About PM4Web

The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

29 October, 2014

If You Build It, They Will Come...

There's a belief out there that if you have a good idea for an online business, build the website and users will magically appear (what I call the "if you build it, they will come" mentality).

This worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but for the rest of us that don't live in fantasy land, it doesn't turn out that way.

It's tricky to talk about this topic because it makes me sound like a kill-joy or naysayer. I don't like to stand in the way of anyone's dream, whatever it may be.

However, I often come across websites which obviously look unnurtured or abandoned (e.g. you do a search in major city for something and it comes up with '0 results'). The only thing missing is a Flash animation of a tumble-weed rolling across the screen.

For whatever reason, the site hasn't been successfully commercialized. My guess is usually that the business owner has spent all their money on technology, probably outsourced it overseas because it was too expensive to get done by a local digital agency. They most likely haven't budgeted for any significant form of promotion or marketing. This is like taking a raft to a river without a paddle, and thinking the current is going to get you across to the other side.

And this is what I mean by the "if you build it, they will come" mentality. Maybe this worked back in 1997 when there weren't many websites around to compete against, but now, big companies pour huge amounts of cash into promotion - competition is exceptionally fierce. Of course, in the absence of big dollars for TV spots, there's always viral marketing, but for most people this is easier said than done.

Another factor which hamstrings a website before it's even launched is the revenue model. Trying to charge people a subscription fee on an unproven platform is an uphill battle. What about banner advertising then? That's probably not going to work because the site doesn't have high enough traffic yet. A hall-mark of the current web epoch are websites that charge nothing (often they are looking for traction, then a buy-out later down the track). If established competitors are offering their services for free, then how on earth can a low traffic start-up hope to gain a foot-hold by launching and asking users to pay?

It's the dot com dream which lures people to the idea that web is easy money; this simply isn't the case. Sure, it costs far less to establish a website compared to opening a bricks and mortar shop. There's no factory equipment to buy, no materials used in production, cheaper insurance, etc. That's great, but you can have the most fantastic product in the world, but if no one knows about it, it's destined to fail.

I guess the point of this article is to not view a new website idea just in terms of the cost of the technology (i.e. paying programmers to build the thing). I often say to clients: "whatever budget you have for the website, have that again for marketing." The other advice I give people is this: "technology is the easy part, getting people to use the website is the hard part". Actually, the technology often isn't that easy when it comes down to it, but it's a relative measure - whatever headaches are experienced during the build phase, they are nothing compared to what's to come once the site is launched (i.e. attracting customers).

Does this mean it's all doom and gloom? Don't bother investing in a start-up idea, too hard, don't try? No, I don't believe that, I've partnered with business owners to developer online software knowing full-well the marketing budget was tight. Am I also guilty of the "if you build it, they will come" mentality? Perhaps, but the difference is I at least know before-hand visitors won't magically appear after launch.

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