Yesterday it became known that Ashley Madison, the site that makes it easy for married people to cheat on each other, was hacked. The hackers have been threatening to release the names they've stolen to the general public (which could include some famous politicians and celebrities) unless the site is shut down. You would think this would be a bad thing for Ashley Madison. And to be sure, there will be some difficult weeks ahead. But no, this will not be a bad thing in the long run. In fact, it will be a very good thing. And for four reasons.
For starters, this is incredible PR. Unless you are a fan of the Howard Stern Show or Dr. Phil you may not have heard of Ashley Madison. I'm not a customer of the site (I'm happily married and besides, who has time for all that running around, for goodness' sake?) but I'm a big admirer of the company's CEO Noel Biderman. And Biderman (a married father of two) is a marketer. He spends millions to advertise his site and has been expanding it worldwide. But many have never heard of it. Or choose not to. Now his story is being played on every TV channel and major media outlet. Never could a company his size have afforded this kind of exposure. So, unless you've been living in a cave the past 48 hours, you're aware of Ashley Madison. He couldn't have asked for a better campaign.
It gives the company a chance to state its case. Successful entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do, and Biderman is no different. In a 2012 interview, he told me "I believe that entrepreneurs move a society forward." Biderman has endured lots of criticism in his passionate quest to raise awareness for the service his site provides. And he believes that his company is providing a needed service to many, and not just to cheating spouses. "I didn't realize how valuable my data would become," he said. "Researchers at NYU and the University of Toronto and Glasgow University are using it to do studies." Ashley Madison is a legal business. Sure, it's controversial, but no more so than abortion clinics, gun shops, or Nevada brothels. Biderman has an opportunity to make that case. And I'm sure he will.
The company will become stronger, and more popular. The fact is that married people aren't going to stop cheating. And sites like Ashley Madison aren't going to go away. Instead, the company will use this event to strengthen its systems and offer promotions to make amends (they're already doing that). The fact is that people have short memories and there are tens of millions of cheating spouses who have used their service without complaints, and there are few competing services that compare. And there are tens of millions more cheating spouses (or wannabes) who never heard of the service and now know of it. After a period of apologies, reparations, and repair, Biderman will emerge with a better platform, enhanced security, a more widely known name and more fodder for future advertising campaigns and interviews.
The company will gain some sympathy. For years Biderman has withstood the abuse of those who take issue with the product he sells. But now, for the first time, some of those very same people will find some common ground with him. Millions of small companies are hacked every year, regardless of their religious affiliation or moral principles. These business owners may not agree with Biderman's livelihood but they'll certainly empathize with his plight and, because his business is pretty darn interesting, they may pay more attention to how he fixes this problem going forward. We'll benefit from what he learns. And we'll be just a little bit grateful for that education.
"I'm frustrated when sophisticated people don't get it." Biderman told me in 2012. "I understand when someone of faith or religion feels this way, and I don't even want to persuade them. I don't get frustrated with people that don't like my services. The unfaithful are sitting presidents, favored athletes, popular actors, and our friends and neighbors. We have to stop painting people with scarlet letters. People like me who build a business that's totally legal need to be given daylight."
Getting its data hacked isn't a great situation. But the publicity gained from this experience will be a great way for Biderman to again state his case and grow his business. And, knowing him, that's exactly what he'll do.