Web Features: Don’t be too Ambitious

The NYT has the news, this morning: BusinessWeek is adding a feature to its website at the end of September. This is clearly meant to be a big deal: it’s the product of "two years of quiet development," we’re told, and it "should double BusinessWeek’s traffic on the Web within two years".

I wish BusinessWeek luck. There are some good ideas lurking behind the new feature, called Business Exchange: increasing search-engine referrals, encouraging readers to get involved, making the most of user-generated content rather than relegating it to unread comments streams. But you never really know with these things: sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and the best way to find out is to try them and see. Nothing should take "two years of quiet development": it’s much better to take something basic and improve it in the wild than it is to spend years trying to perfect something behind the scenes which might not take off at all.

But big media companies are very bad when it comes to experimentation and willingness to fail. Sometimes they see someone else doing something they like and simply acquire it, like Conde Nast did with Reddit: that kind of thing can make a lot of sense. But it’s much less common for them to try to grow such things in-house. That’s partly because when they do try the in-house route, they end up in the same position as BusinessWeek: the project ends up taking vast amounts of time and management cycles, everybody wants their own bright ideas included, and eventually the whole thing becomes laden with monster expectations which only serve to increase the probability that it will end up disappointing.

I’m not at all convinced that BusinessWeek’s professional audience really has any inclination to set up a profile page, complete with photo, which lists that person’s online reading habits. Still, it’s an interesting idea, and BusinessWeek’s partner LinkedIn has had no little success doing something similar. So it’s well worth trying out, and seeing if it sticks. It’s just not worth spending huge amounts of time and money on until you know for sure that your audience has some interest in it.

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