Yep, we’ve stepped on the rake again. In what is becoming an almost weekly ritual, we’ve had yet another user revolt and PR fiasco because of revised user terms and conditions. Instagram’s turn this week. The line in the damage control note from Instagram Co-Founder Kevin Systrom today that grabbed me was: “Legal documents are easy to misinterpret.”
This statement is stupid in so many ways. For starters, it is actually factually incorrect: legal agreements are designed to be precise. And they are actually harder to misinterpret than plain language if designed properly. If you are looking to make a big land grab and fully protect a whole bunch of rights for the future (for example, the right to exploit your users), legal agreements are the way to go.
But even if Kevin’s statement were true, it begs an even more fundamental question: if precise, clinical, legalistic, greedy-sounding, nakedly exploitative legal agreements set customers off and make people misunderstand the purity of your motives, why are the best and brightest of our current generation of social networking geniuses using them as a means of communication with their customers?
Common sense dictated that this was a bad idea even before a dozen attempts to do it blew up in people’ faces (yeah, Zuck, I’m looking at you). If these billion dollar Silicon Valley rockstars are so smart, why are they choosing such poor ways to communicate? Why are they hiding behind legal agreements intended to go for the maximum possible grab, designed by lawyers with no marketing communications training, to be read and interpreted by hostile opposing lawyers with no marketing communications training, and then acting surprised when customers react badly?
How about a different approach? What if you told your customers ahead of time that some changes were necessary and could be expected soon. And then layout your core principles and tell them that there will plenty of room for give and take when they are rolled out. Then when the time comes, rather than leading with your chin by just dumping a new clickwrap contract on everyone, how about some good old-fashioned communication? I know these guys are busy, but you are never too busy to show respect for your users’ intelligence, and it is actually more efficient to get it right the first time – if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over? It is actually not that hard. Hell, I’ll even give you a template you can adapt:
“Dear customer, we know you value our service, and we appreciate the trust you have placed in us. It is really important to us that we not violate that trust. But if we are going to keep the lights on, we have to make some money at some point, and, in fact, that point has arrived. After some consideration (of what everyone else is doing), we think advertisements, carefully designed to intrude as little as possible, are the way to go. But we need your help. To make these ads work and be nonintrusive, we need to tell our customers (no, you are not our customer, you are our product – our customer is the advertiser) a bit about who you are, and maybe where you are (and if we can discern it using our big data machines, what you are thinking).
We promise we’ll try not to be too creepy about it, but to do it, we are going to need to use some of your personal data and we might even need to use some of your photos – probably just to analyze them for products or logos appearing in them, but we might decide to use one in one of our ads or something. Like we said, we will try not to be creepy, but the future is uncertain, and this social-netowrking, ad-targeting freight train is headed down the tracks, so we may need to throw a few elbows before it is all said and done.
So to ensure that everyone is in the same page about their privacy rights (or lack thereof as the case may be), and to ensure we don’t expose ourselves to expensive liability for misuse of your information after the fact (once we’ve turned this thing into a money printing press), we need to put some terms in place to paper this relationship up. Those terms are legal in nature and sound like greedy mumbo-jumbo, so we are going to try and nip any misinterpretation in the bud. In the copy of the terms appearing below, when you hover over any paragraph, you will get an explanation of what the paragraph says in plain English, along with an explanation of why we need it and what we are trying to accomplish with it. Hopefully you will understand what we are trying to do here and work with us to keep the service you love up and running. We will try to screw you over as little as possible. Let us know if you have any questions.”
See, that wasn’t so hard, now was it?
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If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy: AT&T Sucks Too, Bank of America Still Sucks, Ten Rules For Navigating in The Age of Outrage, Bank of America Sucks, Walking into a Buzzsaw (Amazon’s Brazenly Arrogant Retail Promotion), Zynga’s Bad Kharma, Pincus is a Greedy Dirtbag (Zynga), Groupon is Radioactive, Netflix – Again, Netflix: 3 Lessons From the Pricing Fiasco [UPDATED], Brian S. Hall Hates Google, We’re All Marketers Now, and Do The Right Thing.
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