Why Maturing Sites Should Go All Gladwell in Their Marketing

I was sitting at Crif Dogs. The one in Williamsburg. It was sometime around midnight. I was coming home from

Mr. Webb.

I was sitting at Crif Dogs. The one in Williamsburg. It was sometime around midnight. I was coming home from the Björk show at Roseland, and picking up some burgers and dogs for me and my girlfriend. I was a little tipsy. I like that place. People are very chatty. It is, however, a tad slow in getting you a to-go burger (though the dogs are quick). But it’s worth it. Those are some good dogs and some very reasonably priced, quality burgers. I was sitting in the corner. I was reading “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In other crowds in other places, I might feel a smidge of embarrassment for not having read it yet. At 1 a.m. in Williamsburg, my embarrassment would be that I am reading it at all, when I haven’t read the Patti Smith book yet. Or the Keith Richards one. God, I am a bad aging rocker.

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There were three dudes in the corner. Metal dudes. Like those cool death metal ones. One was obviously the alpha male. You could tell he was the alpha male because he was the smallest one and the other two were looking at him somewhat deferentially. And as you may know, death metal dudes don’t often look at anyone deferentially.

Oddly, they happened to be talking about “websites.” That’s what they were calling them, though in our parlance we might call them “New York-based tech startups.” This is interesting for two reasons: first, they called them “websites.” Not “apps,” or “tools” or what the heck ever. They still called them “websites.” That was mildly interesting. Second, every site they were talking about was New York-based. That was also pretty cool. Yay New York.

But that’s not what was interesting about it. The alpha rocker was explaining to his two buddies what was up with each site, which one was currently cool to use, and which one wasn’t. He was explaining misconceptions about each app. The details aren’t important, nor are the sites. But it went something like this:

“I thought that site X was for such-and-such.”

“No, dude. It’s totally not. You use it for this and it’s really awesome for this and besides the chicks are using it.”

“Oh cool. What about site Y?”

“Yo, dude. Site Y is whack. Only douchebags use it. It’s useless except for this one thing, and besides, Site Z is better for that.”

His sidekicks listened intently. I could see them literally re-writing their opinions about each site. Deciding which one was okay to use, which one was cool, and which one they weren’t going to bother trying out.

So. Same as everywhere, right? We do that. I do that, you do that. We tell our friends which sites to use, they listen. We’re early adopters and our friends know it and they look to our opinions and our tireless efforts at trying every. Single. App. (Ugh, it’s tiring, isn’t it?) And telling them what to use.

Except. It’s different. And here’s my point.

Virtually all the marketing done on these apps, and most startup apps, is done to us: the early adopters. Tech startups invite us into their betas and target their PR to us and tell us to follow them on the Tumblrs they started, and invite us to their parties, and basically roll out the red carpet for us. And we gobble it all up, consume, evaluate, and get the word out. This works very well at early stages, when your audience is tech early adopters. The influencers are targeted, and they do the selling for you. Doubly so if you have a social-based app.

But as sites grow and progress, the target changes, and we often don’t adapt our marketing to it. I was struck, listening to these guys, that the closest analog to this guy isn’t anything in the tech industry marketing plan. The closest analog is Malcolm Gladwell’s “mavens.” The people we look to to understand what to buy and what to consume. Except they’re not digital mavens. These death metal kids showed no signs of being particularly Internet-connected. They obviously would have listened to this guy about his opinions on leather jackets and whether or not Ghost from Sweden was a legit metal band (as an aside if the inverse is true and my tech friends will listen to me about metal bands, the answer is yes). These “websites” were one more thing in their consumer ecosystem. They weren’t tech obsessed—only one of them even sported a smart phone. They were trying to decide which website to use in the same way they’d consider any other consumer item.

This is how the non-techie target consumer of a maturing website evaluates websites. They listen to mavens and influencers, but not necessarily digital ones. They listen to their peers and their role models, peers and role models chosen for their place in their entire, holistic life, and not just their digital life. And I believe we fail to reach out to them in any sort of significant way. Coming off of SXSW, I was surprised to see so many consumer app companies—Foursquare, Twitter, etc.—pack up shop when SXSW Interactive ended and music began. When you have more than 10 million users, you are not just targeting the interactive audience anymore. The primary question we hear about apps at that size is whether or not they can cross over into the mainstream, right? So why market just to the digital elite?

More and more I see companies struggling at this point. I wrote about it years ago in a slightly mocking way. I talked about how tech companies generally ignored marketing until there was the slightest decrease in their growth curve, or until they hit about 80 people, and then all of the sudden these companies that used to mock traditional marketing hire someone away from an ad agency and companies like my old agency suddenly got calls for help. I used to struggle with this problem endlessly. I could see the tech company’s point of view on why traditional advertising wasn’t perfect for them, and why they were hesitant to move money into anything that significantly increased their cost per user acquisition. I would endlessly experiment with different ways to solve this problem online.

But these days, I am thinking that perhaps the solution exists offline. It almost embarrasses me to say it, but perhaps its time to re-embrace Gladwell and “The Tipping Point” in the original, offline fashion. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that as our tech company matures, the people we want to sign up just aren’t as tech-targetable as the early adopters.

And while occasionally, maturing consumer tech companies do a few mainstream partnerships or cross marketing deals, the very grass-roots, maven-centric marketing that served them so well in their early days tends to wither on the vine, or at least not cross over to mainstream mavens. Tumblr and Twitter, as a counterpoint, do a decent job of staffing up in different areas of “community,” with community hosts targeted to celebrities, or journalists, or authors or high-profile content creators. But I am continually reminded of the case study cited in “The Tipping Point,” in which  Hush Puppies regained their cool when a few downtown New York hipsters started wearing their shoes. Just get out there and talk to the influencers and hook them up.

I think there could be extraordinary opportunity here. And it fits with the tech industry’s zeitgeist of lightweight, targeted marketing rather than mass marketing. How hard would it be to identify influential users or potential users of your product and provide them with some tools, incentive, gifts or even a little cash to use your product and encourage others to do so? It is, essentially, what we do with the tech set, but as apps struggle to cross over to the mainstream, perhaps we should be doing this for a wider set of influencers? Is any company doing this? I haven’t heard of one, but I think it could be powerful.

Rick Webb co-founded The Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency, and is now a writer and angel investor in the tech industry.

Why Maturing Sites Should Go All Gladwell in Their Marketing