Customer Service is the New Marketing

I had a cup of coffee yesterday with Craig Newmark. Toward the end of the conversation, I told him that one of the most important things I learned by studying Craigslist was the importance of customer service.

Craig is, famously, a customer service rep at Craigslist. He describes himself as working for their head of customer service. He also describes himself as socially inept, which he proves, in part, by not being able to keep his laptop closed during our conversation. Instead, every once in a while he lifts the lid, hits a few keys, closes the lid, looks up, smiles with a sense of accomplishment and says, there goes another live animal scam.

When I told him that, from him, I had learned that in the world of lightweight web services, customer services is the new marketing. He said, you know, you should blog that, so dutifully – here is the post.

Customer service is the new marketing because you can realize the radical efficiencies of the web only by enlisting the users of the service as co-contributors. The best web services provide bandwidth, cpu, storage and a governance system and then their users create the service. This is certainly true of Craigslist but it is also true of more commercial implementations like YouTube, Flickr, and So if your users are your co-contributors, your co-creators really, what does it mean to sell them?

If you need to convince your contributors of the value of your service you have probably already lost. All of the web services I mentioned are free, so selling them doesn’t make literal sense anyway. What you can do is serve them, and serving them is the best marketing you can do. Why, because only by serving them, can you learn what it is that would make the service more useful to them.

In the world of products, you need to do the research, find a need, build a bunch widgets and then push them. The cycles are long and it is very difficult to change the product to meet a new need that you discovered once the product is in the market. In the world of web services this is not the case. We were not, alas, insiders at You Tube, so I have no idea how You Tube came up with the idea of creating an embeddable player that you could put on your MySpace page, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that someone had asked them for it.

With, we learned that if you put a simple rudimentary service out there, not only would your users – your co-creators – tell you what you needed to improve the service; if you let them, they would do the work themselves. I am still amazed at the number of really cool widgets, and add-ons that were created by the community.

If customer service is the new marketing, it has some important implications in how you build a web services business. First, it means that you need to get the service out there quickly. Designing a comprehensive feature set and spinning it a couple of times in a small closed beta is not going to work. If the service provides value in its initial rudimentary form, your users will take it and run with it. If you launch it fully formed , at best, you have robbed them of the pleasure of co-creating the service, at worst you have created something that nobody wants.

It also means that spending your way into the market won’t work. A web service needs to be pulled into a market and promoted by its users – its co-creators. Pushing it into the market may lead to some initial trials but won’t lead to viral growth.

Web services should also be open with their data. Being closed is, first of all, an affront to your users who see themselves as the creators of the service. They rightly think of the data as theirs. They think of the service as the custodian of that data. They trust the service to care for it, but they also expect it to be available to them and to other services that will create more value for them. Making the data available is also the best way to learn from the users. With it, they will add features, create more uses, embed it in their MySpace page and in general help you define your service. Without access, they can do little but send you an email asking for a change.

So if customer service is the new marketing, and many if not most web services are ad-supported, there is an obvious problem…

If you offer your web service for free to gain rapid adoption and to listen and learn from your users with the hope of supporting the service by selling advertising to marketers, what happens if those marketers wake up and decide that customer service is the new marketing. If marketers decide to cut their marketing budgets and invest instead in customer service, who is going to spend the marketing dollars that will support all these useful services?

Fortunately, as important as web services are, they still represent a relatively small part of the economy. There are still many marketers out there whose users either are not or can not co-create their products. It is interesting to think about what happens as web services become a relatively more important part of the economy, but that is the subject of another post.