First, Do No Harm

“First, do no harm” is a fundamental medical principle. While advances in science, technology and pharmaceuticals are important, the first priority is that the new treatments do no more harm than good. It behooves marketers to also subscribe to this philosophy.

In the frenzied pace of securing so-called “mindshare,” sometimes a marketer can do more harm than good to a company’s relationship with its customers. Most marketers know by now that it’s cheaper to take care of and retain existing customers than it is to recruit new ones.

We’ve also all heard by now the Gospel According to Consumerism. Through “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and other diatribes, we’ve been browbeaten into realizing the consumer is in the driver’s seat when it comes to communications, marketing, business strategy and ultimate success. Companies that don’t deliver what the consumer wants (and continue the old tradition of forcing our own messages and agendas down the collective throats of consumers) run the risk of becoming irrelevant to their customers.

“Buy more! Buy now! This means you!”

It’s a marketer’s job to look for new opportunities to make contact with customers. This means taking advantage of a customer’s fleeting attention to slip in a message, a thought, a suggestion, an urgent need to purchase something. There are two schools of thought on the best approach. The first says that there’s a lot of noise that we’re competing with, so we need to scream above the cacophony to get attention. The other says if the message is targeted enough, a subtle, gentle nudge will work better with the increasingly cynical consumer.

Virus software developer McAfee seems to be choosing the former, much to our chagrin. Recently, McAfee redesigned its site and added some new features for its customers. A few months ago, Emily registered for a year’s subscription to their Virus Clinic, a regular update of virus protection for her computers. Until last week, the interface worked like this:

Once a day, McAfee’s Virus Clinic would scan the computer to make sure it has the latest DAT files. If the software noticed she needed a new update, it would tell her to click on a link to download the new files. By clicking on the link, Emily would be taken directly to a page on the McAfee web site where she would get instructions for downloading: “Shut down open windows.” “Click here.” Boom. It’s over. The entire process often took less than five minutes, and Emily could move on with her day.

The “New Coke” of Virus Protection

Now, in the post-redesign era, when Emily gets her update reminder, it launches an entire new desktop interface that overtakes her computer. Then she has to figure out where the DAT files are, because unlike before, she’s not taken directly to the download page. No, instead she has to negotiate her way through a tutorial on the new site and interface. Up in the left side she clicks on “Download DAT files.” But instead of going directly to a download, she has to suffer through a bunch of marketing hyperbole about all the other McAfee services.

She’s gone through this process twice and has yet to find the actual, updated DAT files. It’s important to note that this is a subscription service she’s paid for, not some free service where she can expect to trade part of her attention for a freebie.

We can imagine some marketing genius saying at a strategy meeting, “Every time a customer comes in for a download is another opportunity to sell her on something else we offer. If we don’t take advantage of that contact, that’s money we leave on the table, man!”

The problem is that Emily didn’t ask for a new interface. She’s paid for her service and she expects to get it, particularly when McAfee was doing it so well in the first place. No one asked whether she’d prefer to have her desktop taken hostage. (It also crashed her computer the first time.)

The whole experience felt a little like the much-maligned New Coke debacle of the 1980s, in which the soft drink maker came up with a great new product when the old one was already sufficient. More importantly, customers didn’t want a new thing. Soft drinks, software. Same difference. Sometimes “new and improved” means just new.

There was another problem with this new, new thing. When Emily registered for Virus Clinic, she submitted information about the operating system she uses: Windows 2000 Professional. In the new interface, there’s information about McAfee’s personal firewall software. She follows that link, only to learn that it doesn’t yet support her operating system.

Hey, if you’re going to force us to negotiate through marketing gimmicks, the least a company can do is target it with information based on data we freely surrendered.

Now, we don’t want to bash McAfee. This new design and gimmick are still in their beta stage, and Emily has already given them her disgruntled feedback. But it’s an illustrative example of an experiment that doesn’t follow the mantra “First, do no harm.”

We’re big supporters of innovative marketing and strategic uses of technology, but they shouldn’t do more harm than good. That is, if you have paying customers who are regulars to your site, it’s a critical retention strategy to provide information and services they want, rather than shoehorning them into your own agenda.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.