The Schizophrenic Web

No wonder we’re all lost trying to figure out the latest, greatest strategy, The Next Big Thing. Trying to follow the latest trends in e-business is like keeping track of the U.S. government’s recommendations on diet and exercise. One week, a couple glasses of wine a day are good for your heart. The next week, the same two glasses of wine cause pancreatic cancer.

Likewise in the Internet literature. One expert says content is still the driving force of the Internet. A week later some other expert tells us content is a waste of time and users want to do stuff on the Net, not read about doing stuff on the Net.

For example, in one nationally recognized business magazine (which shall remain nameless) there’s an article about the growing trend toward syndication. With backing from powerhouses like Microsoft and News Corp., a certain online syndication company is riding on $50 million of investment funding. The article goes on to explain that there is an insatiable thirst for content. The talkaloti from the research firms predict the syndication business will grow to a $1.5 billion enterprise by 2004.

The same week in another well-recognized Internet business magazine, reporters lamented the end of the portal as a mechanism for distributing content. In a hangover of overspending, companies are waking up to their alliances with the likes of America Online. Now they’re trying to figure out how to get their pants back on and quietly escape. Content and its distribution just aren’t moneymakers anymore, it seems.

Solutions for Phantom Problems

While companies are clamoring for e-business solutions, they’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of the web: to provide information. The vast majority of users on the Internet are still there to answer a question, not to perform a transaction.

According to one study, fewer than half of Internet users have made a purchase online. As the dust clears from all the B2C hype, ActivMedia reports that e-commerce still accounts for less than two percent of total retail sales in the United States.

Of those online purchases, 70 percent were for computers, books, music and videos. If you’re not in one of these businesses, reconsider content as a primary strategy for building customer relationships.

There Ain’t No King While the Queen Still Breathes

The status of content as a viable marketing and business strategy has fallen to the level of advertising as a viable e-business model: No one talks about it anymore. If you ask Jeeves, “Is Content Still King?” you get information about the British Royal Family and a 1996 article about content as an online marketing tool.

Paradoxically, content is at the same time one of the most expensive and one of the cheapest features on a web site. Upfront, it’s certainly cheaper to have a handful of articles on your site than it is to have secure transactions and fancy programming. But over time, content is by far the most expensive maintenance cost, particularly if you intend to keep your content fresh and updated.

There are many vendors out there willing to sell you content for your site. It may sound like a cost-effective and trouble-free way to have fresh new content without having to put in the work. But it’s important not to get caught up with the gee-whiz of some content sales pitches.

Before you pluck down your money for content, consider these issues.

How Will the Content Support Your Business?

Can you tie in your own services to the content, or will it stand alone? Most content providers maintain the copyright to their content and don’t allow any editing or personalizing. They’ll try to sell the exact same content to your competitors and then your site won’t have any differentiation. What makes content useful is that it’s a tool for suggesting an action, such as a purchase.

Look at gardening sites as an example. Built into the articles about spring perennials are links to purchase the flowers mentioned. An article about planting bulbs suggests a hand tool for digging holes. Beyond providing useful information and building a relationship with users, the sites also give users every opportunity to make a purchase.

Does the Content Reside on Your Server or Theirs?

Sometimes you’ll think a vendor is selling you content when, in fact, all you’re getting is permission to link to content on their site. They’ll tell you that you’ll be able to “brand the content” by dressing it up with your logo on their pages. But if you end up deciding to end the contract, all the content goes away and you end up where you started.

Ask if you’re actually buying the content to keep, or just leasing it. Ask if the content is on your server or is it just a dressed-up link.

Another thing to consider about content that resides on the vendor’s server is that your own site won’t get caught by the web directories and search engines because the content isn’t really on your site. Many search engines look for key words on a site for their listings. If the content is not at your site, your site won’t make it to the search engine. Since most people still use search engines to find content, they won’t find you even if you’re paying big fees for the content.

Where Does the Content Come From?

Even sellers of content have often bought it from someone else. Find out who is the ultimate source of the content and look at their credentials. Your users will think the content is coming from you so it’s important that it is of the same quality and accuracy as all your other communications.

Early on, content was the whole point of the web. That was before e-business, e-commerce, B2B, B2C and all the rest. It seems everyone is clamoring to do something on the web. But the vast majority of users are still just looking to find information, do some comparison shopping, or get a question answered. The company that provides a helpful beacon to users will win the business in the long run.

Exit, Stage Right

What is your exit strategy if the relationship goes sour? Some content vendors are like the national gym chains: You sign away the next year or two of your life and you have to pay whether or not you ever lift a barbell.

If you’re going to sign a contract, ask yourself (and the vendor), “How can I get out of this if it’s not a satisfactory relationship?” It’s a sort of vendor prenuptial agreement.

As we sway to and fro, trying to follow the next Internet micro-trend (they usually last about two weeks), we’re all looking for a few sure things on which to hang our strategies. We need a place where we can comfortably invest and still sleep at night.

Content is like real estate. Its value can go up and down in the short term, but it’s a safe long-term investment. It’s not glamorous. And the most important thing to consider is location.

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