Path doesn’t have a registered user problem, it has a trust problem

If you’ve read anything about the social network Path over the last year or so, you’d know that it’s an attractive app with some interesting social and design features, but one that has been struggling for years now to get enough users to move it into the big leagues of social networks. Path needs more people using its app. And clearly, the company got the message.

Path announced this week that it hit 10 million users, hoping to reinforce that the company is on a growth track. But just as soon as Path announced that number, stories that hint at less-than-ideal user-acquisition strategies came out, highlighting yet again that attracting new users doesn’t mean much if those new users feel that they can’t trust you.

As many people have already written, the concept of “registered users” is essentially a meaningless metric. A registered user could be someone who downloads your app once and never opens it again — hardly a valuable customer to have. There are also a variety of shady ways companies can acquire new downloads.

On Tuesday, The Verge reported that several users had done just that — downloaded the app, tried it out, and then uninstalled when they found they didn’t like it or need it. However, those users then reported that Path had then sent a message to all of the contacts in their address book, urging them to check out photos that the user had shared on Path — even after the user had uninstalled the app — which in order to see the photos requires one to download the app and sign up. This is also an issue that commenters on Reddit have complained about before.

When I spoke to the company about those complaints Tuesday, a representative explained that when a user signs up to download Path, that user can choose whether to grant Path access to their contacts and Facebook friends. So presumably, if you unselect your friends and contacts from the suggested lists when you sign up, you’re set.

But in regards to today’s story of the user’s contacts getting messaged after he uninstalled the app, Path VP of Marketing Nate Johnson said the company is investigating how that happened, and the current guess is that there was a delay in sending messages to the person’s contacts after he signed up, that went out after he’d uninstalled the app.

“That’s something we’re investigating very closely,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to do anything without your knowledge, that’s not the Path way.”

Maybe contacting your Facebook friends is fair game on Path’s part if the user doesn’t realize he needs to uncheck some boxes, but if I uninstalled an app and then discovered it had spammed all my contacts after that app was gone from my phone? I would would be livid, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend the app to any of my friends.

It’s not an uncommon strategy in Silicon Valley for companies to take first and ask later when it comes to user privacy and sharing — Facebook, where Path founder Dave Morin played an integral role, practically pioneered the strategy.

But for Path, it’s a much more dangerous road to travel than it is for Facebook, and not just because Path doesn’t have the 1 billion strong user base to serve as a buffer. Path already had to settle with the FTC and pay an $800,000 fine for acquiring the numbers of minors, and back in its earlier days it made headlines when the company apologized for storing user address book data on its servers.

So yes, Path absolutely needs to acquire new users to remain relevant, and there are several ways the company could achieve this. That road to users and revenue could come with the company’s new messaging and stickers (which I was just using this weekend, and are stupidly, addictively entertaining.)

But if that growth comes from violating user trust and spamming their address books to effectively cold-call a user’s friends? That’s a surefire way to alienate both existing users and deter any future ones.