The Internet exploded with fury yesterday (What else is new?) when app founders Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray announced the upcoming launch of Peeple, which The Washington Post described as “Yelp for people.”
Tentatively slated for a late November launch, the app allows users to rate people on a 1-5 scale and leave reviews of others’ behavior. Kinda like a public, digital burn book. (Mean Girls, anyone?)
McCullough and Cordray have hyped it as a universal tool for transparency and feedback, comparing it to the research shoppers do when they buy a car or make other big decisions.
But not everyone sees it that way. After the founders appeared on Good Morning America yesterday, #Peeple quickly became a trending topic. Twitter lit up with criticism, with everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy! fame) jumping in to condemn the app.
Using the Internet to be Judgey McJudgersons is nothing new. After all, we’ve been voting Hot or Not since the days of AOL yore. But Peeple differs from other rating systems in a few key ways:
First, users don’t have to opt in. Anyone can review and rate another person without his or her permission. If someone else enters your name, you can’t take your profile off the site.
(You do have 48 hours to respond to a negative reviewer before that post goes live, but since when has reasonable conversation ever been effective with Internet trolls?)
Second, instead of rating a person in a limited area (the way Hot or Not evaluates only physical attractiveness), Peeple rates people in three key categories: professional, dating, and personal.
This last category is most disturbing. The app doesn’t ask, “How physically attractive is this person?” or “How good is this mechanic?” but rather “How worthwhile is this person as a whole?”
Third, McCullough and Cordray’s marketing campaign (which included a reality web series and an appearance on Good Morning America) portrays Peeple as a sweeping new paradigm—something that will revolutionize interpersonal relationships. It gives rise to visions of a dystopian future, where ratings brand people for life.
Its ominous tagline? “Character is destiny.” And in a video on Peeple’s website, Cordray says chillingly, “All that matters is what people say about us.”
If that’s true, Cordray and McCullough have a lot to worry about. People are talking about Peeple, and they’re not saying nice things:
Peeple might not “change the way people can learn about each other online,” as the app’s grandiose website predicts, but we can still learn something from it. More specifically, we can learn what not to do.
So do yourself a favor and follow these common sense guidelines to avoid becoming the Internet’s next brand non grata.
1. Conduct research.
A simple focus group or survey could have steered McCullough and Cordray away from this disastrous launch. Ask respondents, “On a scale of 1-5, how good do you feel about a universal personal rating scale with no opt-out?” and we’re betting most of them will write in below the scale: “Negative 1 million. For the love of all that is good, abandon ship.”
Similarly, with just a bit of clicking around on Twitter, DiGiorno’s social media manager might have realized that #WhyIStayed referred to domestic violence—and wouldn’t work well to boost frozen pizza sales.
Do your due diligence before launching a product or campaign, and you’ll save yourself some major headaches.
2. Be prepared for crisis.
When the $#*! hit the fan, Cordray and McCullough responded poorly. They played the victim and posted a defensive response (titled “An Ode to Courage”) on their website. Here’s a taste:
“Innovators are often put down because people are scared and they don’t understand. We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.”
(Yeah, thanks for loving us enough to subject us to numerical criticism.) Slate ridiculed the stance, saying it bordered on martyrdom. Others sounded off as well.
Peeple’s crisis was pretty predictable, but as our PR director will tell you, you don’t always know when a crisis is coming. Take steps to prepare for a crisis ahead of time, and always (always!) get media training before you talk to the press.
3. Don’t shut down discussion.
Cordray added fuel to the fire when she posed this question to her Facebook followers:
Coming from the founder of an app based on comment and criticism, this question comes across as highly hypocritical. It provoked additional ridicule and certainly didn’t help McCullough and Cordray’s case.
Instead, brands should respond calmly and respectfully to critics. A good example of this? DiGiorno. After their #WhyIStayed faux pas, the pizza brand answered every single outraged Twitter user with a personalized response.
4. Vet your name.
The real victim in all of this is the original Peeple, a Kickstarter-based company that manufactures Wi-Fi-enabled peephole cameras.
In response to the media firestorm, the original Peeple changed its Twitter bio, saying, “NO ASSOCIATION WITH @PeepleforPeople. We are the original #Peeple unleashing the power of your front door since 2014!”
5. Don’t be jerks.
Sure, a focus group (or even a coffee shop straw poll) would have shown McCullough and Cordray that Peeple was a disastrously bad idea, but let’s be real, they shouldn’t have needed market research to tell them not to launch this product.
Bottom line: Use common sense, and don’t be a jerk.