My lean startup DeclareMedia has a problem. Ok, a challenge. Ok, it has several challenges. One of them is getting the word out about what DeclareMedia does. Of course you all know how great it is to have a business that has a viral component, that is, the very use of the product/service spreads the word about the product to other potential users (i.e. Hotmail, cars, etc.), or the product/service is so useful that users share it willingly and widely (i.e. Facebook, Linkedin, etc.). DeclareMedia is neither of those. The question is, can it become one or both?
As it stands, DeclareMedia’s value is fairly simple, and best explained with a simple case study. Someone in Utah needs to hire a web design firm, so they go to Google and type in “utah web design firms”, our directory utahwebdesignfirms.com comes up #1 in Google, and there the person needing to hire a Utah web design firm can find the most comprehensive and up to date list of web design firms in Utah that exists. Because our directory ranks #1 in Google for “utah web design firms” and gets a fair amount of traffic, it’s in the best interest of Utah web design firms to create a listing on that directory, and not just to get a free listing, but to pay for a featured listing on the homepage since that will result in more leads than a free listing. Now multiply that business model across 160+ business categories and several thousand individual directories and you’ve got DeclareMedia in a nutshell.
The primary weakness, indeed the Achille’s Heel, of DeclareMedia’s business model is that it is 99% reliant on Google. If Google were to ban our directories from its rankings, we’d be dead. I don’t expect that to happen, because I think we know how to keep Google happy, but we’ve definitely put all our eggs in one basket.
But ignoring that primary weakness, which really has nothing to do with this post and is merely a tangent thrown in for free, the secondary weakness and the one that is more of a problem right now is that DeclareMedia’s revenue generation possibilities depend too much on the type of people who should be interested in getting a listing on one of our directories stumbling across one of our directories, understanding why they should have a listing on it, creating a listing, and then understanding the value of upgrading to a paid listing. So far, this business model works, but it works quite slowly. That is why we have a large number of directories that rank #1 on Google for the keywords they target with no listings on them. It’s not that there isn’t anyone who wants to be on the directory, it’s that they don’t know the directory exists, and they aren’t on Google on a regular enough basis searching for the keywords that would lead them to our directory. A few examples:
atlantavaloans.com – #1 on Google for “atlanta va loans”
bostonheadhuntingfirms.com – #1 for “boston head hunting firms”
pennsylvaniavideogamestores.com – #1 for “pennsylvania video game stores”
mississippicarpetcleaning.net – #1 for “mississippi carpet cleaning”
indianaseocompany.com – #1 for “indiana seo company”
I know the real estate market is hurting, but is there no one in Atlanta trying to sell VA loans? Are there no head hunting firms in Boston that are trying to find more business? Have all the video game stores in Pennsylvania gone out of business? Have the carpet cleaners in Mississippi all given up trying to find new customers? And this last one…I mean, c’mon, are you telling me there isn’t a single SEO firm in Indiana?
Let me explain the value here. A person/business selling VA loans in Atlanta could get a free listing on our directory, and they would be the only one there. They would get every single lead from that site. These leads are from people who went to Google and typed in “atlanta va loans”. Would you suppose that perhaps, just a few of those people are fairly serious about getting a VA loan? But instead, people are going to our directory, looking for someone to give them a VA loan, they’re finding an empty directory, and they’re going back to Google and looking at the other search results.
This isn’t an isolated problem, it’s THE problem with DeclareMedia’s business model. The people who should be on these directories aren’t finding them, because they aren’t going on Google and seeing what comes up when they search for what they do.
So what’s the solution? Well, the first thing we’ve tried is to be proactive about telling people. Instead of waiting for them to stumble across one of our directories, let’s tell them. So we’ve tried Google Adwords, Facebook ads, we set up an affiliate/partner program, we’ve tried some relatively inexpensive forms of targeted website advertising and are trying a few more, we’re going to do a trial run with a call center, and I’ve thought about traditional advertising as well. So far, all I can say is that Google Adwords and Facebook don’t seem to be cost effective. Sure, we get signups, but precious few that upgrade to a featured listing.
Now, there is the possibility the people who should sign up on our directories are finding them, but aren’t signing up. We have reason to believe that directories that look “busy”, that is, they already have a lot of listings, are more likely to attract more listings. After all, if you see all your competitors doing something you figure you better at least keep up. If you come across an empty directory you might think “How come none of my competitors are on here? Do I really want to be the first one?” We are taking steps to test this hypothesis and figure out if there is a magic tipping point when it comes to the number of listings necessary to induce more signups.
But even if that turns out to be a problem and we solve it, it’s still too slow. Maybe some of the push-advertising will work, maybe the affiliate program will take off. But I can’t help thinking that gee, it would be nice if there were some sort of viral element to these directories. It would be nice if either; 1) their very use caused more people to find out about them, and/or 2) people were somehow motivated to share their knowledge of the directories with others. But let’s be real–it’s a web directory. For those who know anything about SEO, it’s an easy, free link. It’s nothing special. It won’t change your business. Your business won’t depend on it. But it is one helpful tool among many. But can it be more than that? I’m working on my own ideas, but hey, if you’ve got any then please share.