user feedback on pain of not being used.

    That being said, it's not as if they broke anyone's business-critical software or anything.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 6:24am

    Re:

    It's not always like that any more. If Blizzard goes substantially out of their scheduled maintenance for World of Warcraft, they will credit all players with $X amount of game time to repay. They don't do it very frequently, but the fact that they realize when they've gone too far is heartening.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 6:29am

    Typo

    You mean "disproportionately affect power users" not effect. Effect would be if the change were creating power users.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 7:31am

    If a company like Facebook or Twitter provided really great free customer service to their millions of non-paying users then they would go out of business. Ad revenue does not pay for the required customer service agents.

    Users have the right to complain about a free service but should not expect the same response they might get if they were paying customers.

    There is a distinction between users and customers. The scarce good these services have is the service itself - no one wants a Twitter t-shirt to go with their free service.

    Perhaps the scarce good they need to sell is customer service itself - you get what you get for free.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 9:06am

    Sadly,

    I have noticed this attitude quite a bit in the open source community.
    I blame it for about 40% of open source project failures.

    IMHO, It would be a completely different thing if the project was being marketed as shareware, I could understand it then.

     

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  8.  
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    Peggy Dolane, May 15th, 2009 @ 10:10am

    Hooked users?

    Twitter clearly has demonstrated in my mind how hooked it's users really are to it's free service. While Twitter may not be monitizing itself, it has underwritten hundreds of thousands of dollars of small business profits. Just look at the whole virtual assistant community that has seemingly sprung up from nowhere. Many of those people wouldn't have a way to as effectively market themselves without Twitter -- plus many of their clients are using their services to help them manage their TWITTER usage.

    Twitter may not be able to charge directly for access to all of it's services. But it does have a good foundation to establish premium services and charge for them. I know there would be a long line of people who might complain at first, but then quickly sign up as they realized how much of their current business model depended on Twitter.

     

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    Ben Matthews, May 15th, 2009 @ 10:54am

    A quick note about the title...

    Actually, if you aren't paying then you technically aren't a customer. You may get, and provide, value from the free service, but by almost all definitions in business they are not a customer. This does not mean that they as users are not important to the business model, they can be used to encourage a pulling strategy for your customers.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 2:48pm

    Re:

    no one wants a Twitter t-shirt to go with their free service.

    Yeah, like no one would want a TPB t-shirt to go with their free service either. Oh, wait...
    http://www.bytelove.com/partners/kopimi-/-tpb/the-pirate-bay-premium-bamboo/prod_56.html

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 2:56pm

    Re: Sadly,

    I have noticed this attitude quite a bit in the open source community.

    Yep. As an example, there has been a bug in Ubuntu for years that causes it to crash on certain configurations. But the developer responsible for the module causing the problem just keeps closing out bug reports on it. (Keeping up appearances?) His explanation is that it isn't a problem for him personally on his system so he has no intention of ever fixing it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2009 @ 9:38pm

    Re: Re:

    Fair enough. To each his own.

     

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    Dan, May 15th, 2009 @ 10:21pm

    Does the TOS have a double your money back warranty? Maybe if they change it to a triple your money back warranty things would smooth over. If you have a garden you should know that you can't even get shit free.

     

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  14.  
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    Easily Amused, May 16th, 2009 @ 12:49pm

    Re: A quick note about the title...

    right... then who are Twitter's customers? The advertisers. What do advertisers want? More eyeballs on their ads. So doing something to reduce user satisfaction is bad for their customers. Different semantics, same result.

    Also, with the turnover rate on public opinion for networking sites, you would think that they would value their reputation and user goodwill over all else. The public is fickle and will remove Twitter from their favorites list in a heartbeat if they perceive better value elsewhere.

     

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