Lessons learned from an April Fool’s prank

Like many others on the web, we write and communicate with our members in a fluid and spontaneous manner using blogs, email, and twitter. Sometimes, in that spontaneity, one can make a hasty and regrettable decision. On March 31st, we (SlideShare) made a mistake which impacted many of you. It was an April Fool’s prank and was not intended to offend and cause negative impact. Many of you found it funny and told us so. But many others did not. Please accept our whole-hearted apologies.

In this post, I would like to go beyond apologies and share what lessons we have learned.

But first, some background on how the prank came to be. Celebrating April Fools with a joke is something of a Silicon Valley tradition. Last year, we made a hoax announcement that SlideShare would not allow bullets in presentations anymore since Edward Tufte had joined our board. Many of you found this amusing and this year, we wanted to play an April Fool’s joke again.

We had been racking our brains for past two weeks, but unable to come up with a good joke. It was March 31st and we had to come up with something fast. We came up with what seemed like a simple, cute idea- just add two zeroes to presentation views, and send out an email telling people about it, asking them to tweet it. We feel a close connection with our users, like they are dear friends, and our prank reflected that – something you might do to a dear friend and then say “Ha!, its April 1st!”

The prank had repercussions far beyond we had imagined.

We set the email to be sent out at 5.00 AM PST on April 1st. Around 5.15 AM PST, my cofounder Amit, who is based in New Delhi called me saying a few twitter reactions to email indicated that prank was having impact that we had not anticipated. I woke up groggily and we decided to immediately stop emails. I called up a sleepy SlideShare_Dan who stopped the email server. By this time, many emails had already queued up and app 5-6% of our users had already been sent the email. The damage had been done.

Some quick lessons.
1) Don’t pull off a prank without thinking through its repercussions clearly and thoroughly. (We simply did not spend enough time thinking this through, and there were many unintended aspects). We overlooked both first and second order effects.

2) If you play an April Fool’s joke, make sure it’s apparent in the first 30 seconds that it is a joke (as many of our users pointed out, the message itself should have indicated it was a prank. For example, a link leading to a page with “Its an April Fools’ joke”). Or maybe if we had added three more zeroes (five overall), it would have been clear it was a joke (or bug). In retrospect, that seems such an obvious idea. Duh! But this was not clear to me on March 31st.

3) Statistics are sacred. (don’t mess with them, even in a prank!)

I won’t go on. There are many smart social media experts (who are members of SlideShare) and spoke up with great ideas about how we could have handled it better. I want to tell our users who voiced an opinion – we hear you loudly and clearly. We will take your views into account.

Some long-term lessons
We know people use SlideShare in business-centric ways. But we were surprised by how many people were using it for client work. They were the most upset, as they had conveyed the numbers to their clients. A special word of apology to anyone who was impacted in this manner.

It’s been a sobering moment inside SlideShare. From a small website, we have grown and people are using us in all sort of business-centric ways. We know that, but we need to keep this in mind more. Many of you pointed out on, SlideShare is not a YouTube, which is for entertainment. It’s more like a LinkedIn, for professionals to use.

So here is what we are doing. We are reaching out to some of our toughest critics on blogs / twitter directly. We will try to understand better how they are using SlideShare, and also post some email interviews with users on our blog.

We are also putting together a survey of our users so that we can understand better just how people are using SlideShare in their business. I think this will be a good thing for the SlideShare team to have a better understanding of our users, and keep the different uses in mind as we build features or do community things.

Most of all, we will not repeat such a joke ever again.

If you have suggestions, comments, please reach out to us – post a comment or email us. We are listening.

Rashmi Sinha
CEO, SlideShare Inc

  • http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/atom.xml Phil Bradley

    You’ve put this really nicely and thoughtfully. It’s going to be a harsh critic who’s still unhappy. As I said elsewhere, it’s not making the mistake, it’s how you deal with, and recover from the mistake. This makes you a bigger and better company. Thank you.

  • http://robertstackhouse.com Robert Stackhouse

    This is probably going to sound alot like Monday morning quaterbacking, but I don’t think it is really a good idea to send out an April fools joke in an unsolicited email. I think email is almost sacrosanct for some people, and I could see a few of them getting upset by getting bogus information in email form from a service they subscribed to. I would reserve email for factual information only.

    Google does their yearly prank on a webpage. Last one I remember seeing was the “Google Internet” one where they told you to flush the CAT 5 cable down the commode. These are pretty generally well received. Probably because most people are anticipating such a hoax.

    I mean no disrespect by my comments. I really enjoy the SlideShare service, and I think it is a great offering, especially since it is free to the user. :)

    That said, everyone makes mistakes. All that really matters is that we learn from them.

    -Robert

  • http://www.upsidelearning.com/blog Amit

    Was reminded of this yesterday on twitter – “Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.” ~~Rita Mae Brown
    Good if you realize the mistake and make amends. Life goes on…
    Cheers!

