Yesterday I posted about a pretty awful experience that I, and everyone in my address book, have just experienced at the hands of RareBridge. As I wrote at the end of that post, I emailed the CEO, Simon Gregory, to let him know what I thought of his activity. Later last night, I received a reply. He apologised “for any inconvenience or embarrassment,” confirmed that my account had been deleted and I would be receiving no further messaging* from RareBridge, and then went on to cite the lines in the Terms of Service that make it legal for him to do what he did (italics mine):
When you attempt to connect with other RareBridge members or with non-members of RareBridge, you may need to provide us with such person’s name and email address. Names and email addresses that you select will be used to send invitations and reminders from you and your email address will be displayed on these invitations. You may also elect to import contacts from an external address book. In this case we may send membership invitations to certain imported email addresses, and these invitations may indicate that you are a member of the community.
Right. I’d say there is a pretty big difference between maybe sending mail to some people and spamming the entire address book, but this language protects them.
He then went on to say:
“You should also note that most other social networks, including the majors, use similar techniques to entice signup. Whether right or wrong. This is common practice; and is most certainly not a case of fraud.”
I am a member of most, if not all, of the ‘majors’ and while they certainly have questionable practices, none of them has spammed my entire address book. They’ve not, as far as I’m aware, emailed any of my contacts without my explicit permission. In some cases, that permission was obtained using deliberately misleading interaction patterns, but it was obtained nonetheless.
Even more inexplicably, in the 4 or so months since I’ve been signed up for the service, I’ve not received a single email from RareBridge urging me to log on and check out what’s happening, or for any other purpose at all. Not a word. One would have thought that this would be an obvious way to boost engagement – though a whole lot of services fumble on frequency calibration, this kind of messaging is definitely industry-wide common practice.
Even if I had received email from the service, though, I confess I would have found it difficult to invite others to join. That’s because, having checked it out, I saw nothing of particular value – there’s no functionality that isn’t already offered by other networks which already have my contacts as members, and the interaction and visual design are uninspiring to say the least.
I reckon if a (self-professed) Columbia MBA hasn’t got the memo that this kind of shit is not OK, then it’s likely that a whole lot of others haven’t either. So here’s a very short checklist for those who might be thinking about starting up another social or professional network:
1. Make sure you’ve got a strong value proposition, and that it’s well articulated through the functionality you make available. The best way to acquire and retain users is to give them something they want or need, ideally in a way that’s unique, or at least better than what they can get elsewhere. If you do this, then they will be your marketing and you won’t have to resort to spam.
2. Design a great experience. Users have grown a lot more discerning over the past 8 years or so, and good design is more and more important for commercial success. If you make it difficult for people to do what they want to do, or what you want them to do – if you make it anything less than perfectly pleasant – they will very likely leave and not come back.
3. Treat your users with respect, and maintain a culture of trust. Don’t try to trick them into behaviour they’re not comfortable with, especially when it comes to their contacts – if your service is good enough, they’ll happily pass it on. Broken trust is difficult to repair, especially for a young service that has not yet reached ‘critical mass’ of value – and that critical mass is reached through user engagement, so see points 1-2.
Apologies to those of you who just fell asleep. We will return to our usual programming next week.
*This afternoon, I received a clone of the first-ever email I got from RareBridge, inviting me to join my former friend and colleague on RareBridge. Dicks.