The Consumer Backlash

I’ve been feeling awfully surly towards e-marketers lately.

Maybe it’s because the quantity of Spam I receive has increased exponentially over the past few months. Maybe it’s those interstitials that keep stepping into my clickstream and blocking me from what I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s because I’m sick of playing Whack-a-Mole with all those dang JavaScript pop-up windows. Or maybe it’s just because I’m tired of being spoken to like I’m somewhere in the evolutionary chain between an eggplant and a sea slug.

Grrrrr! Every time I click another link on the web these days I feel like I’m being over-promised and under-delivered. I feel like every “registration” form is yet another trap set to grab my valuable personal data, every cookie another attempt at tagging me like a migrating caribou. My privacy’s being invaded, I can’t find answers, half the shopping carts I fill end up crashing my browser, and if another crapplet crashes my browser again, I’ll end up going postal.

Gripe. Gripe. Gripe.

So why am I wasting your valuable time with my complaints? Sure, it’s nice to unload on thousands of strangers, but the real reason I’m telling you this stuff is because apparently I’m not alone. And the complaints you’re reading from me today represent thousands (if not millions) of unheard complaints you’re not hearing from your customers.

Yes, apparently I’m not alone in my attitude. User surliness — an attitude of dissatisfaction among web users — is growing by leaps and bounds. People are ticked off about new ad models. An IPSOS/ASI survey found that over 35 percent of web users reported being irritated by pop-ups, interstitials, and share-real estate ads.

The Better Business Bureau and the European Union are both heavily involved in new privacy initiatives. Big players are realizing that people aren’t giving up their information like they used to. Madeline Mooney, VP at Lycos, recently stated flat-out: “The majority of web users today will not provide personal registration information.”

So much for that “guest book” trick that used to work, huh?

Other numbers also tell the tale. A recent check of download.com revealed that a new cookie-blocking program called “Cache and Cookie Washer” was downloaded over 46,000 times in the first few days of its posting. That’s a lot of folks who don’t like cookies! A GVU Internet study revealed that over 50 percent of respondents reported leaving sites because they got sick of waiting for the page to download a low number as far as I’m concerned!

But these numbers have been around for a while. No, what made me really realize what problem user surliness is about to become was the recent release of a study by the National Consumer League entitled: “Consumers and the 21st Century.”

On the good side, people did feel that products and services were better than they were five years ago, and 48 percent of the people surveyed felt that companies had gotten better at handling their complaints. Not too bad

But there were some pretty sobering statistics. Fifty-four percent of respondents felt that “the value they got for their money for most goods and services has gotten worse over the past five years.” Sweatshop labor (61 percent), marketing directed towards children (59 percent), and misleading packaging and labels (45 percent) topped the list of issues consumers were most concerned about.

It seems as if we’re all in information overload: 50 percent of the people surveyed felt as if they weren’t receiving enough information even though they’re looking for it — 42 percent of respondents reported using the Internet primarily to access information about products and services. However, only 24 percent reported actually buying anything online — not a surprising figure considering that 73 percent of people reported feeling uncomfortable about handing over credit card financial information (73 percent) or personal information (70 percent) to online companies. Frighteningly enough, 7 percent reported having been the victims of online credit card fraud, a number that can be extrapolated to over 6 million web users!

Is there a chance of an online consumer backlash? You better believe it!

With the rise in advertising irritation, privacy concerns, dissatisfaction with information, and general distrust amongst consumers, it’s probably already beginning to bubble to the surface. Heck, anyone with a “registration” form on their site can probably just glance at their response logs and see a precipitous rise in the “Al Kaholics” and “Seymore Butts” that have been “registering” on their sites. I know I’ve seen plenty of them.

As electronic marketing professionals, it’s in all our best interests to head this growing trend off at the pass. It isn’t going to do any good to come up with nifty new ad models, fancy technologies, and flashy web sites if nobody wants to use them because they’re irritated with us. Here are a few principles I think can help:

  1. Respect privacy.

  2. Swear off unsolicited email forever.
  3. Provide full information.
  4. Don’t persuade — inform.
  5. Have a telephone number where people can call when they’re feeling nervous about giving out their credit card number.
  6. Respond to complaints quickly. Incorporate your users into your design process.
  7. Don’t ask for information you don’t need.
  8. Respect your user — the web isn’t TV.
  9. Think value.
  10. Test and re-test. Make sure your stuff actually works.

Will sticking to these principles guarantee that your users won’t be pissed off? Probably not — we all realize that’s impossible.

But it can help make people feel better about your site, and each new good experience adds up to yet another satisfied customer. And isn’t that what we’re all after anyway?

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