  • mark g

    very professional approach, and i understand that you have to state it like this. I also use slideshare for clients and would be not amused if i notified them about the stats.

    But the prank also shows the creative and personal culture of your organization and we should not make a too big fuzz about it. Good that you want to learn from it, but please come up with a similar prank next year, and maybe focus more on execution. Because it illustrates what makes slideshare special.

    Now, let s move on…

  • http://thoughtsprevail.blogspot.com Himanshu Sheth

    Nice to see this apology post :) I am an active CONSUMER of slideshare and a big fan of some of the best presentations that are available for guys like us :)

    I was also a so called victim of the prank where the views of my only & only slide on Slideshare became 4700 in one day, I was happy but when I came to know that it was April Fool’s joke, I was really angry !!!

    This post would definitely cool things down but damage is already done. My friend who is an active user(creator) of SlideShare stopping using it after that day and turned to some other site.

    For the next year, we may look forward to some GOOD PROFESSIONAL prank on slideshare ;)

    -Himanshu Sheth.

  • Eliot Jacobsen

    Well done, Rashmi. Accountable, educational, humble. That’s inspiring, even if it came out of difficulty.

  • srinin

    Rashmi

    Your regret and apology reminds me of what I had read somewhere nearly 30 yrs ago… that contributors generally felt a regret letter from Readers’ Digest was more welcome than an acceptance letter from some other publishers! I am sure atleast half the users upset with SS wd have a change of heart due to your well crafted response to the furore in the aftermath of the innocent mischief unexpectedly boomeranging.

    Though my declining visits, of late, to the site (due to workload) saved me perhaps from becoming a ‘victim’ of the prank, I was one of those disappointed to learn about the viewer stats being played around with despite everyone knowing “lies, damn lies and statistics!”

    I beg to differ with you on the nature of SS. “SlideShare is not a YouTube, which is for entertainment. It’s more like a LinkedIn, for professionals to use.” Slideshare is,IMHO, a cross between YouTube and LinkedIn. The serious business users and technology enthusiasts are counterbalanced by the users for entertainment (mainly from southern Europe and Latin America, I suspect). Probably your user survey, a good idea, would give a better demographic profile.

    It would perhaps be interesting to see if there is any correlation between the intensity of protest/anger/frustration and the activity levels of such users. My take would be, those who protest do so because they care.

    One final suggestion (unsolicited?) Pl do strengthen the CRM function – more resources, more able and more responsive with more empathy.

    Like Abrajam Lincoln had said hope this is just a slip and not a fall.

    Wishing you and the entire slideshare team success and cheer.

  • http://www.communityguy.com Jake McKee

    Kudos guys, thanks for posting this and opening up about the lessons learned. That third lesson (my data is mine) is the most important, so hopefully the industry can use this to learn from.

    Thanks again, keep on truckin.

  • http:dwilkinsnh.wordpress,com Dave

    Nice post. While I wasn’t terribly miffed about the joke, I wasn’t happy either. Your response here though is really well done, and more than makes up for any missteps. Well done.

  • John

    Wow, I am amazed to see how upset some users got because their stats were temporarily inflated as part of the prank. Has the world lost its sense of humor? Some users really needed to see that they had 50 views on their presentation, not 5000? It never ceases to amaze me to see the ego boosted when one put content online. Was the presentation put in SS just so you can see the numbers grow? Or, was it put there to serve all Internet users? I post content here to share with others. Whether 1 person or 1000 view it does not matter to me. And even if you use SS for business purposes, are you strictly looking at the numbers and basing business decisions on that? I would hope not.

    Lighten up people…it was funny. And remember, the service is free and you get what you paid for. Ultimately we have no control of what this site does with its services and with our content.

  • dcaron

    Here’s a trick for april fools joke, if you give someone a good news and take it away as a joke, people are mostly upset because it’s a desapointment. If you give someone a bad news and take it away as a joke, most people laught it because they will be relived it’s not true.

    Psychology 101

  • http://www.yahoo.com Jack

    Nice post. While I wasn’t terribly miffed about the joke, I wasn’t happy either. Your response here though is really well done, and more than makes up for any missteps. Well done.

  • John

    @Tina: I don’t use google services (including YouTube) for a number of reasons. I’m not saying that because SS as a service is free the company can (or should) do anything they want to the content, stats, etc. The point is … be thankful that you can use the service for free and if screw ups, mixups, technical problems, outages, etc. happen along the way (or april fool’s jokes), lighten up. The smart person plans accordingly. I mean look at Twitter – when it goes down (as it frequently does) people literally freak out about it. IT’s FREE FOLKS! When millions of people join a service for free and don’t pay the company to have a decent, solid, technical backbone, things happen. Same is true of gmail, yahoo mail, etc. If you can’t get that really important email you need right now because it’s down, too bad … that’s our technical world nowadays. You don’t like it, host your own email.

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