September 23, 2010, 8:00 AM — There's an old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Maybe it's true, but a couple of stunts that came to light yesterday have me questioning the wisdom of some techie marketing departments.
First, there was Check Point's virus pop-up fiasco. Ars Technica has the details, but basically users of Check Point's Zone Alarm firewall software were met with a pop-up message about a new virus. While the pop-up didn't say the user's computer was infected, at a glance it seemed to. The problem is that we users see so many of these pop-up messages that we don't really stop to read, we just do a quick scan. And the Zone Alarm message looked so similar to those scamware pop-ups that try to trick unsuspecting users into installing (sometimes phony) antivirus software that people assumed Check Point was pulling a fast one. (See this forum thread for examples of user reaction to the message.)
In Check Point's case, the mistake seems to be an honest one. Via Zone Alarm, they were trying to inform users about a real virus and reminding them that they should be using a good anti-virus program (which Check Point would be happy to sell them). The problem was that whomever designed the message just wasn't experienced enough to realize they were designing something that looked like a scam. A savvy marketing team wouldn't have made this mistake, but it seems to have been just that: a mistake.
For a more egregious example, let's talk about Good Old Games. Good Old Games is a service that offers digitally downloadable computer games. As the name implies they traffic in older titles. Late last week they made a big deal about some new (to them) titles they were ready to offer, including the classic game Age of Wonders. Then over the weekend the site suddenly shut down completely. Customers going to download their games or access the support forums were met with the message:
Dear GOG users,
We have recently had to give serious thought to whether we could really keep GOG.com the way it is. We've debated on it for quite some time and, unfortunately, we've decided that GOG.com simply cannot remain in its current form.
We're very grateful for all support we've received from all of you in the past two years. Working on GOG.com was a great adventure for all of us and an unforgettable journey to the past, through the long and wonderful history of PC gaming.
This doesn't mean the idea behind GOG.com is gone forever. We're closing down the service and putting this era behind us as new challenges await.
On a technical note, this week we'll put in place a solution to allow everyone to re-download their games. Stay tuned to this page and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.
All the best,
Their customers were understandably upset. Digital media (particularly beyond music) is still a relatively new experience for many of us and there's always the question of "What happens if the company providing my content goes out of business?" and here was the answer: you're out of luck. In the case of gog.com you could have, and probably should have, downloaded your content and archived it locally, but these old games can be finicky and getting support when a game refuses to run is always going to be an on-going issue. If you were in need of support last weekend, tough luck. Plus some of us buy games when they're on sale but don't get around to downloading them until we're ready to play. The beauty of a service like Good Old Games is that you shouldn't have to worry about archiving: that's one of the services the content providers offer!
On Monday in the face of growing resentment, the management of Good Old Games added this update to the site:
First of all, we apologize everyone for the whole situation and closing GOG.com. We do understand the timing for taking down the site caused confusion and many users didn't manage to download all their games. Unfortunately we had to close the service due to business and technical reasons.
At the same time we guarantee that every user who bought any game on GOG.com will be able to download all their games with bonus materials, DRM-free and as many times as they need starting this Thursday.
The official statement from GOG.com's management concerning the ongoing events is planned on Wednesday. If you want to receive further information about GOG.com, please send an email firstname.lastname@example.org if you're a media representative or to email@example.com if you're a user without a GOG account.
Yesterday it became clear that the whole thing was a big publicity stunt carried off at the expense of the site's customers. What's really happening is that they're going to relaunch the site with new features today (it may be live by the time you read this). [Update: It's live now.]
In way of "apology" the site's owners posted a video of themselves dressed as monks (embedded below) and admitting to 'sinning' while at the same time essentially belittling customers for not picking up on the "hints" they'd left that the site wasn't really closing. They also maintain that "for technical reasons" it was necessary to take the site offline to roll out the new version. It doesn't reflect well on their tech team that the site had to be down for almost a week in order to do an upgrade.
Now Good Old Games just seems perplexed. Wednesday afternoon there was a tweet on their twitter feed saying "We really are sorry to those who think we're jerks. It was all done with the best of intentions, but hopefully we can make it up to you :(" Moments later that tweet was deleted and another followed, saying "We really are sorry to those who felt deceived. It was done with the best of intentions, hopefully we can make it up to you." I asked them what their intentions were, but received no response.
I may be reading between the lines too much, but the company seems puzzled by the public's reaction. How out of touch can they be? If people spend money on your service, they expect your service to be available when they need it. If they really had to shut down for a week to roll out a new revision of the site, then they should have given their customers fair warning so no one was taken by surprise. As a gaming company they only needed to glance at gamer reaction when Xbox Live or the Playstation Network go down for half a day to estimate the reaction this stunt would get them.
What were they thinking? Only they know. Maybe they feel any existing customers lost due to this stunt will be more than made up for by new customers exposed to their site by posts like this one? Or maybe they honestly thought it was a funny gag. If that's the case then they really do need a wake-up call in their marketing department.
[Update: I probably should've made this a tale of three marketing blunders and included Netflix's hiring of actors for an event in Toronto. Padding the crowd was one thing, but having paid actors talk to the press was another. Netflix has apologized for their blunder.]