How to Destroy Your Brand in 48 Hours

Another web giant joins the ranks of soon-to-be dead services.

Step 1: Create a freemium service used by millions of people.

Step 2: Pick the wrong horse in the race.

Step 3: Start to lose market share to newer services that embrace better design and features.

Step 4: Continue losing market share. Despite this, don’t make your product any easier to use.

Step 5: Realize tech giants are moving into your space pretty aggressively.

Step 6: Panic. Hard.

Step 7: Make a desperate move to increase your service’s monetization. Bury this in a terms of service update.

Step 8: Break the crap out the service that brought users to you in the first place. But offer to spare them unless users pay a far higher-than-normal market rate for it. Jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of your customers. This ensures everyone is unhappy. Oh, and make sure to retroactively break how your users have used your service across the web for a decade, damaging billions of web pages.

Step 9: Wonder what went wrong when your audience base implodes.

Step 10: Who cares, you have a golden parachute. Retire to your cabin in Aspen.

When Breaking User Trust Harms the Web

The steps above refer to Photobucket’s recent decision to limit external site embeds of their images. I’m sure offering this service on a free basis for users is expensive for them. They serve millions — if not billions — of image embeds every month.

And if they were a smaller service, choosing to turn off this functionality for free users wouldn’t matter as much.

But Photobucket is a giant — or, at least, it was. Now it’s a relic of a different era of the web. Like many of the sites from that time, such as MySpace, it wasn’t able to update its service or business model to adapt to the changing web.

Surely, Photobucket executives are panicking about how to squeeze more money out of users. And for some reason, the decision they made was to charge $399 per year. This is for the privilege of continuing to use what had been free (or had been included in less expensive plans).

Essentially, they said, “Hey, trust us with your images! Use us for your blog, your website, and forum posts! Let us serve your images all over the web.”

And users did trust them — hundreds of millions of them. Anyone who used the social web in the mid 2000s saw Photobucket images. Storage wasn’t cheap yet, so Photobucket’s novel solution was embraced by the web.

We, the users, trusted Photobucket. And with this move, Photobucket betrayed that trust.

Users are equating Photobucket’s change (which came without warning) to extortion or ransom. Here’s a particularly damning comment from a paying Photobucket user:


This wouldn’t be so bad if Photobucket weren’t as massive, didn’t serve as many images to as many websites. Or maybe, if Photobucket had given a few months of notice and chosen a more reasonable fee, users would have reacted better.

But as it is, Photobucket will get a few affluent users to pay the $399 in the short-term. Long-term growth is likely an impossibility (unless there’s a major apology and about-face). The company will die. People will lose their jobs. Some executives will get rich.

And billions of embedded images will stop working forever.

If the executives making this decision could anticipate user reaction, then they’re probably counting on the company’s death. They’re trying to grab a last payout before liquidating or letting it slowly run its course.

If the decision makers didn’t see this kind or reaction coming, then it’s a lesson in hubris for the rest of us. When our success keeps us from fully understanding the average user, we need to either reconnect or step down.

Milk costs, I don’t know, $90 a gallon?

Maybe the view from the top is different. But from down here, as a lowly content strategist, it seems pretty awful. Breaking a big chunk of the web you helped build so you can cash out feels anti-social.

At least the rest of us get to learn a great lesson along the way.

(Want examples of companies who successfully convert users from free to paid? Check out Spotify, Mailchimp, and Freshbooks. I personally use paid versions of each of those. I’m glad to pay a reasonable monthly fee in exchange for the value they bring me.)

Matt Hall is a full-stack content strategist working in education and tech. He’s worked with some of the world’s biggest tech brands and newest startups. Want help bringing a better class of content to your brand? Get in touch.

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