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Thursday, December 05, 2019
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I’ve been asked to speak about 21st Century publishing strategies this morning, which is a sort of nebulous topic, as you might imagine. I think [the other presenter] is going to be speaking more about various distribution of business models for doing that, so I thought I would focus on issues of content selection, content creation and production aspects.

First of all, I can tell you a little bit about myself and our company. Unlike most Internet businesses, we are particularly unusual in that when we started this project, we had never expected to start a business. Our company was founded in November of 1995, while I was a junior at Yale University, and my partners were four classmates of mine at Yale and a classmate from high school who goes to Columbia University. My background is not that of a businessman or a computer person, but as a print journalist.

Over the last five summers I’ve written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the Raleigh News & Observer as a reporter and in other capacities, and have been covering the Internet for them since things started taking off.

Many of you may have seen some of my stories on things like domain name speculation, which was a few years ago when there were people who were out registering all sorts of domain names that were potentially [useful] for Fortune 500 companies. That story has been reprinted in a lot of places.

The question before us is really, if you’re going to build a business from content, how are the ways to do it? I think, while Student.Net may be a bit on the unusual side, there are a lot of things that we have learned over the past year that may be applicable to your business that you’re running now, or that you’re contemplating running.

For one thing, there is how our company was started. We were cash poor from the beginning. We relied heavily on sweat, sweat equity, and volunteers to contribute content. We had to expend that with a number of different business models before we really hit on the one that we’re using now.

We had originally started working on the site with the understanding that we were going to be working with a larger corporate partner, the News & Observer, which had been one of the newspapers I had worked with. But during a corporate acquisition, their new media division had to switch strategic focuses and we were one of the projects that were sort of cast off on our own. We talked to a lot of people about working with us and we were told, “It sounds like you guys have great ideas, but I mean, really, you’re six college students with no products, no revenues and no experience. Why don’t you come back to us when you have a site and you have a business.” That has been sort of model that we’ve been operating from for the last 16 months.

So when we started the site, we basically had three rules. The first was that our content should be useful and compelling. The second was that we didn’t want to duplicate content that exists offline, that college students would ordinarily be exposed to. Finally, we wanted to update the site frequently to encourage repeat visits. So our original content mix was a combination of daily stories that were written by college journalists around the country, and even from Canada, who were either looking to do something that they couldn’t accomplish in their traditional college newspapers or simply wanted the exposure of writing for a larger audience.

To differentiate ourselves from the typical college newspaper that focuses very much on the day-to-day administration of a university, we focused on stories that were useful or quirky or interesting, that students wouldn’t normally find.

A good example was our cover story, which still gets us a lot of hits today. It was a guide to brewing beer in your dorm room. Over the course of the year, we did everything from guides to cheap travel, we sent reporters to cover the New Hampshire primaries and had all sorts of interviews with interesting students and professors around the country who are doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily hear about.

We also had a number of interactive features, and the one that has gotten us perhaps the most attention is a feature that we developed called “TV Search and Remind,” which was a searchable listing with a twist. It still is the only place on the Internet where you can search television listings for up to a month. You go and you type in [something] like “Seinfeld,” and it comes up with all the Seinfeld [shows] for the next month, with the plots and the times and the show channels. Next to each one of those shows is a button, and if you click the button at the bottom, there’s another button that says, “Send me e-mail before this show is on.” So you would get an e-mail the day before saying, “Student.Net just wants to remind you that this show is on at this time, and by the way, be sure to come back to Student.Net and check out what we are doing.”

It allowed us to both build a relationship with our users — it gave them a capability that was not possible in traditional media — and got us a tremendous amount of press attention. Actually, that from the “Only on the Internet” story. Three weeks after launching our site, with no publicity other than word of mouth, we have been written about in the Los Angeles Times.

So it can happen to you.

We had chosen our market as college students for two reasons, both because we knew the market from an editorial standpoint, being college students ourselves, and also because we saw that there was this vast demographic group that was online in numbers larger than any other. We knew that 98% of U.S. colleges have access to e-mail, most of them have direct connections from their rooms or some sort of high-speed, T-1-level access to a public computing cluster.

