What’s wrong (and right) with Guvera?

Last week Guvera started their limited beta. I gave it a shot, then I gave it a bit of a hosing on Twitter.

Within minutes, @Guvera replied with a somewhat unconvincing 140 character regurgitation of their business model. Within an hour I had a voicemail message from Josh at Guvera, wanting to have a chat about my experience.

It always impresses me when people are willing to track me down to find out more about my 140 character rants. It’s happened a couple times before, most notably with @RichardSlatter of Wotnews, who I’ve now caught up with quite a few times on their offering.

So I gave Josh a call back yesterday and had a chat about Guvera. I promised him I’d have another go of the site, and offer some feedback.

While I don’t normally write about specific sites or campaigns, I’m writing down my thoughts here. Not to publicly slam Guvera, but rather in the hope that the clever people who read this blog will be able to add even more value and help a startup out. And also because I think there’s lessons to be learned at a broader level by really pulling apart what ticks and what doesn’t in a new idea such as this.

A couple things before I start. I read this wonderful thought on Noah Brier‘s blog yesterday: “…critique is about identifying the germs of ideas worth development despite the current holes and mistakes”. I’m hoping that the following is completely in the spirit of that thought. Also I’m going to use Joe Crump’s seven ‘Digital DNA‘ elements to try to keep this brief and succinct (and because I think these seven attributes are still completely relevant and slightly brilliant).

The Guvera experience, to my cynical mind, just doesn’t feel that genuine. It’s not like I feel like I’m selling my soul to the devil (or McDonalds in this case) in order to get my music, it’s just that I don’t feel like the brand presence is a truly authentic one. Nor do I really feel like I’m supporting artists by using the service.

I’ll make two concessions here. Firstly, I don’t think a younger and more mainstream audience would find the advertising as inauthentic as I do. And secondly, I see this as a challenge for the brands who are involved in Guvera to make it feel more authentic. This is still early days, but the quicker we can move away from visually intrusive billboard communication with a slightly related playlist, and to a truly personalised music experience enabled by the brand, the better. I just can’t see the service getting traction until that happens.

Adaptiveness is an absolute must have for me in any music site or app. If it’s not learning about me, and making recommendations, I don’t have much use for it. This is a hard thing. Last.FM gets it pretty much right, Pandora does an alright job, but outside of those two I have very rarely seen music recommendation done well enough that I seek it out. For this, I still stick to analog computing (an email list with about 40 friends who are music nuts, and Facebook), which is social behaviour which could be replicated within a service like Guvera (I’ll come back to that later).

But Guvera is still falling well short of the benchmark in adaptiveness regardless of cutting edge recommendation engines. I can log in to a WhatCD or Waffles account, search for an artist I like, and within a couple clicks be discovering other artists I’ve never heard, but might like. This is all done through fairly simple algorithms.

On the advertising side of things, I thing it’s tough to criticise the service for lack of adaptiveness at this point. (I also think it’s rather moot to focus too much on the advertising platform at the moment anyway, if Guvera can’t get the music service right, there will be no user base to advertise too). But this is somewhere I really do see potential. The way Guvera can be successful (and unique) is to create truly useful, authentic brand experiences. A truly adaptive platform will achieve this, and even in the cutthroat world of music services, I believe will succeed.

Which brings me on to relevance. Guvera doesn’t feel useful to me as a music fan. It’s existing core offers (free music & altruistic consumption) are available to me elsewhere, and even though it is only through separate channels (torrents & iTunes), the ease of both of those channels still makes them far more appealing.

But I can’t help but think these two core offers are not what is going to draw users in anyway. What will draw users in is a new experience, the challenge is that in almost every arena there is already stiff competition. Discovery (Last.FM, Pandora), socialness (Blip.FM, Facebook), endless choice (Spotify), all these things have been done, and done well. Which doesn’t mean they can’t be done better, and I actually believe the brand experience side of things is a real strength here. We know people are happy to brand themselves, so if Guvera can create social music discovery with a seemingly endless selection, curated in part by brands I love, then they will have created something truly transformative.

