Monday, June 13, 2005

Plaxo: Where's the value?

A couple weeks ago, I decided to try Plaxo. I think very highly of Mark Jen, who recently took a job with the company. I also have to say that I've been very impressed with the Plaxo web interface, the Outlook plugin, and the company's obvious commitment to their users and the community.

Unfortunately, I've realized that Plaxo just isn't for me. Here's why:

1. In the end, the only value proposition I found in Plaxo was the ability for my contacts to update their own contact information through their Plaxo accounts and have it be automatically reflected in my address book. Unfortunately, so few people in my address book use Plaxo (i.e. none), that it becomes apparent rather quickly that I won't be realizing the benefits of this value proposition at all. The dream is that everyone uses Plaxo to manage their contacts, and then everyone's address book is always up to date with zero management overhead. I don't believe that Plaxo, with its current suite of offerings, can gain a large enough userbase to get there.

2. My initial intended use of Plaxo was as a means of managing and storing all of my contacts. I have personal contacts in Outlook at home and business contacts in Outlook at the office. I have a list of people I call often in Outlook on my phone (which currently syncs with Outlook at home). I have stacks of business cards belonging to plumbers and appliance repair services that I only want to find when I'm searching specifically for them. Unfortunately, Plaxo didn't give me the functionality I needed to keep these sets separate (sync some contacts with work, some with home, some with the phone, and some.. just don't sync at all).

(Sidenote: In the end, after deciding Plaxo wasn't gonna do the trick, I decided to continue to keep the work and personal contacts separate, and attach an Outlook category of "Phonebook" with the personal contacts I want in my phone, then filter the view on the phone to show those contacts only, but still sync the entire list.)

3. I wrote about this a bit in my previous post - I don't buy into sending my contacts automated update request messages. Stacy Martin, Plaxo's Privacy Officer, actually left a comment on this topic earlier this evening. Stacy, I'm glad you've signed on to the idea of engaging the community. I just certainly hope you're doing it to solicit feedback as much as you are to spread Plaxo's preconceived vision!

Stacy writes:

But unlike sending your own personal email, the benefit of using Plaxo is that any response you receive will be automatically updated back into your local address book. Contrast this with sending a personal email message without using Plaxo - you must manually update the appropriate entry when a contact responds.

But Stacy, my using Plaxo to solicit updated contact information does not get rid of the burden of manually updating the appropriate entries. It only shifts the burden from me to the person whose updated information I'm requesting. In fact, I believe that's what upsets me so much about being on the receiving end of automated Plaxo update request messages. If you are requesting information of me for your records (your benefit), the least you could do is have the courtesy to put it into your contact management application's forms yourself, rather than expect me to do it for you. By making it easy on yourself, you are making it harder on me, and by involving the Plaxo automated system in the first place, you are making our limited contact even less personal in nature. And while the solution is "Everyone just use Plaxo", the incentive (obviously) just isn't there.

4. The idea of accessing my information anywhere through Plaxo online is a great one. But fortunately, all of my contacts, calendar items, and tasks are seamlessly synced to my phone, already allowing me to access my information anywhere. So, alright, not everyone has a smartphone. Like I said, I like the Plaxo online feature. But it's certainly not the future - because many business users already do have smartphones with these capabilities, and soon enough, everyone else will too (well before everyone else uses Plaxo, right?). The same goes for Plaxo's premium mobile access feature. Why do I need to access my information by WAP when a) I already have my information on my device and b) my device (and more and more other devices) already have fullblown web browsers? It's a nice-to-have, but there's no future in it.

I've already blogged a bit about how silly it is to offer duplicate address book entry removal as a premium product. I think it's just as silly to have included a Yahoo search bar in the Plaxo plugin. I can already add search plugins to any application, or even my taskbar! No more search bars! I realize they're essentially free to implement, and then you get to list them as a feature on your feature page. But c'mon, how about innovating and creating something completely new and useful instead, and leave the search bars to the search companies?

So, what should Plaxo do instead?

Give me some real incentive to use Plaxo to manage my contacts.

