Is it Ethical to Build a Forever Transaction with Customers?

In the open, airy office-less offices of Silicon Valley, a similar conversation is happening over and over. Is it ethical to create addictive products? Most digital companies are investing in product experiences that drive behavior modification.

I write about articles weekly on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is great at being engaging, with ways to get us to visit daily, if not hourly. When they first launched, this was not the case — members would set up their profiles, a permanent replacement for one’s resume and rolodex. Then, unless you were a recruiter, worked in sales or were looking for a new job, you didn’t touch LinkedIn except maybe periodically to update your resume or contacts.

In fact, it was kind of an open secret that if someone reached out to “link in” with you, it probably meant they were getting ready to quit their job.

Today, it’s totally different. With LinkedIn Learning courses, and news editors augmenting the user generated content provided by comms departments and individuals alike, combined with the fact that most of LinkedIn is devoid of cat videos, parent-brags and political rants, this social network has become a daily habit for millions of professionals. And given that LinkedIn is part of the Microsoft empire, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be increasingly integrated into Microsoft’s productivity tools.

As a subject matter expert on membership models and subscription pricing, I encourage corporate executives to design products and services for long-term relationships with their customers. I help them figure out how to justify recurring revenue and elicit user data. Is that wrong?

It depends on how you do it.

My friend Nir Eyal wrote the bestseller Hooked, teaching companies how to build highly engaging products just a few years ago. Today, his latest work, Indistractable, teaches individuals how to stay focused on what really matters and avoid behaviors that waste time.

You might think the two are at odds. But not really. In fact, I encourage you to buy them both — they’re eminently readable, entertaining and thoroughly researched.

Companies should create products that customers need and want. They should focus on the long-term and on solving the big problem, or achieving the most important objective. This approach is more ethical, in my opinion, than just selling a widget and not worrying about whether the buyer gets value for her investment of money and time. This means that sometimes daily engagement is the right way to help someone achieve their goals (thanks Peloton) and other times, less might be more, like Tortoise, a “slow-news” organization that eschews breaking news in favor of fewer, more in-depth articles about the forces that are actually driving the news.

And customers should be choosy about the products they buy and use, and about how they spend their time. If the product is great, and drives great results, your customers will want to use it regularly and be willing, even eager, to subscribe. Subscription Fatigue is reaching epic proportions. It’s primarily driven by an increasing awareness among subscribers that, frankly, many subscriptions just aren’t that good, and don’t deserve “forever” status. Add to that the subscription guilt that arises when you pay for services that you don’t use, and the frustration caused by companies that (still!) seem to hide the cancel button. Together, these forces have resulted in more sophisticated audiences that are deliberate about their subscriptions and time.

What does this mean for companies? What is their obligation? Well, I know that there are some companies that prioritize short-term revenue over everything else. Maybe they are trying to look good for an acquisition, or the executive team needs to hit a number to get their bonuses. These companies are in harvesting mode, trading their brand equity for pennies on the dollar. It’s legal but not necessarily ethical.

While I understand the rationale of these organizations, I choose not to work with them. What gets me out of bed in the morning are the other kinds of organizations — the ones that are built around the people they serve, and the missions of those people. These are the folks that are constantly taking a step back and asking themselves why their customer initially signed up and whether they’re getting the value they hoped for.

It’s almost impossible to transform a company from being short-term focused to one that takes a long-term, customer-centric approach. If you’re frustrated with your company’s legal-but-not-ethical behavior, it might be time to polish that LinkedIn profile, connect with your more recent contacts, and start looking for your next role.




Author of THE FOREVER TRANSACTION & THE MEMBERSHIP ECONOMY; Leading expert on membership models and subscription pricing.

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Robbie K Baxter

Robbie K Baxter

Author of THE FOREVER TRANSACTION & THE MEMBERSHIP ECONOMY; Leading expert on membership models and subscription pricing.

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