10 Years of WashingtonPost.com, Some Insytes, Some Issues


I remember sitting at my Guru Communications desk in Miami Beach seeing the Washington Post come online back in 1996. We were in the height of our frenzied growth and struggling against the five headed monster that was our management team. We had just finished launching Isle Bombardier a couple of months beforehand and we were all talking about how big Media doesn’t get it. But the Post did, and that was surprising and refreshing to see.

Reading the article Web Site Starts From a Memo, Gains Millions of Readers about the brief history of the Post, I found a few gems that I wanted to share with you.

In particular, this quote from Warren Buffet is extremely relevant to the modern thinking of many of the Web 2.0 startups I know who don’t really have a business model or plan to revenue other than AdSense. I never really understood that form of business model in the early days (which is why I was not able to make Virtual Community Network a big success – I thought we were supposed to try to make money not light it on fire and burn it). While I disagree with the free spending strategy in principle because of the huge risks, I do see how those risks can be mitigated to ensure some modicum of success.

And Kaiser recalls a conversation with Post board member Warren Buffett in which Buffett told Kaiser to stop worrying about the financial side: “There is no case in history of somebody assembling a huge audience and then failing to make money from it,” Kaiser recalls Buffett saying. Washington Post.com – Web Site Starts From a Memo, Gains Millions of Readers

This was the beginning of the “eyeballs” movement – build an audience, make the site sticky and make it viral to grow the audience. I still find it very interesting that today people expect to get to the same “sticky eyeballs” outcome by being “open” and letting their customers easily migrate to competitors. At least today there are standards of quality and methods of understanding audience expectations that make it more possible to create a product/service that really satisfies the needs of the audience.
What really make sense to me in this debate is that it clearly drives competition and motivates organizations with thriving collaborative cultures to make the best possible product in order to prevent people from leaving. It is sort of like an unsatisfied customer relief valve – when the pressure from customers leaving for a competing service get too high, is the company more likely to shut the valve or respond with greater innovation to reverse the flow?
This is seemingly being played out in the Flickr v. Zooomr discussion – especially now since the Flickr Famous Thomas Hawk is going to work for Zooomr. While he says he will still continue to post to Flickr, that does not make sense – he has switched his life to a new photo sharing platform by joining the company, he should make the full commitment to it. While it may be a stab at a brilliant marketing move (keep talking on Flickr about how much better Zooomr is), I feel that such a move is not in the spirit of authenticity that is so prominent in this era of the Web 2.0 Social Contract.

Which brings me back to the brief history of WashingtonPost.com and some of the more recent strategic shifts. To embrace more of the many to many aspects of the covversational Web instead of the one to many model that has been so prevalent for so many years.

In a recent all-company meeting, Caroline Little, WPNI’s chief executive officer and publisher, spoke of recent online innovations. “We set out, very purposefully, about two years ago, to leverage the medium of the Internet, to create more possibilities of conversation and to drive people to come and stay on the site: With blogs, comments on blogs, Technorati [links], comments on articles, a broader and deeper opinion section,” she said. Washington Post.com – Web Site Starts From a Memo, Gains Millions of Readers

I refer to this shift as moving from being the “Town Crier” to becoming the “Town Hall” – moving from the idea of media as voice to the idea of media as place – a venue where the conversation happens. From trying to control the conversation to facilitating it amongst peers. The Post does understand this better than most big media companies, but not completely. They still think the game is about driving people to the site and keeping them there, which is an ad revenue model rather than being a social one. This was further evidenced by their position looking out at the world from inside the organization.

Washingtonpost.com, they realized, wasn’t a completely separate product; it could also help market the larger Washington Post brand. Audience spikes around big news events sent a strong message: Readers yearned for the authority of The Washington Post’s reporting. Washington Post.com – Web Site Starts From a Memo, Gains Millions of Readers

Internet usage always spikes around big news stories – email volume, IM volume, hits to the big authoritative news sites and now so does the amount of stuff people contribute to the conversation through their Blogs, Podcasts and Vlogs. Yes, people need to have a trusted, authoritative voice to turn to, but this is no longer the Post by default. In all fairness, the strategies that the Post has taken are in the right direction. They are willing to experiment a little, they are embracing conversational methods and they have a really bright team of folks working for them.

But the jury on relevance and authoritative voice is still out and probably won’t render its final judgment for another 10 years. Personally, while a track record and brand loyalty is important, I now judge news sources on the merits of each piece they publish. I am just as likely to stumble on a Washington Post story as I am one from the New York Times. What matters most to me now are the filters like TechMeme, TailRank and Digg. Then it comes down to the people I trust and then the organizations. Until I can build a more personal relationship with Post reporters (neither myself or them have the time to do so), I will only have a limited amount of trust that I can give the organization.

This fundamentally misses the most important point, that Greg Narain paraphrases nicely

Is anyone really dealing with the relationship that’s held and the realities of maintaining that connection and loyalty over an extended period of time? Socialtwister 2.0

That is the problem with social media – and that is the opportunity.

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