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Are social gaming offers scamming users? A detailed analysis of Techcrunch’s Scamville article

omg she’s getting scammed by a duck!

Techcrunch on social gaming scams
As everyone knows, Techcrunch recently published a provocative article called Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell. Most people will have already read this article, but just to summarize, Arrington argues the following:

  • Social gaming companies (particularly Zynga) are making their revenues in a “completely unethical” way
  • Users are getting scammed by the offers
  • There’s harmful cycle where the scammiest companies earn more revenue, then buy more ads, then scam more people
  • Similarly, some users opt in to offers and then cancel, lowering their value, driving out advertisers
  • And finally, the industry is in total denial about this

It’s a compelling article, and I would encourage everyone to read it. There’s also another followup article on publishers who decided not to go the offers route, HotOrNot and PlentyOfFish.

Let’s dig in
I am very sympathetic to Arrington’s views, and investigated the issue over a year ago – here’s my blog post from August 2008 on the topic: Super Rewards and the leadgen side of Facebook virtual currency – can it last?

The more I dug into the issue, the more nuanced I decided it really was – things weren’t all bad, actually. In fact, I’ve come to believe that there are plenty of advertisers where this is working for them, plenty of consumers who are happy as well, though these offer guys are leaving a trail of unhappy users.

It’s clear that of all the issues, the user experience must be fixed. And after the user experience is fixed, I think we’ll still be left with a thriving industry, though people may be making less money than they are right now.

I want to drill into some of Techcrunch’s assertions and go one level deeper to look at the evidence.

It does makes the user experience suck
First off, I think everyone is clear that the way offers run right now, they are very confusing for users. If you search for “zynga sucks” on the domain, you get lots of angry complaints, most them about offers. In fact, I did an article a long time ago and got a bunch of random angry comments that clearly had just been searching for SuperRewards, completely unsolicited.

This was a long time ago, so I hope their service has changed a lot – but here’s a sample:

The post is in regards to Super Rewards. From a game user standpoint, I did the offers more when Super Rewards was not managing the offers. Super Rewards is slow to respond to problems from users, and requires proof of the completion of the offer in ways that the offer itself does not require you to do. For instance, to receive points a mini-game was played, many many offers were reviewed, then the game results were given. The offer states that the points would be awarded once the user reached the results page. If the points are not received, you are supposed to file a request for review. Well, Super Rewards would not take as proof of completion all the information from the results page. They even argued with what the results page displayed, even though it was cut and pasted directly from the site complete with the web address. Instead, they wanted two emails, one confirmation email and one confirmation of the confirmation email EVEN THOUGH DOING EMAILS WAS NOT REQUIRED BY THE OFFER.

Here’s more:

I got stung by them 10 days ago. 440 points for a Discover Card application. I applied, and I am holding the card in my hand RIGHT NOW. They say Discover has no record of recieving my info. Really? Well why did they send me a card then? A$holes.

As one of the ripped off customers of Super (assholes) Rewards on Facebook, I have to say that thier service is a total and utter crap to say the least. Of the offers I have spent time filliing in I have only recieved points for 2 out of the 20 or so offers that I have completed.
Any complaints either get a automated response or no response at all.
There are now groups being formed on Facebook complaining about this type of action. I hope the group action gets up and going, these crooks need to be shut down.

Clearly this is not what SuperRewards wants, nor their game publishers, nor Facebook. And like I said, I hope SuperRewards has cleaned up their service since then.

The folks over at Gambit have written a solid article addressing these issues head on, where they discuss 3 game ending user complaints:

  1. “I did your offer but didn’t get my points.”
  2. “I completed this offer even though it took forever and now I’m getting spammed.”
  3. “I completed this free offer and now I’m being charged all this money.”

The article goes on to discuss why resolving these issues is an important part of the game developers job, and how they can’t just say “oh that’s monetization” and not care about it. These user feelings ultimately come back into the game, and create problems long-term.

I would like to see more of the offers companies directly discussing and addressing the user experience problem openly – I think that will ultimately be the positive result of all of this dialog.

Everyone should be in agreement that the offers experience sucks, but no one is willing to do much because making these changes would mean a short-term monetization hit. It’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma where as long as the big offers providers continue in their ways, everyone wants to match them for competitive advantage. Thus my argument that the only player that’s able to get everyone in line would be Facebook.

It does seem to be working for advertisers
Arrington also makes the argument that the offers industry isn’t working for advertisers, and will eventually cause the monetization to crater. After talking to a lot of people on the issue, I just don’t know that it’s true, to my surprise.

