Why Do the Most Popular Social Networks Fail to Satisfy Consumers?

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by Shannon Paul on July 20, 2010

In a recent customer satisfaction report popular sites like Facebook and YouTube fared worse than Wikipedia even though the majority of respondents admitted visiting the other social sites more often. Twitter was notably absent from the data, but (just a guess) may have been included in the “all others” category outside of those sites named directly.

For some perspective on the lack of consumer satisfaction, Facebook beat out MySpace by only one point, 64 to 63, on a 100-point scale. The study, conducted by Foresee Results, scored social sites according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is used to measure customer satisfaction on everything from athletic shoes to pet food and credit unions. The aggregate social media site score placed it between airlines and property/casualty insurance.

While I think there may be a lot missing in how satisfaction is calculated on the web, since a site’s popularity has to do with the fact that the people are there. If all my friends left Facebook I would have no reason to visit the site ever again.

Flipping the Switch from Free to Commercial

One major theme found in the dissatisfaction of social sites is that the strategy of moving from a free site without advertising to a commercial site WITH advertising is a tricky maneuver.

Commercialization of social media sites may be impacting satisfaction. The strategy of starting out as a free service with no advertising or revenue source is an effective way to build traffic and loyalty, as is evidenced across all of these sites. However, starting out that way also trained customers to expect an experience on these sites that is relatively unencumbered by advertising and commercialization. As most of these sites have transitioned to generating revenue, the resulting commercialization has brought severe downward pressure on customer satisfaction, which opens the door for challengers.

Finding the right balance between making money through intrusive advertising and satisfying customers is critical, especially in the social media sphere. We expect to see ads on a news web- site like CNN.com, but our expectations on a social media site are for far less intrusive marketing and commercialization. Wikipedia’s non-profit model has allowed it to avoid the path of com- mercialization, and it is no coincidence that it has the highest satisfaction in this category. Of course sites like Facebook and MySpace need to make money, but the evolution from free content to a revenue model needs to be planned very carefully and executed flawlessly, while keeping in mind consumer expectations and needs at every turn. A big part of meeting those expectations is managing them from very early on in the maturity of the business model.

Francois Gossieaux has been saying this for years — flipping the switch from a social relationship to a transactional relationship, and vice versa, is nearly impossible; human beings seem to be hard-wired against making that move.

It’s About the People, Stupid

The question I can’t help but ask is, if people are unsatisfied with the site, but the site remains popular, how important is customer satisfaction? How important are social sites if they’re just the box we play in to connect with others? YouTube may be the exception here since the primary focus for most users is to share content, or host content so they can share it elsewhere.

What Does it Mean to be Satisfied?

I really wish studies like this provided access to the battery of questions or actual transcripts of interviews. I can’t help but think that satisfaction with the site isn’t colored with other feelings of guilt for spending too much time on the site, fear over the privacy issues touted in the media, a misunderstanding of what the site is supposed to provide… I just can’t help but think that satisfaction with a site I use to connect with other humans might be measured differently than my level of satisfaction with a pair of running shoes.

Since I was stymied by the results of this survey, I decided to ask others on Twitter:

  1. Shannon Paul
    ShannonPaul What does it mean when the most popular social networks have the lowest satisfaction scores among users?
  2. Albert Maruggi
    AlbertMaruggi @ShannonPaul it means they probably should use social media to address their customer satisfaction issues, DOH : )
  3. Steven Parker
    sparker9 @ShannonPaul Strongly suggests that quality is not where you expect to find it, and popularity is overvalued.
  4. Phil Gerbyshak
    PhilGerb @ShannonPaul those networks have the highest user expectations?
  5. Ron Ploof
    RonPloof @ShannonPaul It means that something has to change.
  6. Tom Webster
    webby2001 @ShannonPaul Only that they’ve grown beyond their early passionate users. I’d be shocked if it were they other way around.
  7. Phil Gerbyshak
    PhilGerb @ShannonPaul or that they have the highest percentage of responsive people who take the time and care enough to complain?
  8. Adam Cohen
    adamcohen @ShannonPaul I think it means no one has come up with the ideal product yet, and more innovation will come from those who can figure it out.
  9. Eric Younan
    BaselinerEY @ShannonPaul I too wonder. My satisfaction is waning because of the quality of content. People are more insightful elsewhere.
  10. Dana Cadman
    DanaCadman @ShannonPaul I believe it means people aren’t finding online what they r looking 4. Q: What r people looking 4 online?

— this quote was brought to you by quoteurl

What are We Looking For?

I contemplate these things because as someone who tries to help businesses and individuals make sense of how to connect online, I often wonder if anyone really knows what they want.

Are people in social networks really unsatisfied with the sites themselves, or with each other?

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

Disclosure: My employer is a customer of Foresee Results.

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Leave a Comment

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

July 20, 2010 Melissa DelGaudio 1

I think, for the most part, people stay on sites like Facebook because the benefits they reap from their interaction there FAR outweigh the little annoyances that peck at them.

Also, who were the people polled in the survey? There are lots of people who are in a more “techified” space that vilify Facebook whenever possible. It’s cool not to like it, you know. The complaints that I hear from everyday people are, for the most part, centered around things like, “AHH! They changed the homepage again!!” This has more to do with the fact that most people simply don’t like change than anything else.

