So now that Seth Godin has broken the silence on criticism of the horrible LivingSocial/Chase SMB grant program, I feel like I can chime in. I didn’t want to earlier, since on some level I guess I was still holding out some hope that it might be useful to us or to someone else somewhere somehow. I also didn’t want to offend any of the other participants or dash their hopes since there are some great businesses involved. Still, I think it’s time I said something, especially now that voting is over.
For those who don’t know, perpetually-second-place daily deals site LivingSocial has partnered with perpetually-second-place bank Chase to give away a handful of $250,000 grants to small businesses. It’s a great goal, and a noble mission, and all sorts of awesome, but it’s one of those times when the road to hell really is paved with good intentions. See, one of the provisos of the program is that in order to even qualify to apply, each business had to get 250 votes for their biz on the Mission Small Business site. That’s where the problems start.
First, let me just say that last I checked, it was 2012, and Facebook has been a known and established entity for several years now. Developing Facebook apps is an easy and standardized science at this point. Everything about the process is well-defined and well-understood. So why was it so difficult for MSB to build a voting mechanism that didn’t require us to patiently explain, often multiple times and at length, to our fans how to actually go about voting for us? Instead of a simple FB app that I could have deployed anywhere and garnered votes from, they required me to send users to their site, where they would have had to sign in with their Facebook account, then SEARCHED for our company. Even though I sent them there through a referral link. That took them to a page showing how many votes I had, but that lacked a “vote for me” button. WTF? Who was the engineer or marketing genius who thought this made any sense? It is quite possibly the poorest execution of a Facebook tie-in I have ever seen in my life.
Technical issues aside, though, there are broader and much more deeply ingrained issues with this whole program. The most glaringly obvious was that it required companies to constantly spam supporters and customers for votes just to enter. One popular idiom comes to mind after seeing the vast amounts of “vote for me” messages being posted : “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
I know these companies have good intentions and they really are trying to provide their customers with better services and better products. Hell, what company couldn’t benefit from a $250K cash influx? The problem is that this type of contest ends up hurting companies far more than a lump sum of cash is going to help them. I don’t care how much your customers love your product – if you bother them every single day with messages that they don’t care about, they’re going to get annoyed. Case in point: a friend who supports international nonprofits got to a point during the last week of the contest where she started un-liking and banning participating organization’s updates. What does this do? Well, for one, when they’re back to posting updates on the work they do, she’s not going to see them and may miss out on donation or volunteer opportunities.
In our case, we were bombarded by companies liking our S&G Facebook page and posting an inordinate amount of links and messages asking us to vote for them. I had to spend a good hour or so each day deleting them so that any fans of our FB page wouldn’t see our page filled with fodder about Living Social and Chase. Ask any business owner if they’d be enraged by having to rid spammers of comments during an already over-booked day, and you’ll get the same answer: Screw that.
The bottom line is that while contests and grant programs are great for businesses, it should be about the work they do – not pimping out the sponsoring companies so much that the message of the participating business is completely lost. Did Chase and Living Social get publicity out of this? Absolutely. But the companies that participated in furiously trying to scrounge up votes ended up losing a lot more than their potential gain – they lost their customer’s trust and probably a good bit of hard-earned credibility.