That incentive needs to be more than a dream of how amazing it could be (but isn't yet) if everyone else also used Plaxo. It needs to be more than another search bar and more than the ability to sync contact information between computers. And when you give us all that incentive, the amazing dream will fall into place as a bonus.

Where are my contacts right now? If they use AIM, Yahoo Messenger, or MSN Messenger, are they online or away? If I'm traveling on vacation or for business in New York City, show me any of my contacts who are living or also just traveling nearby. What kind of music are my contacts listening to? What are the top 10 songs that my friends have ranked in their playlists? Let me schedule a dinner party among a group of people in my contacts. Let me see relationships among my contacts (if they desire to allow me to do so). Show me my contacts' flickr photos. Now that I think about it, why do I have 'contact networks' in AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, Friendster, Orkut, Flickr, and the list goes on and on and on...

Don't re-invent the IM client or the social networking web site, but reap the benefits of each and bring them into the realm of contact management. And do it now, before somebody else does.. while there's still time to be the first mover and achieve some lock-in. The goal might have been to alleviate the pain point in managing large numbers of contacts. I don't buy that model, or at least I don't buy it alone (and neither do you if you've found yourselves resorting to boasting about search bars). Time to change it up.

Comments? *ducks*

4 comments:

Stacy Martin said...

> I'm glad you've signed on to the idea of
> engaging the community. I just certainly
> hope you're doing
> it to solicit feedback as much as you are to
> spread Plaxo's
> preconceived vision!

Absolutely. It's by gathering the feedback of members and non-members that we are able to improve our service. I think you'll notice Plaxo is quite active in engaging in public discussions on issues.

Allow me to address some of your additional comments (warning... long response coming)

> But Stacy, my using Plaxo to solicit updated
> contact information does not get rid of the
> burden of
> manually updating the appropriate entries.
> It only shifts
> the burden from me to the person whose
> updated information
> I'm requesting.

I understand what you are saying, but let's walk through the scenario without using Plaxo. Imagine you wish to get someone's updated information.

You send a message to your friend John, "Hey John. I heard you moved. I'm getting married so what's your new address so I can send you a wedding invitation?"

John replies and manually enters in his updated information. You get his response and then you must manually enter the updated information into your own address book. That's two times the same information had to be manually entered.

Certainly, it's not a reach to say that Plaxo improves this situation. You can still send the same message to John and John must manually enter in his information, but the information doesn't have to be entered in a 2nd time. Agreed, the primary benefit in this scenario is to you, but since John was going to have to enter his information manually regardless, at the very worse, it's a wash to him.

But I do believe there is some benefit to John as well in using Plaxo to respond.

First, there less chance for you to make an error on your side or fail to update your address book. John can also see what information you already have about him and choose to update those other fields that he feels should also be updated. He may see that you already have his latest address so he doesn't need to enter in this information, but maybe you've got his wrong cell phone number.

But I agree that people (Plaxo members) should not simply enter in a person's email address into their address book and then send them an Update Request and have them do the work and insert the rest of their contact information. There's nothing personal about that and it would certainly not be proper Plaxo etiquette (http://http://www.plaxo.com/privacy/manners).

The purposes of the Update Request messages is not to gather information, but rather to update existing and possibly outdated information for your contacts. As with any service or technology, people should be considerate and respectful of others.

> In fact, I believe that's what upsets me so
> much about being on the receiving end of
> automated Plaxo
> update request messages.
>

I'm understandably sensitive to the phase "automated Plaxo update request messages". I want to make sure it is clear that these messages are not automated. Plaxo members control when, to whom, and the personalized message content of all Plaxo Update Request messages sent. Plaxo does not initiate these messages. We are the service provider processing the instructions of the Plaxo member.

> By making it easy on yourself,
> you are making
> it harder on me, and by
> involving the Plaxo automated
> system in the first place, you
> are making our limited
> contact even less personal in
> nature.
>

I disagree that by using Plaxo, the member has made it harder on the contact for the above mentioned reasons. But I can not argue with the fact that you have been left with this impression.

