Contrary to what you read in the newspapers, a lot of e-commerce and content Web sites are finding success in 2002.
Each success teaches a different lesson. But all the lessons have some common elements. These may sound like cliches, but they're all worth repeating:
* Focus and know your audience.
* Give first, then take.
* Promise what you can deliver, and deliver on the promise.
How do you get there? To me it's obvious that the path to success starts with a solid business plan and a clear mission statement. Who is your audience, what will you give them, and what will they give you? Answer those questions first, and the rest should fall into place.
Then, when you execute, emphasize only those elements that are in the plan. You don't care first about clean design or getting to the top of the search engines. You identify your market by name (you get their e-mail address), you deliver on your promises in the e-mail, and you gain loyalty one customer at a time.
One of my favorite sites is The Register of the UK. Unlike most of the U.S. technology publishing industry, The Register seems to be breaking even (it's privately-held). I once thought C|Net was going to dominate technology publishing in the 21st century, but it seems from looking at The Register I may have been wrong.
The Register's design is sloppy, it has a tight control over its budget (it pays writers little, and most work from their own home offices), but it knows what it's about. All its stories have a skeptical tone to them--they speak across the table to you, not down to you.
This is evident in its brand statement, "Biting the Hand that Feeds IT." (A clear brand statement is common to all our success stories.)
So, keeping costs down, identifying with readers, and branding accurately are all important.
Here's another lesson, from a site called Sierra Trading Post in Cheyanne, Wyoming. Sierra is an outdoor outlet with ambitions, evidenced by the brand statement "Your In-Home Outlet Mall." (You can sell a lot of different products with that positioning.)
The biggest button on the home page lets you request a catalog, an integration of online and offline marketing. Products are clustered into departments, most URLs are database calls, and each product includes a "detail" page with an in-depth description and big, big pictures (not to mention multiple views).
Despite the brand statement, Sierra has a clear focus. Like all good merchants, they're also database-driven, and they let you see the merchandise before you buy it. Finally (and this is important) they offer low, low prices--people love that in a recession!
Finally, here's a site mid-way between the first two, one that successfully combines content and commerce. It's W2K News of Clearwater, Florida.
This site is tightly-specialized, focused solely on the demands of Windows NT and Windows 2000 system administrators. It was created by a software company, Sunbelt Software. The content is basically an e-zine (signing up readers means signing up prospective customers). The articles are all helpful and well-focused on the specific needs of these readers.
Once more, note the important lessons.
Your e-mail list is your prospect list. Focus your content alongside your product line. Provide real service, identifying with your readers. Have a clear business model, a simple way of turning that service into profit. Oh, and did you notice all these sites are far from expensive "silicon" locations, like New York City or San Francisco?
It's easy to say all this, but let me conclude with a hard truth. Success is easy to see, but tough to do. And the hard work starts before you draw up your first Web page.
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