Dec 29, 2008

Lifestyle -, a cautionary tale

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - Internet startup was very successful in its infancy.

That was until it tried to change its website and got spanked by its users.

The brilliant designers, engineers and administrators who pour their energy into a website may think it is theirs, but guess what? It is not. Today's website users are fickle and can be easily offended if the company doesn't pamper them.

And just like Facebook and other popular social networking websites before it, UrbanBaby discovered that a well-intended step can have dramatic repercussions among the users who feel a sense of ownership over the community.

"UrbanBaby's mistake was not in posting an unpopular website," said former CNet employee and blogger at, Jon Greer.

"Their problem was being unwilling to be quickly responsive to user concerns, and so their users took their business elsewhere."

For nearly nine years, UrbanBaby was the preeminent draw for web-savvy parents to anonymously chat about their marriages, kids, and social lives.

But when CBS Interactive's CNet bought and completely redesigned the website in the summer of 2008, everything changed.

"They monetized the fast-paced activity by flashing obnoxious advertisements at us," said accountant Julie Mann. "It was clunky and slow -- totally unacceptable after the whip-lash fast website we were used to."

In the aftermath of unhappy emails and attempts by CNet to quell the masses, thousands of users flocked to a newly created website,

"It provided the old UrbanBaby format, and I was thrilled to find many of the moms from the original website had migrated over," said Jenny Pyne, a musician and mother of two.

"Now we're back to chatting about anything and everything."

According to Internet web monitoring company Alexa, YouBeMom averages 430,000 visitors a week as compared to 72,000 visiting UrbanBaby.

UrbanBaby is not the only social networking website to have upset its users.

In 2006, Facebook released new tools to allow members to track other user's actions on the site. A year later, it introduced a service that let retailers announce a user's activities on their websites as a form of advertising.

Each time, Facebook drew considerable ire from its user base, along with a healthy dose of bad publicity.

In response, Facebook set up an official company blog, and used its community tools to collect user's complaints and respond to their concerns.

"We opened up the opportunity to give feedback so that it felt like it was a two-way experience," Mark Slee, product manager at Facebook, told AFP. "There is an adjustment period for all changes, and all we can do is to help make it easier for the user."

So, when Facebook began to completely redesign its website in 2008, Slee and his team set up a blog to inform users of ongoing changes and allow them to give feedback.

And once the final product was rolled out, users could switch between the old and new websites for a few months while everything stabilized.

That stands in strong contrast to UrbanBaby, which did announce changes were coming, but was not completely transparent about what was going to change until it was too late.

While UrbanBaby's case was a dramatic one, Greer is quick to point out that they are by no means alone.

"It's hard to be responsive when you have a big money-making organization," he said. "That could have been a bad decision in any company."

This is thought to be one of the reasons a massively popular but unprofitable website like YouTube has been slow to include additional ads into its content.

Even though the video-sharing site was purchased by Google for 1.65 billion dollars over two years ago, YouTube has been slow to move to monetize it and seems to be acutely aware that any radical changes could drive the community away.

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