Lessons learned from an April Fool's prank

April 4, 2009

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