Lobster Trap Business Tactics

I recently signed up for a trial subscription of The Boston Globe. I don’t want to continue my service, so I visited the Boston Globe website and signed into my account to cancel the renewal. But of course, that would be too easy.

Try as I may, there was no way to cancel my subscription via The Globe’s account settings page.

So I resorted to using Google. I searched for “unsubscribe from the boston globe” and the first link brought me to a page that said:

We accept cancellations for digital and home delivery subscriptions by phone only.

Why does The Boston Globe accept cancellations only over the phone? The answer is of course because they want to give you the hard sell before they let you go. “Get another six months for only $5.99″ or maybe “For just $19.99 you can get 12 weeks of the Sunday edition along with a tote bag.”

This is, of course, an awful customer experience. Similar to the song and dance you go through every 12 to 24 months to bring your cable bill back down to the introductory subscriber rate. We all hate these phone calls.

The Globe also realizes this, in fact, they are counting on it. Our hatred of these call means we’re unlikely to make these unpleasant phone calls to begin with. Essentially, The Boston Globe is forcing you to make a calculation: do I spend 10 minutes having an unpleasant conversation, or just fork over another $4.99?

But this means there are no longer in the business of selling newspaper, instead, they’re holding your credit card information ransom at the bar end of an annoying and degrading phone call.

This practice is not unique to The Boston Globe, in fact, is become all too common in the newspaper business. It’s become so common, it’s one of the reasons why consumers are hesitant to subscribe to any newspaper. They assume it’s a lobster trap—it’s easy to get in but it’s almost impossible to get out.

This practice violates one of the four credibility factors identified by the Nielsen Norman Group’s Jakob Nielsen. That factor is called “upfront disclosure.” I find this to be awkward phrasing, but it’s a way of stressing not only being honest, but also totally open and straightforward with website users. This means not omitting key information, no fine print, no tacking on fees or extra charges, and it especially means making it easy to cancel your account or delete your data.

A “cancel by phone only” policy doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

By contrast, The Washington Post makes changing your account incredibly simple. By logging into their website you can cancel your account, suspend your account, change your payment options, or do anything else that a consumer would expect to be able to do on any modern, non-hostile website.

Similarly, Google has worked hard to fight against the perception that it is a lobster trap for data by making it easy for consumers to permanently delete accounts and personal information. I can recall when this was started many years ago by an internal Google effort called the “Data Liberation Front.” This group worked as an internal evangelist team dedicated to the notion that users should be able to control their data, which included deleting it entirely.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it makes sense that consumers are more likely to use the entrance to your product if there are clearly marked exits.

We should all audit our own businesses for practices similar to this. You may not be doing something as blatant as the Boston Globe’s policy, but you may be making it harder for customers to leave, thereby making it less attractive for new customers to enter into a new relationship with you.

One practice we’ve identified in our own business is web hosting. Even though we support it for a few legacy accounts, we no longer offer hosting to any of our clients. That’s because we never want clients to feel like they have to continue with us because we are holding their website hostage. So even though it may take longer for both us and the client to set up web hosting under their own name, we find it’s worth the greater upfront costs to give our clients a greater sense of security and the feeling of true ownership over their own sites.

We want clients to know that they can walk away from us at any time. It’s always better for each client engagement to stand on its own merits and not to be influenced by long-term contracts or other hostile business practices. That way every engagement has a clear sense of mutual benefit, rather than lamentable obligation.

We never want to plant the seed of doubt in a client’s mind as to whether they are staying with us because our work is good or because we have some leverage over them.

Long-term customer relationships are not built on “cancel by phone only” policies. That’s the kind of tactic employed by a jealous boyfriend, not a self-confident business.

So be confident in what you provide to clients or customers, and leave the lobster traps to fishermen in Maine.

Against Discount Hosting

Modern specialized hosting offers users automatic software updates, daily backups, one-click restore of those backups, and additional security focused around the specific CMS (like WordPress or Drupal) the hosting supports. Services like WP Engine, Pantheon, or Flywheel also offer realtime chat support, setting them further apart from their discount counterparts that usually offer slow-response ticket system or outsourced phone support.

All of this is available for between $20 and $30 a month in most cases, which may seem like a lot compared to $10 discount hosting, but that discount comes at a steep cost.

Essentially, discount hosting is like buying your child a goldfish—you’re setting yourself up for tragedy and heartache. That’s because your discount hosting is bound to result in one of three things:

  • Site breach because of out-of-date, vulnerable software
    • This could mean defacement of your site, causing embarrassment
    • This could also mean data theft, alienating your customers
  • Data loss because of a software update gone wrong or user error
  • Software slowly becoming incompatible with un-updated server software

Site breaches are more common than you might think and don’t require your site to be an explicit target. That’s because most website attacks are carried out by automated bots, programs that scour the web looking for outdated sites running software with known vulnerabilities. These bots some deface website for lulz, fill them with spam links to sell fake Louis Vuitton handbags, or steal customer data, often to spam them. None of these are great realities for your business to face, especially when these problems can happen anytime, including when you need your website to be collecting leads, displaying your work, taking donations, or otherwise serving a vital business function.

Data loss is very common for modern websites that have no backups and can happen for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most common is a simple user error. With so many people in an organization editing websites that employ modern content management systems like WordPress or Drupal, pages and posts can find themselves deleted by mistake. Though these systems employ trashcans or some other metaphor that prevents immediate and irreparable deletion, we find that clients somehow find a way to delete data permanently all the same. Having some way of rolling back deletes outside of the system, provides an additional layer of insurance.

Software updates can also cause data loss when an error happens during the update process. This is why we back up our clients’ sites before we apply any patch or update and always test after an update is applied. This is just a good common-sense procedure but is unavailable with discount hosts that offer no backup process.

The most common problem is software slowly aging underneath your updated CMS. Websites run on layers, or “stacks,” of software, each supporting the next layer. Websites running Drupal or WordPress, for example, rely on Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP or a variation of those basic layers to support the CMS. Discount hosts don’t keep these layers updated for you, which means that after as little as a month has passed, your site is running on outdated software. When major version changes occur, such as the recent switchover from PHP 5.6 to PHP 7.2, websites running on older underlying software break down.

So you have to ask yourself if discount hosting is really worth it. Is it worth all this trouble? Is it worth allowing your website to be vulnerable to attack, running without a backup, or slowly becoming more and more out-of-date?

If you cannot justify spending an additional $250 a year to prevent these outcomes, then you either have to readjust the way to calculate the return on investment (ROI) your website provides, or you should consider shutting down your site.

If your website is capturing leads or sales, processing donations, generating media attention that lead to sales or donations, or creating some other quantifiable benefit, then it’s simply a matter of whether or not it creates more than $240 worth of value. Given that low, low figure, the answer to this is usually a no-brainer.

But if you do have a hobby site, or you’re starting a fledgling business that really needs to pinch every penny, you’re best off using an all-in-one hosted services like Squarespace or WordPress.com. These services are usually priced pretty similarly to discount hosting but don’t have any of the disadvantages of having to maintain a server. They are essentially like premium, platform-specific hosts but are even more integrated. Their primary disadvantage is that they offer a one-size-fits-all solution that can’t be customized or can only be customized in limited, superficial ways, but that’s probably an acceptable trade-off when you’re just starting out.

TLDR: leave discount, self-managed hosting to nerds who can maintain their own machines. You need something that is maintained for you. At a $240 annual premium over the discount offerings, these services simply offer too good a value to be turned down. If your website generates any value at all for your business, it’s worth it to have the peace-of-mind and avoid the interruptions that come with leaving your website vulnerable.