Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech featured some thoughts from Jason Calacanis, founder of Weblogs, Inc. (Engadget et. al.) and Mahalo, on branding. Craigslist, the venerable classified ad service, blocked a site called Craigsfindr which searched all of the Craigslist sites at once. From Craigslist’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter that this is “adding value” to their website—they don’t want somebody scraping their data and taking it out of their sandbox, period.
This led to discussion of why, in the past decade, somebody hasn’t built something “better” than CL. One can argue that the Web 1.0-ness of Craigslist is a feature, not a bug, but it’s not hard to imagine genuine improvements to the searching and cataloging functions, not to mention the potential benefits of a (moderately) open API. So why hasn’t that happened? To do a rough transcript from the episode:
Jason: In order to get people to switch a service, it’s going to require hitting them somewhere between three and seven times with a marketing message, it’s going to require having a product which is 50%, 100% better. You can’t just make it 10% better. There’s zero switching cost, theoretically—you just type in a different domain name—but it means you have to market the heck out of it to displace it. If someone wanted to start “This Seven Days in Tech” and it was a show that was twice as good, it’s gonna take them a couple years to do it.
Leo: Thank God! […] Didn’t Tom Peters say that a product, to supplant another product, has to be not twice as good, not three times as good, but ten times as good as an established brand? You know what you have. Why take the chance unless I can see a significant improvement? And Craigslist does the job.
I couldn’t help but think about this in relation to some discussion I’ve been in on two friends’ journals recently, which those of you who read some of the same LiveJournals I do will have no doubt seen—the discussions about art archive sites. It was asserted that the “Big Brand” in our fandom isn’t very good. It isn’t: the software is slow, fragile and under-featured, and one might argue that spending $16K in donations on a new system with three single points of failure is, shall we say, sub-optimal. So why, my friends asked, aren’t better alternatives succeeding?
Honestly? I think Laporte and Calacanis nailed it. Here’s my own takeaway bullet points; visualize PowerPoint slides if it feels more Web 2.0 for you that way.
FA provided the right service at the right time: they took the deviantArt model of a gallery merged with social networking (home pages, blogs, comments, watch lists) and targeted it squarely at this fandom. It turned out a strong demand wasn’t being met. Whether or not you think FA met it well, before they started nobody else was meeting it at all. Yerf was dead, FurNation was in shambles, VCL remained state of the art for 1994, and dA was perceived as hostile.
But in barely more than a year, everything had completely changed; when you have no competition, going from zero to majority market share is easy. Anyone post-FA doesn’t have that opportunity. A “competing” site has to succeed at what Calacanis outlined above. Are any of them?
“Significant” improvement is subjective, but the responses I saw suggested that by and large people didn’t feel the new sites were two or three—let alone ten—times as good as FA.
ArtSpots is, to me, the best gallery site both technically and in terms of “added value” service, but it’s made a conscious choice to limit its content in both form and rating. I don’t see this as a problem, but limits are limits. If you’re a writer, AS isn’t even under consideration; if you’re an artist who does both all-ages and mature work, you can just put it all on FA.
The wincingly-acronymed Furry Art Pile has an innovative approach to organization, but based on what people were saying in discussion, “different” isn’t translating to “better” for most people. It may not be translating to worse, either, but just being different isn’t good enough.
YiffStar has an art gallery in addition to their story archive, and they also have a second domain, AnthroStar, which essentially filters the porn out. (Did you know that? I didn’t either, but that goes with the next “slide” about marketing.) But there’s no compelling technical reason to switch from FA to YS; the gallery features seem less about expanding YS’s audience than about expanding the services for their existing audience. That’s a big audience, mind you, but so is FA’s—and my comments about FAP three bullet points down apply here, too.
Back to Calacanis: “hit [the audience] with a marketing message” means getting a banner, an AdWords ad, a press release, something that makes the case for checking the site out in front of people’s faces, and “three to seven times” means just that: you can’t just do it once or twice, you have to keep doing it. You might object that in this fandom word of mouth is the real advertising, but two points. One, there are places to advertise just to the fandom, from web sites to con books. And two, if the discussion here or on tilton’s journal was the first time you’d heard of ArtSpots or FAP or AnthroStar, what does that say about their name recognition?
And last but not least, two personal observations:
With the exception of YS, all of these sites—even FA—are comparatively new, and as outlined above, FA has a tremendous “first mover” advantage now. Even if FAP did everything right it would take years to build up significant mind share. And even though it’s doing some seriously cool technical stuff behind the scenes, FAP’s interface and marketing could both use work.
FurAffinity has positioned itself as allowing erotica without explicitly (ha!) promoting it. By contrast, FAP says: hey, we know you’re really here for the porn, have a front page full of tags that sound a touch fetishy even when you’re not logged in and seeing the really “adult” stuff. Yes, I know that the audience for porn is huge—but from a marketing perspective, “we have everything including porn” trumps “we have porn and also clean stuff.”
So here’s the two million-dollar questions, figuratively speaking:
What would a site have to offer to be better enough to get people to switch?
What would be the best ways for that site to get sufficient name recognition to bring in the switchers?