When large companies with millions of users discontinue a site or service (called “sunsetting”), they hope to avoid any negative consequences, like yanking away a tablecloth without disturbing the dishes. That works when the site is long past its day and mostly forgotten, as with AltaVista, recently extinguished by parent company Yahoo.
But when the service is active and trafficked, the consequence of sunsetting is more like pulling a rug out from under the feet of users. Case study: Google Reader, which closed its doors on July 1. Google’s surprise announcement in March of Reader’s demise generated outrage and feelings of betrayal among RSS loyalists. Yahoo has been an active sunsetter lately, making three multi-product closure announcements in the last four months. And last week, Microsoft announced that it would shut down MSN TV (formerly WebTV), a relatively ancient service still used and loved by a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The logic of sunsetting resides behind the scenes, out of view of the average consumer. It might seem baseless for large companies with immense resources to unplug existing services that don’t appear to be undergoing ongoing development. If users are happy with a product as it stands, why not let it hum along undisturbed?
Part of the answer lies in secondary resource management. Multiple departments contribute indirect costs to maintaining a service that attracts any amount of traffic. Consumer help teams need to perpetuate institutional knowledge of every dusty product. Legal must track and manage each actionable item that comes over the transom related to every company service. Tech manages bandwidth consumption and server allocation. Engineering maintains multiple product versions and their compatibilities with an increasingly device-infested world.
But the first motivation of sunsetting is herding — migrating customer groups into larger concentrated pools of usage. Branded ecosystems like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have two top-line priorities: Align users with products that most powerfully drive network revenue, and dissuade users from leaving the ecosystem.
The language of sunsetting reflects back to those central mandates. Yahoo takes the 2013 lead in suave announcements. The phrasing around these terminations is unspecific (you might say glib), and always purports to advocate for the user’s needs and preferences — even when shuttering properties and services still serving more or less substantial audiences.
Here are Yahoo’s three key rationales in the three recent announcements:
March 1: “At Yahoo!, we’re focused on making your daily habits more inspiring and entertaining. … The most critical question we ask is whether the experience is truly a daily habit that still resonates for all of you today.”
April 18: “Like we announced last month, we want to bring you experiences that inspire and entertain you every day. That means taking a hard look at all of our products to make sure they are still central to your daily habits.”
June 28: “Earlier this year, we announced an ongoing effort to sharpen our focus and deliver experiences that enhance your daily lives. As part of that, today we’re shutting down a few products so we can continue to focus on creating beautiful products that are essential to you every day.”
A dominant theme comes through these explanations — the daily use of Yahoo products. Yahoo and other global ecosystems are in the addiction business, creating platforms and feature attractions designed to constantly accompany and brand the user’s digital life. Yahoo is not coy; its announcements make repeated use of the phrases “daily habits,” “daily lives,” and “every day.”
The unplugging of Google Reader is the most controversial recent example of disruptive sunsetting. Google’s explanation is thematically similar to Yahoo’s, but more frank:
“There are two simple reasons for this: Usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.”
Google is acting like a Border Collie herding a dispersed group of sheep into a tighter bunch, and while that image might not be flattering (to either Google or its users), the underlying strategy of concentrating usage is important to the success of a network with many components. There’s no money in a feed-reading product, at least at Google’s scale, and while Google wasn’t quite that frank about it, it has clearly placed its bets on larger-scale levers of mobile and social products.
Microsft’s MSN TV announcement was coarse by comparison to Google and Yahoo. “Unfortunately, all good things must eventually come to an end.” Yikes. Tell us we’re all going to die, while you’re at it. Microsoft also placed the herding motive out in the open, advising MSN TV subscribers to adopt Outlook.com: “Outlook.com offers many advantages, such as accessing your email from a computer or smartphone …” This sales pitch ignores the prime benefit of MSN TV for loyal subscribers, which is the circumvention of computers and mobile devices. Microsoft might as well say: “Get over it and move forward. You’re not doing us any good by using MSN TV.”
Technology is a resolutely balkanized world of island-states (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and many others). Each one is trying to convert itinerant visitors into permanent residents, lock them in to using high-margin attractions, and dissuade them from migrating elsewhere. Users are willing to be tied down for the right combination of features and services, but the market is insistently mercurial, flowing to new platforms and brands according to demand and expectation.
When an active product is shuttered, the most polished announcements frame the closure as beneficial to the user. Beneath that shiny message lies the reality: It’s not about commitment to users, it’s about developing users who are committed to the network. The purpose of ecosystem products is to shepherd users into deeper brand involvement. Yahoo’s reference to “daily habit” is like a reprimand: You didn’t use this often enough, so we’re redirecting you to a sharper hook. Likewise, when Google speaks (ungrammatically) of honing its focus to “make for a better user experience,” it means funneling users into a steadier relationship with the company’s search, social, mobile and transactional platforms.
This governing rationale applies to product launches as well as termination. Why have Google, Apple, and Microsoft introduced “streaming radio” services this year? It is not because any of them has developed a breakthrough product. It is because the adoption of streaming music platforms has reached the point of user expectation. A full-featured mobile ecosystem must have streaming music by the end of 2013, or risk customer leakage to competing platforms. Plugging in that feature retains users in gardens whose walls have many exits.
Consumers can feel like pawns when a company hooks them on a product, and then kills the product, as with Google Reader or MSN TV. The model of serving the user is healthy enough, as long as the user remains aligned with a constantly shifting organizational roadmap. The ideal of service is always strategic; it is the course of strategy which is crooked.
Brad Hill is the former VP of Audience Development at AOL, and former General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.