Monday, February 16, 2009

Who controls your online identity? Study suggests it may not be you.

Here's a summary of a study I discussed in my Interpersonal Communication class last week. The study examined the question of whether or not our Facebook friends influence the way other people perceive us online. The findings indicate that on social networking sites, our friends may indeed participate in the construction of our online identities. In other words, we're not solely in control of constructing these identities anylonger. A fact which a lot of companies have had to come to terms with over the course of the past few years - especially with regards to accepting that they're not solely in control of their brands' idenitities anylonger.
View more presentations from Corinne . (tags: pr study)
, J. B., Van Der Heide, B., Kim, S. Y., Westerman, D., & Tong, S. T. (2008). The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep? Human Communication Research, 34 (1), 28-49.

Facebook's new terms of service angers users

I seem to be blogging about Terms of Service changes lately (see LMT post below). This time it's Facebook that's drawing criticism for changing its TOS. Check out this post from the Consumerist for the full story (via das Textdepot). Here's an excerpt from a Facebook reps' interpretation of the new TOS:
That is, if you send a message to another user (or post to their wall, etc...), that content might not be removed by Facebook if you delete your account (but can be deleted by your friend).
Update (02/18): Facebook today announced that it will temporarily revert back to the old TOS while it is working out the kinks in the new one. Mark Zuckerberg also announced the creation of a Facebook Bill of Rights & Responsibilities in his blog post.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Last Minute Travel Travails - or how not to run a promotional campaign

Last week, a website specializing in discount hotel and air fares, launched a tantalizing online promotion dubbed the "World For $1 Sale". In order to introduce people to the revamped website, the company (LMT) promised to run a 15 minute booking window each day (from January 26th - February 6th) during which site users could book a room in any of their 15,000 hotels for $1 a night. The catch? Users would have to decipher a series of clues in order to determine when those 15 minutes would occur.

The campaign went off without any major glitches the first two days, but as the promotion gained steam (it received coverage by several major media outlets: CNN, CNBC), the initial excitement soon turned to frustration and outright anger due to a number of seemingly avoidable problems such as:
  • Improperly timed email messages: After keeping everyone glued to their computers all day on Thursday, LMT sent out an email at 10 p.m. CST reading "You didn't miss your chance today because the sale hasn't happened yet" only to retract that email 2 hours later.
  • Ever-changing terms of service agreements: Thus far the TOS have changed 3 times, each time getting longer and specifying new restrictions. Another piece of confusion: Although the sale states that winners will pay $1 per day, they are actually charged $0. This raises questions of whether or not to consider the promotion a sale or a contest (and carries important tax repercussions).
  • Banning of auto-refresh and auto-fill browser plug-ins: As of yesterday the company has banned the use of auto-refresh plug-ins that keep reloading the page (i.e. check4changes, changeEvery). Note from LMT: "The World for a $1 Campaign was designed to give an equal opportunity to all individuals to make a booking during the Campaign, and therefore, the success of the Campaign requires that we forbid the use of automated devices and/or software. You may attempt to make a booking the “old-fashioned” way – by watching our videos that contain hints, logging onto the site, and checking the clock." These plug-ins were not banned earlier in the competition and the TOS were changed yesterday to add this new restrictions. Funny side-note: the LMT clue videos show computers auto-refreshing the hotels page while the video protagonists are asleep or have their hands tied to the bed.
  • Punishing crowds for pooling resources in a chatroom: In true Web2.0 fashion, Internet users started pooling resources by creating a forum to discuss clues, provide support to one another while waiting for hours, and most recently launching what may be the world's first silent chatroom meant to alert people when the sale came on. At the height of the wait last night, the chatroom hosted about 2,000 anxious Internet users. It seems LMT responded by randomly opening booking windows for individual users, rather than opening the sale to everyone at the same time.
  • Chopped up time segments: Rather than running 15 minute booking windows, the company has been running two 7.5 minute or three 5 minute windows. To complete the booking they also made users watch several promotional videos thereby complicating users' ability to complete the booking. (See forum for discussion of other allegations such as timers counting down to zero much faster than they should, videos looping endlessly, etc.)
  • Contradictory clues: One clue read: "Knowing when NOT to look, is as important as knowing when. Monday-Friday, The World for $1 will only happen between specific hours. While Kevin and Janice sleep in their Manhattan apartment, you need not worry about missing your chance." The video showed the couple sleeping from 11:52pm to 6:02am (EST), yet on day 3 and 5, the sale ran during the wee hours of the morning)
  • Limited hotel inventory during the sale period: Internet users trying to book hotels during the sale have reported only limited availabilities - especially with regard to 4 and 5 star hotels which are said to disappear during the sale.
Internet users who sat in front of their computers for hours on end yesterday reacted less than favorably to these change of terms and technical problems and have created a PR nightmare for LMT. Should the company have seen this coming? Absolutely. If people can trample a Wal-Mart worker for a sale on an $800 plasma TV , it's not that difficult to imagine how involved an excited Internet crowd can get in a sale that promises a 7-day resort vacation for $1.

I think that's exactly where LMT went wrong. I know web promotions are a big thing right now, but unless you have thoroughly thought this through, you shouldn't launch such an ambitious campaign. And there's plenty of reasons that lead me to believe that the company didn't think this through very well:
  • They launched a blog and a Facebook page 2 days after the sale had started, seemingly as an afterthought. Although the blog has comments enabled and plenty of upset website users have left comments, the company has yet to respond to any of them. Seems like a blog without a blogging strategy. One-way communication instead of dialog. Gil, who runs the blog sums it up nicely: I'm "actually not a blogger but rather a viral advertiser"
  • They clearly didn't anticipate the amount of users who would rush to their website at the same time and overwhelm their servers. You simply can't run such a promotion without having the technology side of it all figured out.
  • Changing the TOS several times suggests that they really hadn't put much thought into the first version. In this age of mass collaboration, is it really that difficult to fathom that Internet users would get organized and collaborate on this project? Maybe the authors of this campaign should read up on some Web 2.0 literature?
Update 02/04: KetaKeta Ltd., LMT's viral video advertising agency today called the campaign a success citing the buzz the promotion created as evidence of that success. Seems like the agency considers all buzz to be good buzz, considering that the comments on the World for $1 blog and the forum are mostly negative.