How to Achieve Online Success

Business Practices Jun 17, 2006

How does a website become massively popular? I’ll start with two paragraphs that are a barrage of questions that are on many peoples’ minds these days…

How reliant is a company on getting Dugg, SlashDotted? Does your site have to become the darling of the Web 2.0 meme-chasing elite to get traffic? Does your business need to attempt to change our very lives forever in order to make your story undeniably compelling? Do you need to hire a slick PR firm to influence what gets written about, by whom, and in what tone? Does every endeavor need some sort of self-propagating viral component to be competitive these days? Is it all based on luck?

How special are the products that hit it big in generating free word-of-mouth publicity? Can an “average” product break through the online noise and make a big splash anyway? Can Sam’s Jams carve out a super-niche for itself and makes Sam a very comfortable living without having to raise VC funding? Or does everything have to be a big development effort on just the right product that positions itself in the path of the tornado, to virtually guarantee success like HitTail or Riya?

I’ll exercise my powers of prognostication, and predict that both HitTail and Riya are assured successes because they are in the tornado’s path, per Geoffrey Moore’s teachings. They are cases of a clearly defined need and a sorely felt pain, meeting a product that has an easy distribution channel and low barrier to entry. You know such products that got swept into the tornado by how quickly they become mainstays, and how obvious they were in hindsight. You’ve got Google and Blogging and FireFox and Flickr and del.icio.us, and a host of other Web-based killer apps.

And soon, you will have Riya, because for years now, Google through Google images has created a pain point in the land of pictures, but has had an inadequate 6-month update cycle and no ability to “find other pictures like this”. Flickr added something like that, which actually works with little sketches that you make, and that’s a case of getting it ALMOST RIGHT. But the missing component is that Flickr only works with Flickr uploads. Riya is going to crawl the Internet for all pictures, everywhere, and almost assuredly let you discover new things daily–outside the walled gardens of today’s photo sites, and way more rapidly than Google Images. This satisfies a vacuum so strong, graphic designers and other industries feel its tug daily. Yes indeed, Riya is about to get swept into that Tornado and carried effortlessly across the Chasm. All the work went into developing the right product at the right time. And is that luck? No. Is it the path everyone must take? No.

But before we get to the path that others may take without needing the weather-prediction capabilities of Riya, we have to look at how business models fundamentally vary. In particular, anything funded by VC’s (venture capitalists), have to have massive upside potential to interest them. VC’s probably wouldn’t invest in Sam’s Jams, unless Sam had the ability to sell to every jam-lover on the planet. And that’s unlikely, because jam making is a cottage industry with a relatively low barrier to entry and a well established distribution channel (eBay search).

Many business models fall somewhere between Riya and Sam’s Jams. In particular, any product that has long selling cycles into difficult markets. These are the subject of a sales technique called “Solution Selling.” Doing justice to describing Solution Selling, and the markets that need it would require its whole own post. Suffice to say, they’re generally more upscale products that require research and deliberation before the sale is made. The rule of 5 or 7 apply in these markets (5 or 7 interactions between customer and business before the sale occurs). Because making these sales take such a long time, and there are fewer prospective customers than in huge consumer markets, every prospect is gold. They must be fiercely competed over by only 2 or 3 vendors in the space. And the “relationship” between customer and company is paramount. An aside point is that margins are shrinking in these markets, forcing larger companies to buy smaller ones to remain profitable–ah, but that’s a subject for another post as well.

Such products are never going into the tornado. They’re too boring and special-interest. But its huge business full of competitive players who NEED that online exposure. Otherwise, they won’t be found when their relatively small prospective customer base goes searching. And when they do go searching, there’s really no telling what keywords they’re going to use. What keywords does someone use when looking for an order entry system that can measure product quantities in fluid ounces or unit length? Get it? It’s really obscure stuff with millions of dollars of customer relationships at stake… every instant of every day, as prospects go Googling.

HitTail is designed to bridge the gap between the massively popular tornado riding business model, and the lower-profile, but totally viable models of Sam’s Jams or Liquid Length Order Management Systems. By riding the tornado, HitTail is providing a means for the other types of businesses to reach their prospective customer base without spending a dime on advertising. While it is much more effective when supplemented by advertising and other online outreach efforts, HitTailing with enough patience, can be effective entirely on its own. It’s like the vendor golden ratio: cost, quality, speed–pick any two. HitTailing is choosing cost and quality, while sacrificing speed.

I believe that companies that need popularity the most are in it for the long haul, and view building their reputation as a long-term project. So, will HitTailing make your non-tornado-riding business massively popular without any of the factors in the question-stuffed paragraphs above? If you don’t have to pay back VC’s, then the answer may be yes, depending on your definition of massively popular. If your potential user base worldwide is 100,000 people, and you reach every one of them through HitTailing, and sell to 50% of them over the course of 10 years, is that massively popular?

I would say that the above scenario is a massive success within your market. And if you want more success, you would have to expand your market. Massive popularity comes with massive markets. If your product isn’t mainstream, don’t expect to be top of mind. But if your product has a clearly defined market of people who are able to talk to each other, and keep talking about you because they keep discovering you whenever they research, then you have achieved popularity saturation. Whatever customers have the potential of coming your way, eventually will. And we have documented cases of early HitTailers achieving that level of success. If there are any journalists out there who would like to talk about this, email us at hittail at connors dot com, and we’ll hook you up with folks who are ready to talk.

So, to put a fine point on it, your product doesn’t need to be designed and rigged to be catapulted to enormous popularity to be successful. But you do need to take advantage of those products and services that are designed to let you capture the maximum share of whatever market you’re in. Dominating natural search through HitTailing is the smartest and cheapest way to do this, although it will take some time. In time, you can build your business to dominate a super-niche, a category of businesses that was not possible before the easy ability to tap into the worldwide potential customer base, and to get your product to them with ease. Cottage industries can be category killers, if you choose your industry and keywords wisely.

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