Think Solid, If Unspectacular, Solutions

After last week’s article, some readers suggested that I’m getting a bit new age-y. Here I’m writing a series of columns called Profitable Online Publishing, yet I advise a prospective site publisher to let go of any concerns about revenues and profits and focus instead on creating an ongoing dialogue with an audience.

What the heck is that all about?

Like you, I read a lot about new businesses especially the dot-coms and love to figure out whether they are going to succeed or not. The difficulty in predicting their success is trying to get past the distractions the PR machines throw in your way.

The fact that a company received a ton of funding doesn’t tell me anything. Nor that they are buying TV ads on the Super Bowl, throwing huge parties at major events, or plastering Industry Standard, Business 2.0 and Fast Company with full-page ads. Those are things that project the image of success, but tell you nothing when you really think about it.

I met with the CEO of a growing company the other day. She discussed her newest venture, details of which I will intentionally obscure to protect her privacy. She’s got a very comprehensive and detailed plan to dominate a related series of niches that are currently not served or are terribly underserved. Her plan covers a lot of bases.

But throughout our conversation, my mind kept wandering to some rather basic questions.

How is this going to impact the life of the individual whom this whole program ultimately targets? I thought of an old friend, Matt, who would be a bullseye target for this company.

Matt is a pretty smart guy. He’s tech-savvy, has his computer on all the time, goes online via cable modem and uses the Net for any number of things. He’s well off financially. So there are no financial or technical restraints that would hold him back from taking advantage of the free services this company makes available online.

Nevertheless, I can’t imagine him using it… ever.

The problems that this company solves are not the kind that would cause Matt any real inconvenience or trouble. The kind of information they could make available to him instantly is nothing that would concern him. In fact, were he to choose to participate, I can imagine a whole new layer of complexity being added on to his life that he would just as soon not deal with. Not that it’s not a good program, just that it’s not worth the time or the trouble.

It was an interesting solution set for something that is not a terribly pressing set of problems.

So when I read articles about the new dot-coms in my favorite business rags, I tend to dwell on the individual who has to use the solution these companies are offering. And more often than not, they are brilliantly engineered solutions for inconveniences that are fairly minor. We love overkill, don’t we?

Where is the lesson for us as online publishers?

If we’re really in touch with our audience, we should feel what their most pressing problems are on a visceral level. Not minor inconveniences pain in the butt, terribly annoying, incredibly inconvenient, time-consuming problems.

When we launched ClickZ, it was in response to how hard it was to find good information from experienced professionals who may have already gone through what we were suffering through right then. It was my pain that I just assumed others must have suffered with as well. It was nothing cool, just a pain in the butt that I wanted to get rid of.

When you offer a solution and that solution may be in the form of information or online tools or technology or whatever you need to overlook the “cool” factor and ask whether the Arthurs in your audience would really use it. Would it make their life easier with a lot less stress, or does it add a layer of complexity? Is it a novel solution quickly abandoned, or is it something that could easily become indispensable?

It’s tough to ask that question because you might have to abandon your pet project and go for something far less glamorous.

But when the day of online reckoning comes, the nod will go to those with solid, if unspectacular, indispensable solutions.

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