Let's leave the feds to arrest the hackers (and they should), the lawyers to determine liability for Ashley Madison's false claims (and they should), and the reputation experts to protect the exposed (and they should).
But let's also take a minute to sit back and see this for the biblical marketing lesson it offers. How did a company with a $34 million budget fail to motivate a critical half of its consumer base? This massive hack uncovers a truth seen daily without headlines: Male-lens marketing is bad for business.
Every day—every hour—this same phenomenon results in cars not driven off lots, airline tickets not booked, software not downloaded and other opportunities for connecting with female consumers missed because brands fail to see who they're truly marketing to and how valuable female insight is.
Let's put ethics aside and just look at Ashley Madison as we would any other client selling a service. And let's see the breakdown in connecting with female consumers, as avoidable here as in any other category.
There's been much discussion over the last week about Ashley Madison's reportedly infinitesimal pool of non-bot female users. Tech site Gizmodo today admitted that its earlier assessment of just 12,000 real women on Ashley Madison was wrong and that further review shows the number is much larger but impossible to measure accurately.
What is clear from the data, Gizmodo says, is that while Ashley Madison may have started out as an infidelity hookup site, it devolved through gender imbalance to the point where "the company was clearly on a desperate quest to design legions of fake women to interact with the men on the site." These bots spent much of their time encouraging men to dump more money into the site in hopes of meeting someone in real life.
Ashley Madison's shortcomings as a service began with one central mistake: failing to appeal to women. Let's look at the many ways the site's image and tone have been painfully male-centric:
First, the name. The company was founded in 2002 and named after the two most popular names for baby girls that year. Big mistake, in my estimation. If you want to convince a woman to fling herself into a fling, do you really want name associations with her own daughters, nieces or children of friends? Guilt is a deal-breaker on the road to vow-breaking. I suspect this was equally repellent to men, making it a double no-no.
The logo. The "o" in "Madison" is rendered as a wedding ring. Really, art director? Really? See critique above. The name and logo remind me of both my husband and potentially my kids—two things I want out of mind as I prepare to jump into affairville.
The tagline. "Life is short. Have an affair." This carpe diem notion doesn't align with how women make big decisions (more methodically and carefully than men). Positioning "have an affair" like it's on a bucket list—right up there with climbing Mount Everest or seeing the Pyramids—falls short of the real thing that drives women into another man's arms.
I would have written something along the lines of "Life is short. What are you longing for?" (I love, however, that they trademarked their tagline, as if any other brand might attempt to appropriate it.)
The marketing copy. "Join AshleyMadison.com for FREE and Have An Affair…Guaranteed!" Is my biggest concern from the get-go about finding a sure thing? Or am I putting a toe into a very cold pool and needing smaller assurances?
The Frequently Asked Questions section includes doozies like this:
Q: I'm planning on meeting someone. What should I remember?
A: Try and tell at least two people where you're going to be, the name of the person you're meeting, what they look like and when you expect to be home. You can provide this information without revealing the purpose of your meeting.
I'm trying to imagine calling Jill and Julie, two close friends, and casually mentioning, "I'm meeting Bill Monahan, a debonair Clooney look-alike, at Starbucks today at 4, and then I'll be home cooking dinner for Gene and the boys by 6. What are your plans for the evening?"
Another standout in the FAQ is this gem:
Q: Does Ashley Madison encourage infidelity?
A: No, Ashley Madison does not encourage anyone to stray. In fact, if you are having difficulty with your relationship, you should seek counseling. However, if you still feel that you will seek a person other than your partner to fill your unmet needs, then we truly believe that our service is the best place to start.
Dudes, your tagline is "Life is short. Have an affair." That's a directive. A directive is encouraging something. And if you really want to help couples find counseling, how about making that a live link instead of a lip-service one-liner?
Lastly, the pink-washing. CEO Noel Biderman (make that ex-CEO), told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011 that women prefer to have affairs at the office with a "work husband" or within their social circles, such as with a friend's partner. "For them to go and have anonymous affairs, I was almost gonna have to create that paradigm. And to do that I felt that women were going to have to feel that there was … I don't want to say a woman behind it, but definitely that they were the focal point."
So to answer that call, did Biderman hire women to run his company? Nooooo. He pink-washed, using girly colors and a girly name. But a female sensibility ends there. If you want to understand women and meet their needs (no matter how questionable), ask women, hire women, and reflect their input in every element of your brand.
In summary, AshleyMadison.com—like so many other brands—is not optimized to market to women. Yet, this is one case where I must admit the missed market opportunity doesn't trouble me.