Google Reader and the importance of knowing who your users are

The Google Reader fiasco highlights an interesting phenomenon related to TV ratings, video views, traffic metrics, and even Facebook likes.  That is the idea that simply counting viewers or users or traffic won’t yield a complete picture of your audience.  You need to go further and understand who your users are.

In an episode of The Nerdist podcast with guest Tina Fey, there was a discussion about how 30 Rock was able to stay on the air all these years despite its low ratings.  Starting at about 23:16, there’s an interesting discussion about the difference between simplistic Nielsen viewership ratings and the broader cultural impact of a show. Says host Chris Hardwick:

 I think there’s this weird, mysterious metric that needs to exist that encapsulates not just how many people watch your show on Thursday night, but the cultural impact that it has…30 Rock is one of the shows like Mad Men, that, you know, 20 million people maybe don’t watch it but it’s so much more culturally relevant than, you know, a stupid reality show…I see, just because I notice comedy, [how] 30 Rock-isms trickle into society or trickle into people’s delivery. Sayings like “What the what?”, they just become part of our vernacular.

Ms. Fey goes on to add that one reason 30 Rock was able to stay profitable is that NBC figured out that the show sold “high-end advertising.”  In other words, NBC understood who 30 Rock viewers were (a disproportionate amount of movers and shakers, apparently), something  that they used to sell advertising.

I think a similar thing is going on with Google Reader: Google saw that Reader’s “ratings” were declining but, unlike NBC with 30 Rock, Google is deciding to “cancel” Google Reader.  It seems that Google failed to realize that, like 30 Rock viewers, Google Reader users are influential, something that might not have shown up in its metrics.  After all, as this BuzzFeed post points out, its users apparently drove a pretty good amount of traffic.  And more qualitatively, those users also seem to be the type of people (journalists and bloggers) that like to write about their frustrations for a living.  So maybe it shouldn’t come as a total shock to see articles like this one from GigaOM, where Om Malik seems to be taking a once-bitten, twice shy approach to the newly-announced Google Keep:

[Google Keep] might actually be good, or even better than Evernote. But I still won’t use Keep. You know why? Google Reader. I spent about seven years of my online life on that service. I sent feedback, used it to annotate information and they killed it like a butcher slaughters a chicken. No conversation — dead. The service that drives more traffic than Google+ was sacrificed because it didn’t meet some vague corporate goals; users — many of them life long — be damned.

There are a bunch of lessons to be learned from this ordeal, but for me the one that resonates is that it’s important to go beyond what automated algorithms and metrics can show and to really know and understand who your users are.