And unlike traditional markets, college students were able to use the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike people who are at work and have work to do, or who were at home and were fighting their kids for use of the computer and were connecting over very slow modems. That gave us an advantage that we had this audience that was already there, that was using the Internet and was desperate for quality content aimed at them.

But obviously, there’s some things from our market that won’t apply to what you all are doing, so I thought I’d walk you through some of the steps that we used to identify the right market.

First of all, I want to address the misconception that a lot of people have going into an Internet business: the Internet is not inherently a mass medium. There are a lot of people on the Internet, but it does not work the same way as broadcast journalism does or traditional print media, in that people are able to very selectively jump from source to source, and even using just basic HTML, combine the various elements any way they want.

Instead, it’s helpful to view the Internet as a collection of overlapping special interest groups.

By that I mean that even though people who come to our site are college students, they actually have all sorts of different interests and align themselves in ways different than just by their age or where they live. Particularly in the area of city guides, I would point out that a lot of people are approaching those as, you know, here are people who are defined by a local group. They are all people who live in a certain city, but people really view themselves as defined in a lot of ways. They may be parents, they may be programmers, they may be sports fans.

So it’s important to keep that in mind when you’re designing your site. People really are in various niche groups that overlap at certain points, so you want to design it so that it appeals to the largest number of overlapping groups.

It’s important to remember that you also need to be able to segment those groups as well. I would advise you to try to find niches that cannot be easily replicated off-line.

In our case, the Internet was a perfect medium, because if you want to reach college students today on a national campaign, you basically have two ways of doing it. You can buy an ad in every college newspaper in America, which is not cheap, or you can try and do on-campus promotions where people hand out mugs to get you to sign up for your credit cards. That is not cheap either. Even something like direct mail is notoriously unreliable for college students. And I would point out that just from an expense cost comparison, that to just rent a name off the direct mail list costs ten cents usually, while an Internet impression can be had for a lot less. So there was a market there that could not be reached using traditional means. Advertisers desperately wanted to reach them and this was the perfect way of doing it more efficiently and more economically.

Finally, I would encourage you to try and be a “category killer.” That is the term that is used to designate things like Home Depot or Toys R Us. How that applies to the Internet is that you need to decide what your core strength is, how you’re going to leverage that and do it really, really well. Today, advertisers are looking for bulk ads. It’s the question of who can drive the most traffic to my site.

But in the 21st century, people will not be looking quite as much for just traffic as much as demographics. The sites that succeed will be the sites that can deliver the narrowest level of audience specificity to advertisers for the most economical dollars. If a site is built today simply to attract eyeballs, that site is going to have a hard time competing three years from now when advertisers finally figure out how to measure audiences properly and get sophisticated about their buying.

It’s sort of amazing how much advertisers today are just willing to roll the dice on a site compared to the level of justification they demand for a traditional print advertisement.

There they want to see psychographics, readership surveys, market-level income and all sorts of things like that. Today, everybody is sort of feeling their way around. That’s going to change, particularly as users become more experienced in surfing the Web.

The sites that try to be all things to all people are going to have an immensely difficult time competing, because as users learn how to use bookmarks, and as they start to create their own personal Web pages with guides to the sites that they’re interested in, they will very quickly start moving to a perspective where they control the order that the information is presented and which features they go to. So, content aggregators are going to find it enormously difficult, I think.

The second thing that I need to address is the concept-of-the-community myth. Right now everyone from Steve Case to Howard Rheingold from Electronic Minds says that you need to create community around your site for it to be successful. Vast amounts of money have already been invested in such sites, and I guarantee you that there are a lot of people here who are working on business plans, probably for the very same thing. But communities are not the panacea that most people think they are. When you talk about electronic communities, we really need to ask ourselves, “What are we talking about?” The reality is, when we say “community,” we mean that they’re cheap. Our users create the content. We don’t have to update it. We don’t have to maintain it. It can be automated, and we can just serve the ads. This is the real chat room model. The problem with that is that it takes quality for people to build around.

Community just cannot created by providing people space. There has to be a reason for them to get together. I really believe that in a few years we’ll talk about the rush to build online communities much the same way as we talked about the planned communities of the 50s and 60s where people built these huge, enormous, very artificial communities that they really didn’t want to live in. Huge amounts of money were lost, and nobody really understood why at the time.