And I guess the lack of a transformative experience was the root of my disappointed tweet. After what was no small amount of hype, Guvera just didn’t raise my expectations of what music could be (and yes I realise that they will eventually branch out into video and other media, but if the music isn’t right, I don’t think the rest will follow). I think some of this is because it is actually quite a complicated offering. I’m sure a lot of people were like me when they first used Spotify or Pandora or Blip.fm or even MySpace and thought “Damn, I had this idea, why didn’t I ever get around to making it happen?”. Guvera though, I certainly didn’t have this idea. Which is not to say it’s destined for failure (I certainly never had the idea for Twitter of Foursquare), but rather highlights two clear things for me.

Firstly, the unique story of Guvera needs to be communicated to the average user. If the value of brand interactions, the altruism of artists getting paid, and what I hope will become the social and discovery aspects of the music are all communicated as a whole, Guvera is a truly unique and interesting experience. What telling that story does is gives people the desire to spend an extra couple of minutes trying it out, a vital extra couple minutes to work out just how stuff works and why it’s valuable to them. At the moment, users are just dumped in to a search box.

Secondly, they need to listen to their users. Complex user experiences like Guvera can succeed, but invariably do not follow the path that their creators intended. People will find value in areas that the developers didn’t expect, and may ignore the features that those close to the project think make the site brilliant. Twitter is a great example of this (hashtags, replies, retweets, lists are all a result of user evolution of the service), and already we’re seeing signs of FourSquare taking a similar path. Both are services which superficially offer little immediate value to me, it’s only through continued exposure and exploration that they become must-haves. I think startups like Guvera can learn a lot from that.

Overall my Guvera experience wasn’t immersive. I didn’t loose track of time. In actual fact, I found myself pushing through to try and spend a bit more time on the site, just in case I wasn’t ‘getting it’. I think there’s a few factors to this, in terms of the user story and experience as I mentioned above, but also the interface, usability and design side of the site. But all of these things are improved post-beta in any service, and I actually don’t believe they are as crucial as many believe in the success of a startup.

What is critically missing at this stage to make Guvera a truly immersive experience is the socialness. And this means both the digital socialness (using data) and analog socialness (using my friends). I’ll briefly go over the key areas I think could be improved upon here, because they’re pretty obvious and I can only hope that they’re already in a roadmap.

When I signed up, to get credits to actually listen to any music I had to fill in a survey of my likes and dislikes. I get this, it’s to build a profile for potential advertisers, but it’s a massive barrier and I think completely unnecessary. It can be overcome in two ways. Firstly, pull all the data you can from my Facebook or Twitter or Shelfari or Last.FM or Flickr or Dopplr profiles. Seamless and painless. Then give me a bunch of credits and let me get on with using the site. Then, over time use data to build my profile up. But please don’t ask me to build up a profile of myself, it causes severe existential crises.

Once I was using Guvera, I felt very much like I was in a room on my own. I was favouriting channels and (trying to) download tracks, but this activity was very much in a vacuum. Why could I not tell my friends on Twitter or Facebook that I’d just become a fan of DJ Hero playlist? And why could I not see (and interact with) other users currently on that channel? And if this whole system is going to work on a credits basis, why are you not utilising me to tell my friends (who no doubt have similar musical tastes to me) about a channel, then reward me if I get them on board as well?

Finally in terms of socialness in the real world, there’s still a long way to go. When we talk about ideas spreading via social networks, it’s easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that means a ‘Share on Facebook’ button. It doesn’t. The way I share things like Guvera with my social network is by telling them about it over a beer, showing them on my iPhone. Guvera needs to get out of the browser and become a service that people can make their own, carry with them, and truly become a social platform.

Before I finish, I’d like to say absolutely nothing about the Guvera model of artist payment. I don’t actually believe it’s right. I don’t believe it’s sustainable. And I don’t think that it matters one bit to the success of the site.

I’ll finish up with a thought on the advertising side of things. The reason I’m writing this, the reason I’m willing to give Guvera a go, is because I’m really interested in the brand side of the service. I actually don’t know how I want to use it, but I know it could be really exciting. We didn’t believe that people wanted to be friends with brands on social networks. We were wrong. My instinct tells me that I don’t want brands encroaching on the single largest and most personal part of my life, my music. But I know, deep down, somehow, I’m wrong.

- January 2010