Where the Eyeballs Are

The commercial Internet was born amid many promises.

One promise particularly allured many small businesses: The Internet was the great equalizer. The Internet created a level playing field, we were told, by making the web sites of both corner lemonade stands and Fortune 100 companies equally accessible.

This perception lasted about the time it took for a few Internet companies to go public and reach market capitalizations that rivaled the Gross Domestic Products of many third-world countries. While Internet addresses remained equally accessible, it was marketing muscle, and not technology, that created the industry’s first major barriers to entry.

As the fad police succumbed to the Internet’s rising legitimacy, business web sites began spending millions of dollars on online advertising, prominent placement, and exclusives. Print, radio, and television soon became the next brand battlegrounds.

Every new “Internet year” brings new opportunities for self-perpetuating hype and hyperbole, but occasionally a few industry trends survive to become lasting truths. In the continuing saga that is the battle of the online brands, syndication is shaping up to be the next frontier in online branding strategy.

Traditional media have a long history of syndicated content — from comic strips to television programs. The syndication of Internet content, on the other hand, remains relatively new and uncharted territory. Yet today there is growing marketing, economic, and technological momentum to support a growing prominence of online content syndication.

4.3 Million Channels and Nothing’s On

According to a recent survey by Netcraft, there are currently over 4.3 million web sites with some 235,000 new sites added each month. As the competition for the attention of Internet users grows fiercer, online marketers are continually challenged with how to attract users faced with a growing immensity of options.

Until recently, web content strategies primarily focused on methods of corralling customers in front of your web site. Advertising, sponsorships, and affiliate programs have also helped drive traffic and extend online brands.

But the old strategy of attracting as many eyeballs to your site as possible just doesn’t scale to the Internet’s growth. While many of these traffic-building measures are extremely useful, they presume that your potential customers are willing to leave their favorite sites in favor of your own. Getting a mass audience to visit a site regularly unfortunately requires a level of operant conditioning reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange.

TheMountain.com Comes to Mohammed

Instead of trying to make the eyeballs come to you, the alternative approach is to go where the eyeballs already are — or will be. Web syndication acknowledges that consumers may be interested in more than just your web site.

Web syndication has already caught on with a number of high-profile content providers. Motley Fool, Wired, and iVillage are a few examples. Yet even businesses not normally recognized as content providers — such as Fidelity Investments and Bank of America — are redistributing their content to public web sites and private intranets alike.

It’s not just brand proliferation either. The economics of Internet syndication can also make a lot of sense.

While it can be expensive to create original online content, distribution costs on the web are minimal when compared to print. Once the content is created, web publishers can amortize their costs over a greater number of consumers. Where a consumer sees it becomes less important than how many see it.

“We can syndicate them… we have the technology.”

While not every web site possesses content worthy of syndication (let alone publishing on the Internet), web syndication makes good business sense for many web sites. Yet only an elite few sites employ web syndication for the simple reason that the technology just isn’t there yet. The greatest obstacle to more widespread adoption is simply a lack of standards and affordable, commercial software products — all Internet syndication deals to date have required custom technical and administrative work.

In order to exchange headlines or chunks of web pages, content publishers and aggregators have been forced to define and comply with ad hoc systems. These systems are often incompatible with those used by other syndication partners. Imagine having to hire an electrician to perform custom work on your television set every time you want to try a new channel.

To help automate the content exchange process, some businesses have built costly content harvesters, parsers, and back-end database systems. Others without such resources have resorted to more error-prone, labor-intensive methods of manually gathering and updating content.

Your Headlines Here

Fortunately, businesses will have better, and more economical syndication options in the coming year — thanks largely to the arrival of XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, and Internet content intermediaries.

Next week we’ll introduce some of these syndication options and evaluate how useful they might be for your own Internet syndication strategy. We’ll also offer our predictions for how Internet content syndication will play out for future Internet branding strategies.

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