What we’ve learned from that is that there’s a reason our cities have evolved that way. People like shaping their environment, and it’s not something you can force. You have to ask yourself, on the online communities, with so many sites trying to create community, “How much community will exist when you can get it anywhere you go?” Sites that have been successful in creating community so far have been the sites that really have been around for a long time, things like The WELL. When there really wasn’t very much out there before, this was the way that people interacted. It was a chance to interact with people who are different than you and from all over the world, but now there are all these business plans for sites that are trying to create communities on local levels.

You have to ask, “Why is that any different than what I can get today in my city? Why do I need to interact with people from my city online?” Is there a compelling reason for people to do so? Some sites will succeed in this, but I have to believe that the vast majority will fail because it’s so dependent upon the users you attract, whether one of them wants to be a strong influence in the site and how much people want to participate. So from our perspective, as much as we would love to have community created among our users, from a business perspective, there are three concepts that are far more important to us.

First is what I call “self identity.” I want my users to be asking themselves, not necessarily consciously, but to be thinking about, “What does it mean about me that I use this Web site?” We already do that everyday for a lot of different topics, things like, “I drink this beer and I drink micro-brew, so that says something about me,” or, “I drive a certain car and that says something about me.” In the future, I think those brand extensions will carry over to Web sites, that people will use Yahoo over Excite because it says something about them. You need to be very conscious of what your site’s identity represents, so that it can carry over and translate to your users.

The second thing is credibility. It’s focusing on how you can build a relationship of trust with your users, because the sooner that people begin to feel that you are a peer of theirs, the more likely they are to come back and to visit and participate in your community. Finally, I’d encourage you to focus on personality. I think a lot of sites are really missing an opportunity to convey that there’s more behind them than just monolithic corporations. It’s a chance to show your users that the people who work on your Web site are real people with real problems and the same concerns and daily stresses that the users have, and for a chance to build a marketing relationship that has not existed before.

We have been very conscious in our site design to always sign things with our first names, to include pictures of our authors whenever possible and to encourage people to e-mail us personally. We respond. It’s been really quite successful, and I think I’ve developed a relationship with a lot more of our users than I ever would have from my print experience.

So how does this apply to a site that you are building? Since this is “21st Century Publishing Strategies,” I thought I’d list a few 21st century publishing tactics for you to use.

First of all, I would encourage you to design your content to leverage what I call “self-selecting affinity groups.” If you accept that your site is really visited by groups of overlapping, selfspecialized interest groups, it’s important to design your site today so that when the ad dollars are there, you can easily differentiate between them. I will give you two examples of how we did that.

First, we were very conscious, in the TV search-and-remind feature, to design the response pages with the results of your search, so that we could very easily target different ads to different television shows.

If an advertiser came to us and said that they wanted to reach viewers of Seinfeld and another advertiser wanted to reach Murder, She Wrote, it’s very easy for us to do that. People feel very passionately about their television shows and their regular viewing. We found tremendous success in the people who have said, “Hey, here’s how I just push one line of HTML, and it’s my Web page, to automatically search for my favorite television show. We get a lot of people exposed to us through their peers, who wouldn’t have ever encountered any of the marketing that we do.

Another example is a story that we ran — I’m still sort of surprised by the reaction it’s gotten — called “My Parents Are Undercover Square Dancers.” It was by one of our students who wrote about how his parents had long been passionate square dancing fans but didn’t really want people to know. That story has gotten more reprint requests than anything else we’ve written on the site in a year. We get a lot of requests from square dancing newsletters in various Web sites. “Can we reprint your story?” “Can we tell people about your site?” The obvious answer is yes, because peer recommendations are often one of the most powerful ways of communicating your message to other people.

It’s the “Hey, these folks are just like me” attitude, and the sites that do that well will be the sites that succeed.

