How Social Media Almost Killed Me

by Chris Kenton on May 1, 2008

I’m an avid mountain biker. Instead of going to the gym, I ride trails. The last time I bought a bike, I built it up piece by piece, meticulously researching every part on the internet. It took me three months to figure out exactly what I wanted, and I read hundreds of pages of blogs, forums and product reviews. This, in fact, was one of my seminal experiences in social media marketing, when I realized first-hand how much control businesses have lost over their brands.

Among the many dozens of web sites I visited, the hundreds of pages I read, the countless dialogs I had on message boards, I almost never visited the web sites of product manufacturers. I didn’t care what they had to say. I didn’t want to hear how they were positioning their new bike, or get spun on their latest technology boondoggle. Anything I wanted to know about bikes I wanted to hear from other riders. Who would trust a company that had just dumped $3M into their latest product upgrade to give you an honest assessment of the product’s weaknesses? I’d rather hear from 20 people who bought the product and can tell me why it sucks. The only information I wanted from a manufacturer was product specs. What are the measurements of a large frame? What’s the diameter of the head tube?

IntenseI wound up building my dream bike and becoming an big believer in the power of social media to transform consumer behavior. Researching products before making a purchase decision is perhaps the most powerful way the internet and social media will reshape commerce. But it can also have its drawbacks if you’re not careful.

Recently I’ve found myself in need of new tires. It’s been an especially dry spring and the trails have become hard, loose and treacherous. Although I’m an avid rider, I’m not really a gear geek. I’m not one those people that’s constantly buying the latest new thing and putting it on my bike. Once I buy or build a bike, I tend to ride it until it’s completely destroyed and then I move on. When it came time to buy new tires, I hadn’t tried every tread pattern or developed any loyalty to a particular brand. So I fell back on my trusted advisor, the Internet. And that’s when I got screwed.

When I went online, I found great deals on tires from a brand I’ve already used, Wilderness Trail Bikes. One tire in particular sounded good for hard, dry conditions, a tire called the Velociraptor. So I went to the product review sites, and low and behold there were 450 reviews for the Velociraptor, rendering an average score of 4.14 out of 5 stars. Impressive. I played out my usual tactic of reading a lot of negative reviews to hear what might go wrong, but the metrics were overwhelmingly positive. So I bought my new tires and put them on my bike.

First ride out, the front tires felt a little loose compared to my old tires. Everything was a little twitchy. I chalked it up to breaking in the new tread and started pushing it harder. And then I ate it. It wasn’t even a tight turn or anything technical. I was just cruising along a straight line of single track and I felt the front wheel slip out. My center of gravity collapsed and then I was ripping through the rocks and dirt on my side. No major damage, just a wide and bloody stripe of trail rash from my ankle to my shoulder.

So I finished my ride and stopped by my local bike shop to talk with one of their mechanics. I walked in and said I needed some insight about tires, and the guy takes one look at my arms and legs, looks at the front tire and just shakes his head. "What are doing with that on your bike? That’s outdated technology." And then he proceeds to point out all the things that have been improved in the years since that tire was invented. In fact, the tire I had replaced with the Velocirapter had been much better, which is why it suddenly felt so uncontrollable. So how did I get steered so wrong by trusting the Internet?

It turns out, if I’d paid more attention to all the tire reviews, they were years old. The site didn’t make that obvious, and honestly I didn’t really think about it. A tire’s a tire, right? But even though there’s much better technology available, Wilderness Trail Bikes is still making bank selling their highly rated and outdated tires at fire sale prices. Not only did that cost me the price of the tire, which I immediately replaced with an up-to-date Kenda Nevegal, but it cost me a lot of skin and pain–and I consider myself lucky.

Social Media is a phenomenal tool for consumers. But it’s not idiot proof. It puts you in the position of being able to learn from the experiences of hundreds of others, which doesn’t exactly make you an expert. The problem is what you don’t know that you don’t know. And that could actually kill you. At the end of the day, I’m still grateful that I can walk into my local bike shop and talk to an expert. Now I wish I’d started there in the first place.

Oh, and I won’t buy another Wilderness Trail Bikes tire. They got me once. Never again.

