On September 30th, 2015 Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullogh announced their app to the world. It was called ‘Peeple’, and they’d been building it throughout the summer months. Julia Cordray had come to California from Calgary, AB and was determined to build an app in 90 days with her friend. The process was primarily focused on solidifying and validating the concept, and then moving forward with an app development team. During their development summer, the duo produced 12 ‘webisodes’ documenting their process. From conceptualizing the app to validating their idea to actually going into development meetings, Cordray and McCullogh were transparent with their motivations and thoughts during the process.
On September 30th, 2015 the pair was featured in a Washington Post Article. within 24 hours the Peeple app had gone viral and news outlets from around the globe were weighing in on the concept. Far from the positive response Cordray and McCullogh had expected though, internet communities countered with ridicule and anger at the overall idea.
The idea was simple. Cordray had built two incredibly successful HR and recruiting companies and wanted a tool that would help recruiters to better match potential candidates with jobs. She partnered with McCullogh to create an app to allow verified individuals to rate one another, and to leave comments regarding a user’s character and personality. The underlying thought was that this kind of a tool would create positivity and build people up. Rather than stopping at professional relationships however, the two chose to expand their ratings categories. A user would be able to rate individuals they knew in a professional, personal, or dating relationship. Incorporating on October 24, 2014 and planning to launch exactly one year later, Cordray began fundraising. As they added shareholders and built equity, the ladies also documented their journey and posted webisodes on their YouTube channel. A Facebook page and Twitter account were also used to share milestones in the stages Peeple’s development.
Almost immediately following the backlash Peeple’s founders experienced in the wake of their formal media announcement, comments began being deleted, most of the webisodes were removed from their channel, the app’s social media presence was scrubbed, and the website was taken down. The videos from the official YouTube channel had been downloaded and were made available by a third party, and the website later reappeared with a vague statement regarding an upcoming announcement and a request to look for more information after October 12th. On October 16, 2015 Julia Cordray appeared on the Dr. Phil show to share her side of the story.
Cordray listened to the backlash and there have been some drastic changes to the functionality of the proposed app. In the initial reports users would have been able to add a new profile to the database with simply a cell phone number, content would not be removed, and only poor ratings would have the opportunity for review before posting. Aside from the questionable ethics of adding a user without an explicit opt-in, the potential for bullying and harassment sparked a powder keg in the media and shows from CBS to local news shows to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight were all covering the debacle.
While the idea to create a rating system for people isn’t a completely original idea, Peeple’s founders did receive some positive feedback during fundraising. efforts, primarily in connection with the hiring and recruitment potential. Peeple is still going forward, and is currently accepting beta testers on the website, but with significant changes. The app idea may be ill-conceived and naïve, but with a social media strategy and a crisis management plan, the app may have had a fighting chance.
From a recruitment perspective, an application that offers insight into a candidate’s personality and management style could be extremely beneficial. Cultural fit is one of the more important aspects in determining success of job placement, but is the most difficult to predict. With more data from a variety of sources, fit could be more easily gauged before signing bonuses and stock options were in the mix.
Adding multiple categories to be rated on dilutes the purpose of the app. Various social media platforms exist because of the affordances inherent in each. LinkedIn is used very differently than Facebook because it is geared toward a more professional use case. Peeple should have focused on the career capabilities and avoided personal relationships.
Another weakness in the initial app announcement was the lack of awareness regarding audience perception. During the “Validating the App” webisode the duo did ask for feedback, but disregarded negative feedback from potential investors while celebrating every bit of positive feedback. A healthy campaign is a well informed campaign. Burying your head in the sand as a response to potential headaches is simply a recipe for disaster.
Lack of authenticity and transparency were major issues with Peeple. The app would allow for anyone to post about anyone else, regardless of whether they opted to become a user or notand comments would not be removed. During the early part of October the social media pages for Peeple were removing comments, blocking followers, and harrassing others. The pages then all came down, and comments were locked on the YouTube channel. Rather than acknowledging the issues with the app design, Cordray chose to pivot the app and ignore the previous statements. Instead of owning up to their poor behavior, she immediately began a PR campaign to paint the app as misunderstood. The new version of the app is a watered down and opt-in only positivity app. The new version is no longer helpful for the HR sector, and has turned into a non-event.
The biggest opportunity has already passed, but there is a small chance of harnessing the viral nature of the initial media firestorm. Peeple’s purpose needs to be more solidly defined. Rather than going after multiple user segments, Cordray should focus on professional and industry users. The rating and comments segments could really help in a recruitment setting.
Another opportunity is to apologize. Being authentic and gaining trust begins with owning your mistakes as a company and being transparent as you move to correct them. An open dialog with beta testers about how to improve functionality and address privacy concerns would make a world of difference in their reception.
Threats: Apps already exist that rate people. Focusing on the social segment will just muddy the waters with the exisiting products. The reputation Peeple has gained is unlikely to improve without a total brand rehabilitation project, and so other apps are more likely to be used.
For the Peeple:
The app is still moving ahead. Beta testers are being recruited, and the founders continue to show up in the media from time to time, but the biggest takeaway we can get from this situation is how important a strategy is. Cordray and McCullogh built a solid business plan, they forcasted earnings and worked closely with developers on prototyping the actual app. What they failed to do was think of social media as a vital part of their business rather than just a communications medium. They posted some videos and shared updates with their followers, but did not think about the potential fall out. In the Dr. Phil segment we can see how bewildered Corday is when asked how the team never thought about the bullying potential. A communications strategy and policy is a key element to any start up. Knowing how to respond in any situation, and having thought through the potential for backlash, not only prepares a small business for a situation precisely like this, but also gives an opportunity to review the product and the campaign for potential threats and weaknesses. Crisis management is not only about what you do when there is a problem, it’s about how to avoid a potential crisis in the first place.
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