Secondly, I would encourage you to allow users to shape their experience. You can do this in a number of ways. We’ve enabled users to customize their environment in terms of how various things are displayed. We tried to build features that had dynamic responses based upon the information supplied by the users. One of the features on the site is called “Yenta.” It’s the Student.Net Matchmaker. Based upon information that users supply, it matches other users up as potential dates. That’s the perfect example of users providing us with information that enhances the functionality of their visit to Student.Net, and provides us with the necessary information we need to customize the site and continue to design it so it’s most appropriate.

Finally, I’d encourage you to think about designing your production system for maximum flexibility. Building your site out of databases that can be easily customized using server-side includes for various templates and parsing your pages based upon the browser and location that users are coming from will vastly enhance the user’s experience at your site.

I would encourage you to extend your offline product, if you have one, by taking advantage of new technologies. If anyone followed the press coverage of the New York Times Web site launch, very few articles were written about how great it was that you could read all the New York Times online everyday, and almost all of them focused on the fact that you could do the crossword online. It’s that type of “gee whiz” feature that people really seem to gravitate to.

Also, if you think about newspapers, that in the early days of the Web, used to print these regular columns with a vast number of Web sites to check out in the URLs, they really missed an opportunity to build an “early mover” advantage for their Web sites. If newspapers had been smart and said, “Today’s sites are featured on this Web site, this page on our Web site, and gotten users in the habit of going to the newspaper Web site to check out various sites that they’d read about in the newspaper, I would seriously question whether Yahoo would ever have happened. So in terms of an opportunity lost, I think that’s been a tremendous one.

Next, I’d encourage you to create what I call a “force of habit through frequent updates.” Our site is designed so that when users supply information through a personal section we have on the page, they need to come back to the site to see whether they’ve gotten new messages or new matches. This is something that can really be applied to a lot of sites, that you want to get your users, for lack of a better word, “addicted” to your Web site to the point where they need it. They need to come back several times a day, and they’re exposed to the new content that you put out. Advertisers will demand sites that are designed to encourage repeat visits, because that will increase the effectiveness and the exposure that the advertisers’ ads receive.

Finally, I just thought I would talk about a few other sites that get it so far, and I would encourage you all to check them out. I’m not connected to the Internet for this presentation, but one of the surprising ones that most of you, I’m sure looking at this audience, has never checked out, is a site called “Video Game Spot,” which is a site all about new video games. It has a perfect model in that every day it posts new reviews of video games, new previews, information about price cuts and all sorts of other video-game-related information from user tips and pictures of the games. But they’ve done something that’s really interesting. They have a page for each video game where they allow users to review the games.

What you see is three options presented to you when you look at a video game page. The first is the “Video Game Spot Review.” You have the option of looking at a professionallyrated review. Then they have links to user written reviews so you can see what people who are like you might like, and what other users think of it. Then finally, they put the company information online, so it’s all the promotional material from the company. You really get all the different perspectives that can let you evaluate the various games, and it gives you a sense that if you felt strongly about a game, you could participate as well.

The other sites each have different elements of what I’ve been talking about. MacInTouch is a site that combines all sorts of information about Macs and software for Macs. It’s a digest form created by a few people who started doing it just on their own, and it’s been so successful that they’ve turned it into a business. They compiled links to all the other Mac information several times throughout the day. For instance, when the Apple/NeXT merger was announced, they had an amazing amount of traffic because it was all there. People know that it’s there, and they know the people who run it. They’ve really done a great job of capturing personality.

News.com is a c|net site that covers the Internet. They’ve done a very good job in terms of being a resource for their users and providing frequent updates. If you haven’t visited that site, I’d really encourage you to. Firefly is a site that you’ll hear more about later today, I think. It’s a site that uses collaborative filtering technology developed at MIT to enhance relationships between users for music and movie reviews. It rates the movies that you’re interested in and compares it to the movies that other people have said they’re interested in. It says, “Hey, these are movies that these people who like the same sorts of movies as you’ve liked also like, go check them out.” I’d encourage you, if you have a chance, to go see that presentation and to visit that site.

Finally, for more information, you can feel free to contact me at this address. Also, if you want to leave me your business card, I’d be happy to send you a copy of this presentation. I guess I’d like to close with making an announcement that today, after 16 months of running this on our own, we’re pleased to be able to announce that we just received our first major investment. So, thank you very much.