I spend a reasonable amount of time using Facebook. It has its imperfections, to be sure, but most of the things that are aggravating about it are pretty insignificant. Much of what they offer is pretty amazing. I get a great deal — both personally and professionally — from my presence there. Petty grievances would have to increase fity-fold for me to bail.


July 20, 2010 Jeremiah Staes 2

I’m currently reading “Predictably Irrational” and it ties into this perfectly.

Studies show there’s a difference between types of relationships, and people do have an issue between the line of having a transactional one and a social one. If you break the social relationship by making it transactional, it’s very hard for it to go back, if not impossible. And people feel offended, betrayed, etc.

I was thinking about this as a pitfall for companies. Unless you truly are ready for a social relationship and are willing to make those choices consistently, it might be dangerous to try to be social and transactional. It’s probably one of the reasons you see so much vitriol online – people feel socially violated after a business made a transactional decision than in a transactional context would be completely acceptable but in the social context of the web seems abhorrent.

Average people don’t seem to go on social networks to conduct business, for the most part. They are there to connect with friends, family, play Farmville, etc. and places like Facebook are attempting to monetize that traffic and information and so try to distract the user from what they want to do. Of course there is dissatisfaction.

For most users, Wikipedia and sites like that are solution focused – there’s no clutter, there’s a goal, it’s easy to find, and voila, they get what they want. Satisfaction.


July 20, 2010 Sarah Allen-Short 3

Hi Shannon, this is Sarah from ForeSee. Thanks for the post and the thought-provoking questions.

Phil Gerb is on to something, I think, in his twitter response to you. We define satisfaction as “what you get plus what you expect,” so websites with higher expectations often do have lower satisfaction. That could very well be what’s going on with Facebook, but I would think Google has pretty high expectations, butr they also have a really high score (even though they slipped this year, they are still high).

We think the opposite may be at play with FoxNews.com’s very high score this year…our research uncovered some signs that their readers could have lower expectations (for example, they rely on fewer news sources than the typical online news reader, which could lead to lower expectations). That could be why they have such high expectations.

As for whether satisfaction really matters, I guess we would argue that because of this link between satisfaction and stock prices, it does, except in the case of a monopoly or near-monopoly (like a cable company, electric utility, who may be the only provider of services in a given area.) What’s your take on whether FB is a monopoly or near-monopoly? We had some discussion about that internally.

Finally, while ACSI doesn’t give out their questions, they do share their methodology: http://www.theacsi.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=41 Does that help at all?

To answer Melissa’s question above, the people polled were a representative US sample. While older people are definitely less satisfied with Facebook and younger people more satisfied, they were all within a range of pretty low scores. In terms of what people say they like least, you’re right on about the changes. Check out this word cloud about what people said they liked least in this study: http://www.freedyourmind.com/freed_your_mind/2010/07/the-best-and-worst-of-facebook.html


July 20, 2010 steve olenski 4

cue the music…

I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no satisfaction.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.

And what does it say that Facebook et al continue to growth at earth-shattering speed despite the fact they can’t satisfy their customer?

Re: your point “If all my friends left Facebook I would have no reason to visit the site ever again.”…

Therein lies the problem.

Your friends will never leave Facebook. At least not until say 1, 20, 30, 75 or more leave.

It’s akin to complaining about the price of ticket prices in sports. Owners and teams won’t give a damn about your complaints until you stop showing up.

Mark Z won’t give a damn until you stop Facebooking.


July 20, 2010 Tamara Young 5

I’m not at all surprised by Facebook’s poor brand performance. In the last year, a substantial amount damage has been done by unpopular and sweeping changes to the way the site (and the company) respects users’ control over personal information and activities.

For a fair number of users, Facebook has become a necessary evil. They’ll keep using the site because there’s no alternative, but they’re going to be disgruntled the entire time. It’s like having a family reunion in the boondocks. People will go because that’s where the gathering is, but it doesn’t mean they’ll like it.


July 20, 2010 Stacy 6

Its true – if all my friends left Facebook, I would never visit the site again – Facebook is about social interaction with friends, not strangers, friends – people you actually hangout with in person. Besides, Facebook was created for college students to get to know their classmates. My how the site has changed since then…


July 21, 2010 Gerard McLean 7

I’m not sure why that is, but people have the same visceral reaction to “flipping the switch” on advertising and sponsorship at youth sporting tournaments (http://www.tourneycentral.com) as well. We tried to inject advertising to capture the traffic early on and just got a huge backlash from parents and coaches. So, we upped the price and dropped the ads and people are happy. (well, happier.. ok, maybe less annoyed..) The same thing happens with the tournament when they try to put all the sponsors on t-shirts, sales go way down. Perhaps when the space gets more personal, advertising is like an unwelcome house guest and people are getting braver about protecting their space?

I think for sites like Facebook, it attracts people who are quick to be critical of anything. That is not a judgement, just an observation… probably an early-adopter trait. No rain, no rainbows, right? Personally, I don’t care one way or the other about Facebook as I only have 51 friends there and maintain a profile because I need to have Fan Pages and people expect me to have a FB presence being in the computer world. If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. Wonder how many of the “neutrals” got counted as “negatives.”


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