Amazon Customers Vote: Good idea, gone terribly bad?

Fascinating to watch how Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) is trying to experiment with new business ideas within the context of its online store, even if most of their corporate efforts (according to BusinessWeek, at least) are focused on offering up their technological backend capabilities to everyone in the industry, even direct competitors.
For the Christmas shopping season, Amazon’s taken a leaf from its online auction service [am I the only person who remembers that they’re still kinda-sorta trying to compete with eBay (Nasdaq:EBAY), for that matter?] and are experimenting with customers voting on the best of a set of possible promotions.
Here are a couple of the offers up for the next vote:

Amazon Customer Votes

Problem is, what happens in your customer community when things break down?

Amazon’s learning this the hard way with its most recent promotion, a rudimentary but functional Axion portable DVD player for the splendid price of $25. Hey, at $25 how can you go wrong, even if it lasts about one episode of Sex and the City before the battery is kaput?
The problem isn’t the $25 portable DVD player, it’s what happened when they ran out and people started leaving feedback:
“Complain to Better Business Bureau About Bait & Switch”
“Stop the winners auction”
“If you keep complaining, they won’t do it again next year.”
“you are going to ruin this promotion”
“All Christians Assemble”
“Now it’s a lottery?”
“Why are people so whiny?”
“Too many bad new rules”
These are just the pleasant discussions associated with this promotion, there are some additional threads that are, well, certainly not reflecting well on the company or its customers.
Within the threads there are additional interesting interchange, like this:
“I just logged in and tried to get the dvd player and it is already sold out. Totally ridiculous on amazons part to advertise having something and selling out already. This is a classic case of selling something without the supply necessary to satisfy the customer base.” Followed by this response: “it’s false advertising on a number of levels. suck it up.”
Is that the kind of publicity and visibility you’d want to be gaining for your business?
The problem here isn’t that Amazon’s trying to innovate and try something new (really something kinda like Woot, if you ask me) but as with so many experiments, it certainly appears to me that Amazon forgot to consider the law of unintended consequences.
In this case they didn’t ask what happens when we run out?
Imagine you had just a few hundred units reflecting some fabulous deal and you knew that your thousands of customers were going to be crazy about the opportunity. How do you run the program? First come, first served, knowing that you are inevitably going to disappoint lots of customers because of the simple logistics of Internet accessibility, or would you have a specific amount of time when people could register for the offer and then let them bid up the price again, or, finally, would you have a registration time and then randomly pick a subset of people to make happy?
Amazon’s still chewing on this one, and each time they’ve run this promotion they’ve changed the rules, which is darn confusing to their Amazon customers too, as you would imagine.
Now what, though? What’s Amazon’s next step?

7 comments on “Amazon Customers Vote: Good idea, gone terribly bad?

  1. Ah…one of those blogs that tests my math ability!! 😉
    I thought that this Amazon thing was going to cause a lot of problems. So few units for so many people! It is a good way to keep people coming back to check and recheck the voting status, thereby catching their eye on some other thing that they can’t live without.
    I have a confession to make: I nearly considered the Axiom until I realized that I didn’t want one to begin with! I would have bought the Amazon Prime if it were a good enough price, though.
    Nice to meet you.

  2. Dave,
    The fact that traffic to Amazon Customers Vote promotion has brought Amazon’s servers down is quite interesting, especially, as you pointed out, they are trying to sell their excess computing bandwidth as a separate business.
    The fact is that it is very difficult to come up with an estimate of traffic that will come to your site given any promotion. I’m sure that Amazon was quite worried about not enough traffic coming and their marketing team was quite pleasantly surprised by the success of the promotion (even if their IT team was embarassed).
    As to the limited quantities of the promotion, especially at the prices they offer, I am not surprised or concerned about them selling out in seconds. I’m sure that the Florida / Ohio State BCS Championship game will be sold out in seconds as well. So will the Super Bowl. We have also heard radio stations offering those hard-to-find concert tickets to caller #7.
    So, it is effectively a lottery designed to bring traffic to Amazon, which is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
    I offered a few more thoughts about the Amazon Customers Vote promotion in my post:
    Amazon Customers Vote – A Great Lesson in Interactive Marketing

  3. First off: I think your blog sucks!
    Second: Even if amazon had 10,000 Zunes or Elmos it would not matter, because people just love to complain (like you did in your blog) – there for the guy number 10,0001 would also complain that he didnt get one. Having said that, why are we just greatful that Amazon is trying to innovate and please us with better prices…why do you need to complain about everything?

  4. Now amazon gave gave out codes that were redeemable by midnight and then changed their mind screwing all of the people who got the codes. I will be sending a letter to the attorney general. What they did was against the law!

  5. Daniel, that’s an interesting comment. Are you of the camp that believes we should be favorably inclined to everything that companies do, because, well, complaining is uncool? If so, how do companies learn, evolve, improve and get better? If I didn’t like Amazon, I’d say “ha, what a bunch of losers” but in fact, I’m a big fan of Amazon and that’s why I thought it was interesting to examine the debacle of its attempted Customers Vote program. You can see from the comment between yours and mine that they have *again* fumbled this program.
    Is it tough to manage massive influx in a fair manner? Of course it is. That’s why it’s worth examining and discussing.

  6. Customers Vote was a good, innovative effort, but I don’t think Amazon thought it through.
    The “first come first serve” idea was a total dud. Why should those with fast connections come out on top? I applaud the random lottery system, but they still missed the mark. Seeing “Sorry, you weren’t selected to purchase this item” at 3 a.m. EST slaps hopeful buyers with a lasting negative impression. Amazon should know that the best contest from a merchant’s perspective is one where only winners are notified. Losers are less likely to remember the downside that way.
    Bottom line: I’m not sure that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.
    Nice blog, Dave. I’ll be back.

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