Good News for Little Dot-Coms

If you’re not one of those huge dot-coms but, rather, a little dot-com, here’s some good news for you.

It may well be that it’s the little guys who will end up as the winners online. The thing is, being small probably works better within the natural ecology of the web.

I got another nudge toward thinking this way when I spoke at a recent Information Technology Media Advisory Council (ITMAC) meeting in Colorado Springs. Nice venue. Very nice people.

ITMAC’s members comprise the senior media folks from those ad agencies that handle America’s top technology accounts.

Here’s one of the questions that kept coming up during the two-day meeting: “How the heck can we buy and place the right message in the right places when the web is becoming so incredibly fragmented?”

Good question.

Remember, these are the guys who, 20 years ago, could go to work, reach 90 percent of the adult population by buying ads across three TV networks, and still have time for a four-hour lunch. But today, things are very different. First, the arrival of cable TV messed up the three-network thing and the long lunches. And now the web has spoiled it even more. After all, there are thousands of choices for placing ads online.

The fragmentation of audiences online makes it tough for marketers to target their messages. Sure, you can still make the big buys across Yahoo and AOL. But if you want to target your message to groups that are more likely to find what you say relevant, it’s getting pretty complicated and time-consuming.

Beyond buying space for ads, what does audience fragmentation tell us about “markets” online? It tells us that given the opportunity (and the web provides just such an opportunity), people will break up into smaller and smaller groups with others who share common interests.

No mystery here. It’s how folks first got together online. Think Usenet. Then chat rooms and discussion groups. That’s the natural ecology of the web. Millions of people in thousands of small groups.

This makes life hard for the huge marketers who would like to shoe-horn everyone into a few big categories. Think Amazon.com: books, CDs, electronics, kitchen stuff, etc.

But fragmentation is good news for any small-business person who would rather stick his or her head in a microwave oven than have lunch with a VC investor. To avoid being cooked or screwed, think about building your business to address the needs of an existing area of niche interest.

In other words, build your small business around what folks online already like to do, rather than around what big business would like them to do.

This may mean that you don’t get to become a billionaire in 10 days or less. But it may also mean that you have the opportunity to build a business that works, is profitable, and earns you and your family a decent living.

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