MarketingSherpa, the venerable marketing research firm, blew it this time.
First, the good news. For years, the Sherpas have published valuable case studies, good ideas and research findings, all at no cost. In order to make a little money from this activity, they've made new reports free, then charged an ala carte price of nine bucks to access an archived report. This amount was just little enough to not be worth expensing for work, and too much to suck it up and pay for it out of your own pocket. Many marketers were hoping they'd go to a subscription model, an all-you-can-eat price that you can expense and then have access to the vast archives.
So I was excited when Sherpa announced last month that this subscription service was now a reality. For a few hundred bucks, you can access the archives (not the for-pay reports) as often as you like. For a researcher, or someone looking for great ideas, this was a Good Thing. I signed up right away.
Some problems quickly arose:
- Technical difficulties. Sure, all new efforts we put out there suffer hiccups. Still, it doesn't inspire confidence when the first link I click on after coughing up my credit card number gives me this message:
Warning: mysql_num_rows(): supplied argument is not a valid MySQL result resource in /home/httpd/vhosts/msherpasites.com/httpdocs/styles/version7/maincontent/related_articles.php on line 38
You have an error in your SQL syntax; check the manual that corresponds to your MySQL server version for the right syntax to use near ' ORDER BY dPublishOn DESC LIMIT 0, 10' at line 1
A lesson marketers should learn from this is that on every error page, you should have a link to email a live person to report the problem, not leave the user in database limbo.
- The search engine, provincial and quirky in the past, doesn't cut it for a subscription service. For example, if I'm looking for good designs for email newsletters, typing 'newsletter' into the search box pulls up every page with the word 'newsletter' in it, not just those reports concerning newsletters. The search engine isn't intuitive. Sherpa has done some interesting work around creating "heat maps" of how visitors use web sites, but when you type the term "heat map" into the search engine, you get no answers. There's no way to sort the results, so you have to ping-pong back and forth between the results and a new browser window, but you can't because...
- MarketingSherpa breaks how the browser functions. You can't right-click on a search result to open a new browser window from your search results. I thought companies were done with this bad design practice years ago, but apparently Sherpa thinks their content is more valuable than Forrester or Gartner, both of whom don't destroy this web convention. According to "Ron P" at Sherpa, Anne Holland, Sherpa's founder and president, made the decision herself, out of fear that users would cut-and-paste the copyrighted Sherpa material into their own material.
I'm sure that's a valid concern. But on the Internet, as we've found time and time again, the small percentage of people who want to thwart your copyright protection will find away around your scheme, while the vast majority of honest, fee-paying folks will suffer for your decision (see this note from Steve Jobs re: digital rights management for more on this).
Holy cow! This fatal flaw alone is enough to make me cancel my subscription.
- I replied to the "Welcome" email with my concerns, but nobody answered, and no auto-responder let me know that my email even was recorded. This is such a common practice with organizations, that I'm almost surprised that I'm surprised when someone doesn't do it. I emailed twice and received no response.
If you have a customer support organization in place at your company, it's important to keep in communication every step of the way to let customer's know they are on their way to resolution. And remember that every From: address in your email has to eventually get routed to a real person for response -- otherwise you'll hear from your customers in a very public way -- like on a blog.
I wonder whether Sherpa, a storehouse of best practices, followed the lessons of so many of their case studies in construction this site. Did they test it with potential customers? Are there heat map studies done on their own site? Did their new owners (MarketingExperiments) do any research on the initiative? If so, why not be transparent about it?
I'm sure these issues will be resolved in time, the way all web faux paus do. It's a shame the Sherpans didn't spend more time reading their own research. I think the answers are out there.
** Update: One week later, the search engine is much improved. And, the customer service team got back to me within 24 hours when I forgot my password (but the "email me my password" feature doesn't seem to be working). It's clear they are making strides, but it seems a shame that they decided to charge for access to the beta version of the new archive, rather than make it free in exhange for feedback on the bugs.
Thanks for all your email about this issue. I want to make it clear that I think the Sherpa research is valuable, and my comments were directed on the new subscription service they rolled out, not on the organization as a whole.