As I mentioned, the Plaxo member controls if they wish to personalize the Update Request message, but we do provide default text if they choose not to personalize their message. We are working to improve out default text, but our voice will never be able replace the personalized one of the Plaxo member. Members are encouraged to personalize their Update Request messages.

But I'd also be interested in any suggestions you might have as to how we can improve in this aspect and perception.

> Give me some real incentive to
> use Plaxo to manage my contacts.

Certainly, different people appreciate different aspects of the service depending on their own personal situation. Beyond those features you've already mentioned, let me mention a few other features that people I've spoken with really like:

- Automatic backup and quick restore capabilities. This feature alone has been a tremendous life-saver for many members who have experienced a system crash, lost laptop, or other catastrophic PC failure. Within seconds, they can quickly restore their critical contacts, calendar, tasks and notes information.

- Multi-system synchronization. This feature allows people to have one address book sycn’d across multiple systems so there is no duplication of effort and information. Many people use this feature to keep their work and home computers sync'd.

- Birthday Reminder Service. A fair percentage of contacts respond to an Update Request and include their birthday information. Members can use Plaxo to remind them of upcoming birthdays and to easily send the contact a friendly birthday greeting. This is an easy way to add that personal touch you were looking for to a business relationship.

As for some of your other suggestions such as "online presense" and linking into other services and applications, you've got some very good ideas there. It would not be proper for me to discuss features that are currently unavailable, but we've only started to scratch the surface of what's possible. The goal is not to exclusively help people manage large address books. Plaxo is about managing and controling your own information. Contact management plays an important part, but the goal is to help people stay in touch with those they know and wish to stay in touch with. Ultimately, this goes well beyond simply knowing your address book information is updated. Stay tuned...

Adam Lasnik said...

Hey Adam,

I know my colleague Stacy has already replied to your thoughtful entry with a pretty comprehensive note, but -- since you have a great name -- I thought I'd jump in with a small additional tidbit.

You expressed frustration regarding a perceived inability to do sophisticated synchronizing. I'm wondering if you had a chance to check out our Folder Mapping option for power users.

For instance, I have my personal Calendar from home mapped on my Outlook here at work. And I have some (but not all) of my contacts mirrored in both places.

Anyway, as Stacy said, there's lots of really cool stuff in Plaxo's future, and -- if you've absolutely decided to abandon Plaxo for the moment -- I do hope you'll check back with us in the months to come.

Thanks again for your blog entry, Adam, and take care.

markjen said...

Hi Adam,

Hope one day you'll change your mind! We've got a ton of new stuff in the pipeline; maybe it will provide enough value for you to give us another try.

Don't worry, your suggestions aren't falling on deaf ears. We've love to try all these ideas, but we don't have the bandwidth. If only we had $30b in the bank... ;)

In the meantime, hope you're having a good time in Redmond! Are you going to let us know what group/role you're in soon?

adamjh said...

Stacy,

Wow, thanks for the great response!

I think backup/restore, sync, and birthday reminder features are useful, but they're also not unique to Plaxo (I get all three from my phone, and there are numerous other products/plugins/portals/web sites that provide some or all of the above). But like you said, you've just begun to scratch the surface of what's possible, and I'll certainly be staying tuned! In additioning to leveraging presence, IM, social networking, and more from existing services, it'd be amazing to see Plaxo become a platform that those other services could leverage themselves. Ok, I'm going to stop brainstorming here.

Adam,

Great name indeed. :-)

I missed the Folder Mapping feature. I went back earlier today and took a look at some of the support docs, specifically the syncing guide, and it looks pretty neat. I am actually very impressed with the entire Plaxo (web and Outlook) interface too. You must have some great people on board.

And finally, Mark,

I'll be waiting eagerly to give it another try. You don't need to be big to think big:

http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/2005/06/13.html#a10370

As for Redmond, it's been a great ride so far. I'm working on a great new v1 product. But unfortunately, since it hasn't been officially announced, it's difficult to blog about the day to day happenings - or much else for that matter. But fwiw, I'm wearing the (technical, not marketing) PM hat.

And next time you're in the area, we should definitely grab lunch!