Update: Okay. I’ve talked to a bunch of tire experts who agree with my assessment of the Velociraptor, but not with my conclusion that I shouldn’t buy another Wilderness Trail Bikes tire. They do make some great tires. I’ll just say their marketing–especially educating buyers about making the right tire choice–could be significantly improved.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary May 2, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Dear Marketonomy

I read your blog this afternoon and found it to be very educational. It also made me feel compelled to write back to you on your blog, so here I am.

I’ve been working at WTB for 15 years now, and like you, am an avid mountain biker. I also love riding road bikes, but the dirt is where I prefer to be. As a long term employee of WTB, I felt a little defensive reading your comments about our tires and your negative experience. I will keep those feelings in check and offer up a few words that come to mind. Please note that I am not trying to be confrontational. I can tell by reviewing your blog and profile that you are a very intelligent person and appear willing and open to hearing the other side, so to speak.

I believe the method of reading consumer reviews to help decide on a purchase is a great method. I recently used this same method buying a cell phone, and was able to navigate past the almighty iphone and ended up with something with less flash, and more function. I feel very good about the process and end result.

When you went to the internet to figure out what tire to buy, you neglected to notice the older dates on the consumer reviews. This is understandable, it’s hard to catch everything. After all, dirt hasn’t changed in thirteen years, so the reviews should still hold water. So, you go with the tires with a good review and a low internet price, makes sense. This small imperfection in your research is noteworthy.

When riding the new treads you noted that they felt a little loose compared to your old tires. When changing equipment, it can be awkward getting used to new gear, whether it’s a surf board, a golf club, ski’s or mountain bike tires, it takes a little while to get comfortable. Then you crashed. All confidence is gone, and you are sitting on the trail with cuts and bruises trying to understand what happened. I am glad you are not seriously injured. A cut from ankle to shoulder sounds bad though. Ouch.

There are many different variables that could have caused your crash. More than, “I was just cruising along a straight line of single track and I felt the front wheel slip out.” It is possible that you did not see a rock or root on the trail, and that oversight, and lack of steering and balance compensation caused the crash. If you were riding in Fairfax, at Camp Tamarancho (noted in your blog)or other similar trials, this is very possible. Tires don’t just slip out, it’s a combination of several things that lead to the tire slipping. Everything between your brain and the tire has some level of contribution. We’ve all crashed, and the result can often be loss of confidence, and careful review of equipment.

The visit to the local bike shop was smart. The guys at Fairfax Cyclery are great, and full of good information. However, the comment about outdated technology is not correct. The tire design is over ten years old. It’s thirteen years old. The casing technology and rubber compound are state of the art and used by other reputable brands like Maxxis and Specialized. There are only a few bicycle tire factories in the world, and CST (manufacturer of the VelociRaptor) is one of the best in the business. I believe you may have been better served consulting the folks at Fairfax Cyclery first, or another bicycle dealer near the trail head for tips and recommendations for tires that are suitable for the local trails and your riding style. With all of this said, one can find a large range of knowledge at bike shops, really any retail store. The mechanic may have put his opinion into his comment, which may or may not have been factually based. We all have to be careful of this, both on the giving and receiving side of the conversation.

Your commentary of “But even though there’s much better technology available, Wilderness Trail Bikes is still making bank selling their highly rated and outdated tires at fire sale prices” is not accurate. The VelociRaptor is the best selling WTB tire worldwide. It’s designed for loose and/or rough terrain, not hard packed terrain. What was the terrain like you were riding? The “making bank” part is tough to understand. Tires are made with rubber and petroleum based materials. Oil prices are at an all time high, last week at $120 a barrel, and you can bet that all members of the bicycle industry that sell tires are feeling the cost pinch, WTB is no exception. We are not “making bank” as you allege.

Social media is very powerful, and enabling. Your assertions are not all factually based. Your decision not to buy WTB tires again is your right, but to say WTB got you once, never again seems unfair to me.

It seems like you haven’t considered the possibility that you crashed because of an unseen obstacle on the trail or that the mechanics opinion that the tire is old technology is incorrect. To me, it sounds like you crashed, got hurt, and want to blame the tire instead of considering anything else.

In every debate, there are always at least two sides. I just want you to know that there is another side of this debate, and the people at WTB work hard every day to enhance your cycling experience by designing and marketing high quality, durable, safe products.

