Selling People

“I’m not in the business, I am the business” says Rachael to Deckard in Blade Runner and seems that we also would say those very same words when talking about Google and Social Media platforms.

That’s at least the point of view that Don Norman wants to set down in his talk at the dConstruct conference. “You are the product” says Norman in very convincing words, as he usually does. Google is selling people, that’s the idea, and yes, they do, but that is, we must recognize, just a nice metaphor. Metaphors are risky, and this one is not a happy exception.

What is Google selling? This is the proposed problem. So, we are talking about the business model of Google. That’s a huge problem; you can face it from a lot of points of view, even if, like me, you don’t have a direct source of information about their business strategy.

Why is so tempting to say that Google is selling us as a product, to reduce the big problem to this simplistic assertion? I don’t know for certainly, but my best guess is that we are used to say such kind of things. People are used to say that Media companies are manipulating us with television and fabricated news. They like very much to believe that we live in a world of science fiction, with a Big Brother and some evasive illuminati controlling our destiny. Maybe that’s how the world really is, but there are other possibilities, less fancy but at least equally probable if not more. Those other possibilities start with the opposite assertion: Marketing and media companies do their best efforts to guess and deliver what people wants. They do what we ask them to do because they want to be consumed by us. It’s a media market and we all are players on it.

Google has a lot of users. Some of them are the advertisers, as pointed out by Norman, they are paying the real money, and they have a customer support service and invoices. And yes, if we are looking from this point of view, we all are the product. Well, not exactly. What Google really sells to the advertisers are clicks and appearances, these represent potential buyers to the advertisers, and these potential buyers are indeed real people. This is why can be said that they are selling people. But they don’t, they sell a probability of conversion. If you want to say that they are “selling people”, that’s fine by me, it’s a provoking metaphor, but not very accurate one.

We also can look the problem as a funding problem. If you are centered on users like you and me as the real users of Google, then the product are the search portal, gMail, Google Docs, etc. Those are products on their own right. We are paying for them with our visits (appearances) and our clicks on the advertisements. It’s not money what we pay, but a possibility of it. So, the quid seems to be: we are the users, Google sites are the products and advertisers are the funding source.

There is also another interesting option. You can think on the advertisements themselves as the products, we are the users, advertisers are the funding source and Google sites are just points of sale. This is a merchandising problem, on how you present a product to your customers. The customers are paying you with “clicks credit” offered by advertisers. But out there are a lot of other stores where the same products are sold, so must make your own stores more attractive to potential customers. That’s way you pay so much money for developing and buying points of sale.

So, if we are the customers, asked Norman, why we are not getting any real customer support from Google?. Remember that we were talking about a market where companies deliver what we ask? I must guess again, knowing for good seems to be impossible on these matters. Google doesn’t have customer support for us because we are not asking for it. We are not used to ask for customer support on services offered to us for free, but maybe we can change in future years and begin to ask for customer support even on free services. You can say also that they don’t offer us customer support because it would be very expensive to sustain it. That’s true, it could be very expensive and maybe would make unprofitable their actual business model, but if we, the users, were to stop using their systems because they don’t have customer support, then they should be doing some changes to their business model that allows them to offer us customer support.

My point is that the problem of Google business model is not as easy as saying “Oh!, it’s quite simple, Google is selling people!” and that when you are talking about Social Media platforms, you are talking about very complex problems that you should face from a lot of directions. You are selling people to advertisers, but also you are selling your site to these very same people, and you are also selling adds to them, and must probably, you are doing a lot more of things.

Some links:

Note on Don Norman’s talk:
Don Norman’s page:
dCosntruct Conference:
Brighton Digital Festival:


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