Here’s the quote from the Techcrunch article:

And some users aren’t dumb, either. For every user who gets tricked into some fake mobile subscription, there’s another who can beat the system. That’s where the legitimate advertisers, like Netflix and Blockbuster, get hit. Users sign up for a free trial with a credit card, get their game currency, then cancel the membership and start over.

I specifically asked Jay Weintraub to look into this problem earlier in the year, and was genuinely surprised by the results. I figured that it was all a house of cards, but Jay came back to me with the idea that in fact it’s probably working (at least somewhat).

This is definitely required reading for anyone thinking about these issues. Jay did a great job breaking down the issues.

To summarize his analysis:

  • The offers ecosystem on Facebook shares some surface similarities with the “Free iPods” incentivized offers industry that ultimately imploded (just read about Adteractive, Gratis, and similar companies for background)
  • The volume of leads being produced by Facebook apps is so large that it’s unlikely that the crappy performance is just being hidden in the volume
  • However, the pricing on Facebook will likely go down, and companies will make less money in the long run
  • The offers may actually be performing, with the working hypothesis being that users actually choose the offer to fill out, versus the “Free iPods” case where they are run through a forced set of offers
  • Also, long-term gameplay encourages accountability and repeat purchase

I think all the above points are surprising, and probably right.

Advertisers may reprice, rather than leaving Facebook
Arrington’s also argues that the bad leads will ultimately drive out all the advertisers. He writes:

Netflix has a policy of only paying for a user once. But game developers use a complex set of partner chains to launder these leads and try to get them through for payment. Netflix sees an overall lowering of quality and pays less for leads. Game developers, desperate to monetize, then search for ever more questionable offers to make up the difference. In the end, the decent advertisers are out, and only the worst of the worst remain.

My question is, why they won’t simply be repriced?

If an advertiser is buying leads at $3, but half the users cancel their orders, then why not just reprice down to $1.50? In fact, the best advertisers probably have the best products, and you might argue that their danger of cancelation is actually less than companies selling niche crappy stuff. Similarly, the Facebook leadgen infrastructure is now a big enough animal that advertisers may want to participate just to drive up volume. Even if an advertiser ends up with an additional $10M with no margin, they might do it anyway just to get more heft into their business.

So I agree with Jay’s argument that in the long-run, these leads just all get repriced, and the same set of advertisers (plus or minus) will remain.

Part of my positivity here is my direct experience buying Facebook advertising, which has actually been high-quality and high-conversion, for the most part. I think that the fundamental traffic is good, and thus the offer advertisers can see the same results, if they aren’t obnoxious about it.

It does create value, through product bundling
The other question is whether or not there is actually any underlying value to offers. And as I wrote in a post yesterday, offers theoretically should be good for everyone, the same way that Amazon and Netflix recommendations are good for consumers. The problem has been the execution, due to user experience issues.

Arrington seems to think, however, that getting users to pay more for the offer to subsidize the virtual good is a bad thing. He writes:

[…] Most of these offers are bad for consumers because it confusingly gets them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers). And it’s also bad for legitimate advertisers.

I think the above statement doesn’t correctly describe how and why offers can add value overall. I won’t repeat the entire post here, except to give the outline of the argument:

  • Amazon recommendations is good, and product bundling as a whole is good
  • How do you define a “good bundle” versus bad? How will we target offers in the future?
  • How does offer + virtual goods bundling actually work?
  • Only 1% of people buy at an ecommerce site

If you haven’t read the article, check it out here.

What will happen next?
My working hypothesis is that the following things will happen – and it might take less than a year:

  • The offers industry will continue to grow, the # of players will continue multiplying
  • This will mean that the competition for doing leads will be cut throat, and no one will think long-term
  • Ultimately, Facebook will intervene to preserve the user experience and make users feel safe in the checkout line
  • If they decide not to do it themselves, they will heavily regulate the situation
  • Otherwise, they will just make their own “clean” version, potentially by building out the Facebook ads into having landing pages, transaction forms, and redirects, rather than just sending clicks

Either way, I predict it will not end well for most of the leadgen players, unless they clean up fast.

If Facebook regulates, I would like to see them do something like this. Think of it as the FDA food packaging guidelines, but instead of calories it’ll talk about total cost to the consumer.

More reading
Here are some of the related articles that I would recommend anyone interested – they are from the view of the monetization gurus, and looking at advertiser-related performance, rather than user experience.

and two recent posts I just did related to the same Techcrunch article:

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