In closing, if I were to recommend a tire for riding Tamarancho, it would be the Mutano Raptor 2.4 or the Wolverine 2.2. The Kenda Nevegal is also a great choice.

All the best to you, and remember to keep the rubber side down.

Gary Gleason
Director of Sales
ph. 415.389.5040 ex.27
WTB, Inc.

Chris May 3, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Hi Gary–

Thanks for commenting. Kudos for being up-to-speed on social media, I wish all companies were so responsive. I’m glad anyone who finds this post will have a more complete story to consider, however, I’m sticking by my post.

After my ride this morning I stopped by 3 local bike shops to gather more opinions and see if I was indeed getting incorrect information about the Velociraptor. Instead, my story was confirmed. When I spoke to the high school kids working the floor, they’d point me to anything on the shelf and say it was great. But when I asked the mechanics in the back, they all said, with varying degrees of sentiment, that they would recommend other tires, and that the Velociraptor was passed its prime. The most diplomatic guy said he used to ride Velociraptors, and there was nothing really wrong with them, but now he was using Prowlers. The least diplomatic said he wouldn’t recommend them for anything but riding on the street. He pointed out the triangular tred on the front tires in particular and said in his opinion it doesn’t provide good breaking control.

Contrary to your suggestion, I’m not trying to find something to blame for my crash. I’m a pretty aggressive rider and I’ve taken my fair share of falls. It’s a dangerous sport. But this wasn’t a technical fall, it was a washout on loose rocky terrain. It felt like hydroplaning in a car. I was out of the saddle and actively managing my line, not sitting back and watching the scenery. Still, I’m not blaming the tires. I just don’t like the way they handle and I’m obviously not alone. Whether the handling is an issue of 13-year-old technology is a question I’ll leave to the experts, but I don’t buy your argument that since dirt hasn’t changed in 13 years, the tires must be fine. Air hasn’t changed a century, but that doesn’t mean I should feel safe getting on a plane designed in the 1920s.

The fact that the cost of oil is eating into your profit margin doesn’t change the logic of my argument, and I think you’ve confirmed the main points. You say you have the best selling tire in the world, which I completely understand you wouldn’t want to stop selling now just because it’s an old design. But everyone I’ve talked to says it doesn’t compare with newer technology that provides better grip in loose conditions. That does make me feel a bit like I’ve been had.

Maybe it’s idle speculation, but I suspect my experience is going to become more common as more bikes are sold today with updated tire designs. When people get used to a certain level of control and then replace their worn out tires with Velociraptors, it’s like going back a generation in evolution and giving up some handling and control. At least that’s what it felt like to me, and I think you risk some damage to your brand if more people have an experience like mine.

Again, I do appreciate your folllowing up. I still use a WTB saddle, which I love.

Thanks.

Chris May 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm

Gary–

I wanted to follow up on another note. I like what you guys have done with your web site, and I’m impressed that you’re tracking blogs and responding.

But, if you were my client, I would have advised a different response to my post. Take it with a grain of salt, but this is what I would have recommended:

Chris–

I’m sorry you lost confidence in one our products. We work hard to make a wide range of tires for many different riding styles and terrain. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to make the right match when buying tires on the Web, and it’s easy to wind up with a tire that doesn’t fit your riding style or terrain.

If you drop me a note I’d be happy to talk with you about the kind of riding you do, and I’m sure I can match you with a WTB tire that more than meets your expectations.

Gary

Again, take it with a grain of salt, but that’s how you would have turned my complaint into loyalty. Don’t debate an unhappy customer when you have a good shot at making them happy.

Gary May 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

Excellent points all the way around. Thanks for the feedback and education.

-Gary

Neale June 7, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Chris,

Your point about social media is well made.

I was “bitten” by the velociraptor front as well. Loose, dry, dusty terrain seemed to be the worst for this tire.

From one cyclist to another, my recomendation:

1. Conti Vertical pro on the front – a little expensive and wears a little too soon on the rear for my taste
2. WTB Velociraptor Rear – the best all-around rear tire I have found – relatively cheap and the most reliable traction I have experienced

The downsided is that they are very likely to pack up with mud.

As always, your mileage may vary.

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