I wasn’t going to chime in. When I first saw the headline for Chris Dixon’s post, SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups, I assumed that it was just another “SEO is Dead” rant, so I didn’t read it. As it gained more attention and responses, I finally relented. I’m glad I did.
It wasn’t a baseless rant. In fact, it made some very excellent points, but it’s in a response post by Sarah Tavel titled Prediction: Facebook is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups that really made my mind start swirling. I’ve been pondering the concept all day and night (it’s now 1am, so “all day and night” is literal).
Dixon’s points about SEO are well taken. Quality white-hat SEO is very expensive and often beyond the budget of many startups. Even if it’s in the budget, there is never a guarantee that it will work. Tavel expands on this by pointing out that the cycle of marketing greenfields always ends with a lower level of influence. Email is weaker than it once was. SEO is weaker (for startups) than it was very recently. Are Facebook and Twitter, the latest marketing greenfields, going to shift and lose effectiveness sooner than later?
Of course they will (sort of).
This revelation leads to the obvious question of…
To understand where startup marketing is going, it’s important to understand where it’s been. Let’s look at the progression over recent years.
- Websites Plus Traditional Marketing – In the beginning, the goal of a startup who depended on the Internet was to get people to visit their website. I recall getting a pamphlet placed on my windshield back in the 90s that opened up to reveal a website URL in big letters. That’s it. With search engines still developing and a large portion of the world offline, the mountain was a tall one but with humongous potential… all the way through to the dotcom bubble burst. Luckily, more people joined the online world and gave websites new hope. Today, every startup should have a website, but not every website will get visitors.
- Email Emerges – The FW:FW:RE:FW:RE: word-of-mouth marketing was a wonderland. “Viral” was described in terms of emails sent and subsequently forwarded. It was so easy that “spam” became more than a malformed meat product and marketing was primarily a race to acquire email addresses. Spam now accounts for 117% of all emails received (unconfirmed statistic). It’s still effective, just not for marketing and definitely not for startups.
- The Rise of Search – As Dixon points out, SEO has become a game that favors the “haves.” The “havenots” (i.e. new startups) will find challenges in breaking through to all but long-tail searches. You need the search results to make the money, but you need the money to get the search results. The rich get richer (other than the farmers) and only the lucky and smart (in that order, respectively) have a chance of using SEO as a primary marketing tool.
- Facebook and Twitter Will Burst… Or Will They? – Tavel is right. Facebook and Twitter in their current forms cannot sustain and are already showing signs of going the way of the search engines where “haves” have it and the “havenots” won’t. After hours of thought on a lazy Sunday, I’m ready to agree 100%, but with a catch…
Enough History, What’s Next?
Facebook is already on its way to the next big thing. Even though it’s the big thing now, they are working towards creating a walled-garden, an “Inception”-esque world within a world that demands people play in it. Mobile, too, with Android and iOS vying for share of the market, have similar dreams where the handheld world flocks to their own internalized app-based walled-garden.
Twitter fits in. We just don’t know where.
Building something that lasts the way Google has in the tumultuous environment of competitive marketing and advertising dollar hording will require Facebook, Mobile platforms, Twitter, GroupOn, Zynga, and whoever else emerges while there is still time to integrate with 3 things:
- The Money – As eBay and Amazon continue (for now) to thrive based upon building financial infrastructures around their product offerings, so too will Facebook and company need to establish or partner with those who can easily control the purse-strings. Google did it with Adwords and that alone has contributed the most to building their empire.
- The People – Websites and email were never consolidated. There were hundreds of choices for email providers and millions of choices for website design, style, and functionality. They failed (yes, websites alone have failed as a viable marketing strategy for startups) because none of them reached a tipping point the way that Facebook (and social media in general), iOS/Android, and companies like Zynga have. They have the attention of the masses. It’s theirs to lose, and the easiest way to lose it is to fall out of touch with…
- The Sentiment – Getting the people in is the easy part, yet very few have been able to do it at the right scale. For any of these companies to avoid being the next AOL, MySpace, or Yahoo!, they will need to see 10 steps ahead of the sentiment of the general Internet public. Giving the people what we want now is great, but knowing what we’ll want in the near future as technology continues to expand our abilities is the absolute key to success.
Any of the companies that are currently valid startup marketing strategies could fall off quicker than Charlie Sheen on a wagon. Unlike email and other predecessors to startup marketing gold, these companies all have an opportunity to stay a relatively long time at the top. While Tavel’s assessment is spot on if these companies do not adapt, they have one thing going for them that is overlooked.
Unlike the predecessors, Facebook and the others are changing quickly enough to keep our attention. Facebook’s walled-garden dreams is impossible to see today but easily achievable within months. In fact, here’s a bold prediction:
Facebook will have valid and widely used eCommerce, marketing, and advertising platforms that will replace traditional websites as the primary destination for many startups before the end of 2011.
~ JD “Out on a Limb” Rucker
iOS is already making it happen. Android will be there soon as well. Counting out any of these companies as viable marketing strategies for startups would be poor advice to give because they all have a vision that aligns with the ability to keep up with the sentiment of the masses. They may fail. Some who are currently at the top (Twitter?) most definitely will in the near future.
Facebook will only fail if they mess everything up really badly. REALLY badly.
Assuming they don’t then Facebook will remain the best way for startups to market themselves. In fact, it may become the home for many successful startups just as it originally was for Zynga. The Facebook that we see today will be different in 2012. It will be heading toward the walled-garden that they dream of where people who want to do just about everything from Facebook will be able to do so (and there will be millions who fall under that category).
It will be a lot like (gulp) AOL in the glory days. The only difference is that Facebook will not rely on traditional mail and cardboard holders at grocery stores to put CD-ROMs in people’s hands. They will work with Corporate America World, small businesses, and the various governments around the planet to establish a safe and widely adoptable solution to just about everything the population needs.
All of this will happen more quickly than most imagine.
In many ways, it’s already here.
Startups, here’s your tip: Facebook is viable today. Facebook will be more viable tomorrow. Embrace it for success (and keep your eye on the others as well).