When Tech Kills Tech, Everybody Gets Caught in the Crossfire
Buy-and-kill is a sport in the tech industry, and it’s a problem. I am always astonished when companies treat the brands they buy, and users that form their online communities, with little regard and respect.
A couple of weeks ago, SSENSE bought and killed Polyvore. Founded in 2007, Polyvore is best known for allowing registered users to create collages of lifestyle items, fashion outfits and miscellaneous beauty items.
What made Polyvore such a success was that it was a place where people could be themselves in the world of fashion. More than 20 million people created mood boards and wish lists, and then shared them with their online communities. Many small businesses used the site to promote their products. Perhaps the biggest advantage that Polyvore offered was the opportunity for brands to learn what fashion meant to users on a personal level.
Yahoo bought Polyvore in 2015 and did a poor job of transitioning. They didn’t kill the platform, but they did weaken it, and their management choices were not great. Among other things, they changed the back end, particularly affecting how brands could advertise. And now SSENSE has bought Polyvore in turn and decided to shut it down.
Buy-and-kill—and its slower cousin, buy-and-neglect—is nothing new. Yahoo has a history of buying companies and letting them languish that dates back to 1999, starting with GeoCities. Flickr, Delicious, and Konfabulator are on the list as well. Electronic Arts has purchased nearly a dozen game brands, such as Black Box Games, Origin and NuFX, then eventually shut them down. MixRadio was shut down less than 12 months after it was purchased by Lime. And a personal heartbreak for me: in 2013 Twitter bought Posterous—in my eyes, the best and simplest blogging platform—and killed it. And this week, OpenTable bought and killed Foodspotting.
All this to say: SSENSE had every right to purchase the Polyvore brand. Their actions in acquiring the brand are not in question. It is how they are interacting with the community afterward that is problematic—and a game changer for tech.
Buy-and-kill has two kinds of collateral damage: to brands and to users.
Brands that have invested resources, creativity and paid media for years have been blindsided by the brutal dismissal of Polyvore. As for users, a community of 20 million users in fashion and ecommerce was thriving before SSENSE bought it. Those users also mourn the unexpected death of Polyvore.
Let’s look at the effects on users first.
On the surface of things, the goodbye from Polyvore seemed to be polite and smooth; the team posted fun selfies and a friendly message on social media. But the subsequent experience for users has been terrible.
Polyvore user Sam Stinemates sums up what happened with Polyvore in a Facebook post.
There was no warning to this change. No emails, no notifications on the site, nothing on Facebook, nothing on Twitter. They literally changed the site while people were using it. There is no longer anyway [sic] to create sets/outfits. All the accounts are gone, along with those sets/outfits.
SSENSE is virtually ignoring Polyvore users. Their only communication has been a cryptic tweet.
Once they visit the site, users are asked to log into their Polyvore account to download their data.
The key here, however, is the opt-out function. You see, if someone doesn’t log into Polyvore to download their data, then it automatically transfers to SSENSE. The Polyvore post reads:
Unless you choose to opt out, we will share your username, email address, and other Polyvore data with SSENSE so that they can contact you with information about SSENSE… You can also create an account at SSENSE.com to start creating a wishlist and subscribe to their newsletters right away.
This makes it clear that SSENSE was truly just interested in buying user data, not in the platform or the community itself.
Our data has become the most valuable asset that brands have today. According to a 2016 report published by Forbes, three out of four people are willing to share personal data with companies in exchange for a product or service they value. 80% of consumers are positively influenced into sharing their personal data with companies when a special offer or a data-enabled benefit is produced. That’s right. We’re selling our most valuable asset, our data, for rewards points, coupons or even product recommendations.
This is each person’s choice to make, of course. But we trust brands to keep our data private and to use it for the reasons we shared it for. When they fail to do so, it hurts deeply, on a personal level. That’s why an acquisition process like the one with Polyvore is so upsetting to many: users entrusted their data to a company for a specific purpose for their own benefit, only to discover that it’s being sold as an asset for purposes they may never have had in mind.
Data-grabbing buy-and-kill strategies undermine users’ trust and willingness to share data in the first place. It hurts everyone in the end.
Buy-and-kill puts advertisers in a bind.
From a business standpoint, brands tend to place their advertising focus on one main platform, such as Polyvore, to make it easier for people to find us. The increase of buy-and-kill approaches undermines our trust as advertisers, too. We learn that we shouldn’t put all our resources—time, effort, creativity, money, community cultivation—into a single online community, because there is a good chance the platform will disappear one day without warning.
Events like the SSENSE takeover emphasize how difficult it is to strategize in today’s online world. If we spread our branding out over multiple sites, then we reduce the effectiveness of our brand. If we stay on one platform, then we run the risk of having everything we’ve worked for taken away from us when the next buy-and-kill operation occurs.
The corporations with deep pockets get what they want: to eliminate the competition. We, as users and advertisers, are left with nothing.
Let’s be clear that this is a choice. Facebook bought Instagram and made it bigger and better. It is possible to do this well! But many corporations have no interest in best practices. They just want data to exploit.
Is there anything that we can do?
Yes. Build your own brand on your own platform.
With the various platforms that are available today, SMEs and entrepreneurs can flourish better than ever before. Many of these platforms offer drag-and-drop designs, allowing someone with virtually no computer experience to begin offering products or services or promoting their small brand in other ways.
These platforms may even promote your brand as a way for both of you to earn some money from the products or services you provide. It feels like a relationship that is mutually beneficial—until it isn’t.
There is only one way to guarantee that your brand won’t disappear if the platform disappears. You must build your own brand on your own platform.
Starting from scratch with a brand is never easy. It involves capital costs such as domain registration, site creation and brand marketing. These things may be difficult to do within some budgets. That’s why we head to these outside platforms in the first place. They allow us to succeed the way we could have if we had the money to do it on our own.
But maybe it is time to transition off an outside platform and onto your own site. Or consider doing so as soon as you can afford to, instead of making outside platforms the core of your business. There might be growing pains, but there is also one clear benefit: what you have will actually be yours, and nobody can buy it and kill it without going through you.