Mark Cohen is GM, Product Technology at Fairfax Media which is the most fun a job can be while still being legal. On weekends he may be found meandering along Bay parade with a coffee in Malabar. This is an old personal site (you can find Mark Cohen at his new vanity url. All views expressed are solely are my own. Except maybe the ones about short-circuit evaluation in SQL.

Getting stuck at Zero

I was intrigued by a post on Seth Godin’s blog today titled “The Longest Tail“. He sums it up well with

“Musicians, bloggers, writers–if you’re toiling in the long tail, getting stuck at zero is now a real possibility. Being just like the other guys but trying harder is less of an effective strategy than ever before.”

I was involved in building a free classifieds website with one of its objectives being to occupy the Craigslist space, before they entered the local market. We did this successfully with a zero dollar marketing budget. I often wonder “why?”. Why did we succeed? I believe it was due mainly to two points.

First – content. We were able to leverage a massive network of sites indirectly. We sourced massive amounts of relevant and significant local content (as opposed to the bulk of Craigslist’s content which they serve in their Sydney site – most of it is not local, a lot of it is spammy and/or irrelevant).

Our entire team also occupied the forums and generated a lot of real and relevant content.  Not the cheap spam you can find for sale in the website marketplaces.  Real and relevant content written by educated and often provocative people.  It didn’t take long for the one-time visitors coming in from Google to find the forums, and once they were there they were dragged into responding in the forums fairly quickly.  Within a month or so they took on a life of their own.

Second – SEO: We used SEO and begged and borrowed wherever we could.  We built links within our network, appropriately.  We did on-page seo routinely and this was as important as product development – if not more so.

A while ago I wrote a post with a whole lot more detail on this approach and also (tongue in cheek) here.
At more or less the same time as we launched, another site called Dingo Post launched as an Australian Craigslist clone -  that seems to have been shut down.  Why did they fail where we succeeded?  They seem to have waited for the content to come to them.  I rememebr seeing they tried to syndicate content at one point too.  They did not build up bulk, and they did not build up inbound links.  A free classified can’t really market itself with no revenue streams.  No web marketing, no seo, no content.  So no users.
Most importantly, we were the first into that space in Australia as far as I was aware.  If you’re a “me too” you also have to offer a compelling reason to use your service over (or as well as) the competition.  Like content that the competitors don’t have.  Or features they don’t offer. Alternatively you will need a source of revenue to market like your life depended on it.  GumTree seem to have gotten that right in Australia.  They are funded by Google Adwords (and I’m sure by ebay, who own them).  They phone people who advertise share accomodation on paid sites to get them onto their site too.  They also use paid SEM to market on google (just search for “free classifieds”).
I’ve been watching the Sitepoint Marketplace a lot lately, and you can see this same principle in the marketplace.  People build their website, often spending significant money on getting it coded up.  They don’t have a marketing strategy or budget, and when their “me too” site doesn’t fly they end up trying to flog it to recover their money.

One thing to bear in mind is that if your differentiation means your content will be less easily accessible than the market leader’s – well, you’re going backwards from zero before you start.

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