By now I’m sure you’ve seen that, in a tersely-worded blog post, Reed Hastings of Netflix today rolled back the controversial decision to split the company into two separate services: a DVD-by-mail service that would have been named Qwikster and the on-demand streaming service that would have retained the Netflix name.
You may have also seen the announcement that Apple pre-sold 1 million units of its new iPhone 4S on the first day it was available, blowing away previous records. This positive news comes after many people (especially those in the media), expecting a completely new iPhone 5, greeted last week’s iPhone 4S announcement with disappointment.
Meanwhile, over at Facebook, privacy concerns continue to mount as the latest site enhancements caused some to question the addition of cookies that would supposedly allow Facebook to track users’ movements even once they log off the service.
I put these three events together because they showcase how three of the most successful and powerful brands of our time interact with their brand communities as they innovate quickly and aggressively.
What do all three companies share? First, confidence. They can see their destiny, they have a plan in place to control it, and no one—not even their customers—is allowed to slow their innovation engines down. What else do all three share? They all also have passionate communities of people who care deeply about them and watch every move they make closely.
In each case, these two forces—the company’s own self confidence and the pressure and expectations that a deeply engaged and passionate brand community brings—can lead to highly-charged, high-risk announcements, communications, and interactions.
So why is Apple so successful at keeping the relationship with its brand community healthy? Why is Netflix stumbling so badly? And why is Facebook in a dangerous spot?
In my view it comes down to a difference in the way each company approaches the give and take transactions with their brand community, the way they manage their community karma.
Creating a healthy brand community is a lot like managing a bank account. In order to remain in good standing, you must make more deposits in the karma bank than withdrawals. And this is where Apple, Facebook, and Netflix begin to differ.
On one end of the spectrum is Apple. The company showers us with delightful new products and innovations. Apple surprises us. Apple entertains us. But most of all, we’ve come to expect that almost every product Apple makes is going to fundamentally change the way we work and play. By creating great, impactful stuff that really does improve our lives in meaningful ways (I haven’t used a computer that runs Microsoft Windows in more than a decade… but I still remember EXACTLY how it felt), Apple is constantly making deposits in the community karma bank.
And while many folks were upset that Apple didn’t launch an iPhone 5 last week, I’ll point out that it was a stronger karma decision to launch an upgraded version of the iPhone 4 and call it a 4S than to launch an upgraded iPhone 4 and call it an iPhone 5 (as many other companies would have done). When an iPhone 5 is ready, we will know it, I’m sure.
That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t make karma withdrawals too. It does. Apple, you annoy me with your crappy restrictions on what I can do with music I download from you. I dislike your anti-competitive app store practices, and you scare me every time I have to click through a new version of your license agreement.
But when it comes right down to it, you give me more than you take, Apple, so I must admit I still love you.
On the other end of the spectrum we have our friends at Netflix. For years, Netflix was a dutiful investor in the karma bank. The company made their site elegant and easy to use, the social functionality and ratings were helpful, and, when streaming came along, it was like Christmas.
Personally, I loved Netflix. I loved it so much that I even bought a new TV last year on the strength of one feature—I could seamlessly stream Netflix movies directly to it.
But something changed. Over the last six months, I’ve noticed that Netflix has started making more karma withdrawals than deposits.
First, the Netflix site quit getting better. I don’t know about you, but I found it harder and harder to search for new movies. Netflix has always tried to push you toward the backlist titles and older movies, and I get why that made sense with the DVD-by-mail system. But why not make it easy for me to find your newest on-demand titles? I got frustrated and quit using it as much because it seemed like the site was actually losing searching/browsing functionality rather than getting better (was that my imagination?).
Then Netflix hit me with the price increase. Now I don’t mind paying more when I’m getting more, but at the time the price increase was announced it had become clear that Netflix’s agreements with distributors were souring and that they might even lose access to many on-demand films. This on top of my frustrations with the site, created my first negative Netflix experiences.
Still, Netflix had enough positive karma with me, built up over years, that we remained buddies.
Then, on September 19th, Reed Hastings sent me an email (under cover of night, at 3:31 AM, mind you) that started as an apology and quickly turned from mea culpa into double down. If you got the email, you were likely either A) angry or B) wondering if Reed might soon have an opening to hire you to help with his communications strategy.
Not only was Netflix going to keep the price increase, they were going to significantly degrade the customer experience by splitting the business in two and forcing their customers to log in to two completely different sites if they wanted to stay a customer of both the streaming and DVD-by-mail businesses. I understood the business strategy and why it made sense… but the communications strategy and the way the whole thing was positioned was just plain terrible. As someone in the communications business myself, I felt the need to look away.
And that was the moment Netflix made one more karma withdrawal than I could take. In the weeks since I received that email I have 1) bought a Roku box so I can stream on my TV from someone other than Netflix if I want to 2) started using the free streaming I get as a member of Amazon Prime and 3) made the decision to go on a break from Netflix until it gets its karma account back in order.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Since the announcement, the Netflix stock has fallen off a cliff, down from just over $200 to around $110 a share (and it was at $300 a share this summer). The announcement today may not have come soon enough, only time will tell.
Netflix, I still think we might have a future together, but man do you have some work to do.
Which brings us to Facebook. Now Facebook is a very interesting case to look at because of one thing that makes it very different than the other two companies: it doesn’t charge me any real money.
Facebook is a free service, and typically our expectations of a free service are very low. Investments in the karma bank add up quickly when the service is free. For years, Facebook has earned our love by helping us reconnect with long lost friends and relatives, while allowing us to actively keep in touch with more people at once than we ever could with a pen, phone, or email.
The real price of using Facebook—our privacy and personal data—was one that was originally only too high for a fringe group of digital conspiracy theorists. But over the past year, Facebook has become more and more intrusive, less respectful of what little privacy it still allows us, and has at the same time claimed more ownership of our personal data, using it in ways that are less clearly in our own interests.
The double whammy is that at the same time, the service is becoming incrementally less valuable to many people. Now that you are connected to all of these folks that you haven’t seen in 20 years and know what their kids are having for breakfast… then what?
I’ve noticed more and more of my friends on Facebook are going largely silent. It is good to have the network there when you need it and want to reach out to someone. But my perception is that the regular updates are decreasing, the number of times I’m tempted to click the “like” buttons has gone way down as I wonder how Facebook intends to exploit my click, and I’m unlikely to upload any personal photos or videos until I am 100% positive they aren’t going to show up in some banner ad for deodorant.
I wonder if Facebook is nearing a critical juncture. Because the service is free, I think Facebook will likely be able to avoid the rapid depletion of the karma reserve that Netflix has seen over the past few months. But as more people become aware of the true costs of using Facebook—in terms of loss of control of our privacy and personal data—and the incremental value of Facebook begins to level off, could the karma bank for Facebook go negative, even as a free service?
I don’t know. But if I were at Facebook, I’d certainly be starting to worry about it. Especially if I had a competitor like Google (with its own karma stumbles, but an overall better track record of respecting personal data) lurking, waiting for Facebook to make one too many withdrawals.
I’m sure many of you have strong views about these three brands. If you do, and either agree or disagree with my analysis, I’d love to hear your thoughts.