John Bull

John Bull

03-11-2022

10:26

One of the things I occasionally get paid to do by companies/execs is to tell them why everything seemed to SUDDENLY go wrong, and subs/readers dropped like a stone. So, with everything going on at Twitter rn, time for a thread about the Trust Thermocline /1

So: what's a thermocline? Well large bodies of water are made of layers of differing temperatures. Like a layer cake. The top bit is where all the the waves happen and has a gradually decreasing temperature. Then SUDDENLY there's a point where it gets super-cold.

That suddenly is important. There's reasons for it (Science!) but it's just a good metaphor. Indeed you may also be interested in the "Thermocline of Truth" which a project management term for how things on a RAG board all suddenly go from amber to red. But I digress.

The Trust Thermocline is something that, over (many) years of digital, I have seen both digital and regular content publishers hit time and time again. Despite warnings (at least when I've worked there). And it has a similar effect. You have lots of users then suddenly... nope.

And this does effect print publications as much as trendy digital media companies. They'll be flying along making loads of money, with lots of users/readers, rolling out new products that get bought. Or events. Or Sub-brands. And then SUDDENLY those people just abandon them.

Often it's not even to "new" competitor products, but stuff they thought were already not a threat. Nor is there lots of obvious dissatisfaction reported from sales and marketing (other than general grumbling). Nor is it a general drift away, it's just a sudden big slide.

So why does this happen? As I explain to these people and places, it's because they breached the Trust Thermocline. I ask them if they'd been increasing prices. Changed service offerings. Modified the product. The answer is normally: "yes, but not much. And everyone still paid"

Then I ask if they did that the year before. Did they increase prices last year? Change the offering? Modify the product? Again: "yes, but not much." The answer is normally: "yes, but not much. And everyone still paid."

"And the year before?" "Yes but not much. And everyone still paid." Well, you get the idea.

And here is where the Trust Thermocline kicks in. Because too many people see service use as always following an arc. They think that as long as usage is ticking up, they can do what they like to cost and product. And (critically) that they can just react when the curve flattens

But with a lot of CONTENT products (inc social media) that's not actually how it works. Because it doesn't account for sunk-cost lock-in. Users and readers will stick to what they know, and use, well beyond the point where they START to lose trust in it. And you won't see that.

But they'll only MOVE when they hit the Trust Thermocline. The point where their lack of trust in the product to meet their needs, and the emotional investment they'd made in it, have finally been outweighed by the physical and emotional effort required to abandon it.

At this point, I normally get asked something like: "So if we undo the last few changes and drop the price, we get them back?" And then I have to break the news that nope: that's not how it works. Because you're past the Thermocline now. You can't make them trust you again.

Classic examples of this behaviour are digital subscription services, where the product gets squeezed over time, or print magazines (particularly in B2B) that constantly ramp up their prices a little bit each year until it's too late.

Virtually the only way to avoid catastrophic drop-off from breaching the Trust Thermocline is NOT TO BREACH IT. I can count on one hand the times I've witnessed a company come back from it. And even they never reached previous heights.

So what's the lesson for businesses here? - Watch for grumbling and LISTEN to it. - Don't assume that because people have swallowed a price or service change that'll swallow another one. - Treat user trust as a finite asset. Because it is.

And I will admit this is one of the reasons I am (with sadness, because I've got a lot of value out of this place) watching Elon's current actions wrt Twitter with curious horror. Because I've NEVER seen someone make such a deep dive for the Trust Thermocline, so quickly.

It's why I've got about 20 big accounts I'm watching on here to see when they personally feel he crosses that Thermocline and begin shifting their main effort and presence elsewhere. Because that'll be the moment I suspect things will start changing very quickly. /END

ADDENDUM: Been reminded of the time I was brought in to talk about this to a gaming company who I can't name. The marketing manager got SUPER angry and was like: "rubbish! we did lootboxing like this five years in a row and people kept paying!" I'm: "Mate. That's my point."

FOLLOW UP as it was getting asked a fair bit.


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