The Darth Vader approach to customer needs

If you’ve ever felt like a company really ‘took advantage of you, knew what you needed and squeezed you for every penny’ then you might be interested to hear about this story I recently came across.  It highlights a strangely impressive (but totally awful) example of building up a business model based on customer needs insight that comes very much from the dark side.

In 2010, when BitTorrent was at its peak, people using the service started receiving litigation notes from companies that were claiming copyright infringement on content that had been illegally downloaded from the service.

Whilst there had been numerous high-profile cases globally of companies going after end users to sue them for illegally downloading content, this was somewhat different in that the companies filing the lawsuits were from the adult content industry. Essentially, they were identifying IP addresses of those downloading the content, referencing that against ISP subscriber data and then sending letters to those addresses stating that, as a result of illegal behaviour, the defendant was being sued for $150,000. Unless that was, they were willing to settle immediately for just £3,400.

The legal / moral issues associated with copyright of adult content culminated in a court casewhere one of the defendants successfully counter-argued that copyright law only was only permissible in cases where the content promotes the progress of science and the useful arts. Since adult content is not classified as “useful”, the US Court of Appeal threw out the case. More interestingly, a class action suit was recently raised against one of the adult content providers after a whistle-blower accused the company of proactively uploading content onto BitTorrent in order to set-up a honey-trap.

If proven, this is an amazing, but equally terrible, example of understanding both basic human nature and, more importantly, human needs. In terms of human nature, the song from the stage show “Avenue Q” summed up perfectly that the “Internet is for porn” because humans, by their nature, just love it.

In terms of human needs, I would argue that these companies were very intelligently (in a twisted way) reacting to a key user requirement of their “porn watching” audience – i.e. the need for anonymity. The mere fact of sending letters to a home (never mind the idea of threatening to put a litigation on your record for illegally downloading porn) was an enormous incentive to extort money on a mass market scale. And extortion it was. The pain and embarrassment, as well as family arguments caused cannot be underestimated.

Using the concepts of user needs analysis to build customer experiences is unfortunately equally valid for sinister reasons as they are for good. Let’s just hope that whenever a Death Star is finally designed, it will not be based on CX best practice.