Social networks, online communities, and social media are services we use because of the promise they offer to strengthen relationships with other humans. However, these services frequently fall short of that promise, sometimes harming the relationships they were meant to support. In many companies, delivering a negative customer outcome results in business failure, but for many social companies, negative customer outcomes are producing positive business results for product teams because the business success metrics are not aligned with customer success.
Or, maybe the metrics are perfectly aligned with customer success, but unfortunately, end users are not the customer. The argument, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” explains the poor outcomes for end users resulting in positive business results from customers (typically advertisers). I believe a great number of employees in these companies do think of you, the end user, as their customer, but the systems in place to validate a successful outcome fail to reinforce the importance of the customer’s needs outside of the business objectives.
It is common to hear social companies talk about being “customer obsessed”, and I have met plenty of Product Managers that genuinely care about the end user as their customer. But how many companies translate this obsession into their performance metrics to deliver an outcome that is truly successful for the customer? How often do you see companies reporting objectively measured progress towards delivering customer well-being? Engagement metrics like daily active users, ads watched, shares, retention, number of posts, and time spent in app are all very common… but without consideration of customer well-being, what do engagement-driven metrics deliver in a social product that if fundamentally about human relationships?
Worse Human Interactions
Many of the negative customer outcomes so many people experience correlate with a positive result for the companies creating the product. Disagreement, anger, and outrage all drive activity and engagement… since last week your posts increased 23% and your time spent in app is up by 8%, but you’ve also unfriended uncle Ned because he keeps posting fake political stories about your favorite candidate, and you disinvited your extended family from Thanksgiving.
But even positive content combined with effectively scorekeeping popularity through shares and likes, can lead to worse outcomes and lower self esteem as people tend to post their best moments, creating the perception that everybody else’s life is amazing, while you do laundry, eat leftovers, and watch Netflix alone.
Humans have many cognitive biases, error patterns in the way we think, leading to irrational decisions. Online we are regularly influenced by an availability cascade, overwhelming our critical thinking by making obscure or even crazy ideas seem rational as they are repeated and seemingly reinforced as widely accepted when we witness more and more people supporting the idea.
You watch one video because you are amused that a guy thinks the Earth is flat, and then your recommended feed is showing more support for his argument. Based on what is being presented to you, there seems to be a lot of support for this flat Earth idea. What seems like an obscure initial video you watched thinking it’s ridiculous that this guy thinks the Earth is flat has led you down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy videos, and you’re starting to think there might really be two sides to consider in this whole chemtrail thing, but good news, you’re watching 13 more videos and 72 more minutes than you did last week!
The poor outcomes don’t stop with the individual, they are reflected in negative outcomes for society overall. Misinformation about vaccines continues leading to a reduction in vaccination rates and new outbreaks of mostly-eradicated diseases. Unfortunately, sensationalized false claims can go viral quickly, while corrections get a small percentage of the original article, so the fake information gains a substantially larger public mindshare.
Balancing Business Metrics with Customer Empathy
For many businesses, validating successful customer outcomes is relatively straightforward… reducing their cost per widget, increasing their leads, reducing time spent in a business process are all objective benefits. But for products that are fundamentally about human relationships, a successful customer outcome is more subjective, but by most definitions of healthy relationships, is not based on dependency, quantity of consumption, or other common assessments of engagement.
What metrics might a company consider if customer well-being were a consideration in the successful customer outcome? Factors like happiness, growth, confidence, personal enrichment, support, safety, and fulfillment seem like good candidates. In customer interviews, this would also mean understanding the real answer to the question, “How do you feel after using our product?“
Customer Well-Being is Measurable
The subjective nature of metrics like “customer happiness” presents a challenge. However, technology is reaching a point where it is becoming possible, at scale, to more objectively answer the question, “how does my customer feel?”. Sentiment analysis of text has matured considerably, and can be used understand customer. Similarly, emotion recognition of voice and visuals can provide insights into the immediate reactions. Technologies like these are being applied to problems predicting depression from written text and speech. Wearables with biometrics are becoming increasingly common and also provide an opportunity to assess the physical impact from online interactions.
Further reinforcing that measuring customer well-being is possible, in 2018 the New York Times piloted ad placements based on the emotions certain articles evoke. However, like many current applications of sentiment analysis, this use case emphasized the value created for the advertiser, focusing on targeting the customer with premium-priced ads when the customer is in an emotional state that is optimal for the advertiser. The examples cited targeted upbeat, inspired customers, but it is easy to imagine the same technology could be used to target customers that are upset, reactionary, and likely more susceptible to radical suggestions. In other words, perfect for divisive political targeting.
An encouraging example of prioritizing customer well-being comes from Dan Seider at Stigma, using input from webcam images, regularly processed by artificial intelligence to understand online consumption impact on happiness. If this type of customer data can be secured (likely requiring it to never leave the customer’s device), this technology could lead to solutions that help people understand how their online habits are benefitting or harming their well-being. While empowering individuals with these sort of tools is great, it represents third-parties trying to provide protections from social products, rather than social companies considering customer well-being as part of their product success.
Codify Better Social Outcomes
From a business results perspective, there is little need for the current social giants to change. A couple of times a years we see news surface where customers are outraged by being exploited, manipulated, or endangered, a CEO repeats a statement about fixing things, and the market value of these companies generally continues to increase in spite of these problems.
I believe many CEOs are sincere in their desire to eliminate the social problems manifested in their products (I mean, who wouldn’t want that to go away), but I don’t see this desire supported with how the company objectively assesses success, and I am skeptical we will actually see improvements until customer well being metrics are considered alongside of engagement metrics. A commitment to results requires measurement, and cultural integration into what is considered success, from product performance to employee incentives. If you don’t track it, you probably don’t really care about it.
For earlier stage social products and companies with a commitment to better customer outcomes, it is easy to assume that strong product leadership holding this commitment is enough to stay on that path. Codifying what a better social outcome means will help make the path clear when there are inevitable product tradeoffs between short-term gains vs. long-term enduring value for customers. As new employees join the company they will see values like “we love our customers” not just as words painted on the wall, but as a requirement for success.
Does your product team include customer well-being as a desired outcome? I’d like to hear more, especially how success is measured – please leave a reply below!
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