Well, I would like to say that I had a very productive day today, getting down 6 pages of notes, a few hundred lines of code, and 3 great marketing ideas.  That didn’t happen.  What did happen was I got up late, had breakfast at about 6 PM, and then saw a late showing of 21 (capsule review: don’t bother).  But I’m now a heck of a lot more rested and relaxed than I was yesterday, and have a page or two more in the development notebook than I did, which is a modest start to a modest project.

The Big Picture:

Pretend for a moment you’re a small business.  (This should not be a great leap of imagination for most of the people reading this).  You have a niche, full of people who are constantly talking to each other about what matters to them — and, in your ideal world, what matters to them would be what matters to you.  But the world isn’t ideal, and while you have a few dedicated fans out there, they’ve got precious little reason to spread your message and no easy ways with which to do it.

Enter the Internet.  It makes spreading ideas much, much easier than before — anybody can put up a web site, a web site can reach anybody, and the costs involved are so miniscule in comparison to the old way of doing things you wonder if people are being serious.  (I pay about twenty two cents to get my software in front of people.  If you had said that to an AOL exec in the nineties, he would have paid me a few hundred million and told me to print enough CDs to wallpaper every home in Africa.)  But all is not easy in Internet-land.  Because while its gotten easier for you to push yourself, the real trick on the Internet is getting other people to be interested in you of their own accord, and that is tricky.  Seth Godin might say that the problem is getting to care — that in an age of zillion of choices of businesses, products, charities, blogs, etc, you have to find some way to work above the din, some way to get your message out, some way that your fans get heard above the noise.

It’s deeply tricky stuff.  And its a really, explosively big topic.  And I really hate dealing with really, explosively big topics, so let’s zoom in a bit closer to the ground.

The Problem:

On the ground, there is this one small business (or charity or political campaign or person who spends their days writing letters to the editor about the importance of flouridated drinking water, but for sake of brevity we’ll say its a business) with a website.  They put an awful lot of work into the website, and more is happening all the time.  And, wonder of wonders, some people actually like what they’ve done, and once in a while their best stuff — that tech demo, that blog post, the tutorial — makes its way out of obscurity and gets spread around the place.

Linking.  Its the most foundational building block of the Internet. Its so foundational, so ingrained into the soul of us tech folks, that we forget how difficult and limiting it is.  Its difficult because it requires that you master a special form of black magic — you must mutter all manner of ache reph incantations — and limiting because, if you manage to do it right, all you get is little blue text with a line under it

Its apparently magic blue text, because when people see it they try clicking it (admit it, you tried, didn’t you?). 

That is pretty much the state of the art of customer engagement on the Internet.  If you do everything right, your customers will reward you with magic incantations and little blue lines.  Many of them will fail at the incantations.  Many who succeed will end up giving you links which are less than wonderfully descriptive of the content behind them, mooting their value to you.  After all that effort spent in getting your fans to care about you, we consistently fail at giving them the tools to show the world they care. 

Maybe, if we’re lucky, we tell them how to copy/paste the right incantation. 

We Can Do Better:

There are a bunch of ways to do things better.  We could, for example, give our customers pretty badges to link to our sites with.  That would be a blast from the past, since businesses have been doing it since at least 1998, but it is difficult to get people to put up your badges just like it is difficult to get folks to slap their logo on the side of your car.  (People do it, don’t get me wrong — there was a Coca Cola sticker on my fridge in college just because we had a fridge and a sticker and the combination looked obvious at the time — but for now we’re talking about advancing the art.)

Recently, there has been a development on the Internet called widgets.  A widget is, basically, a piece of web content which is embeddable in other pages — its a technological artifact that carries a communicatory message, sort of like a link.  Except they’re typically richer than links, in that they provide their own reason for spreading (the person who puts the widget on their page gains something from it) and the widget contains its own little wizard who will happily tell you the incantation to put it on your page.

And what did mankind come up with once it started embracing widgets?  Well, a lot of Would You Survive The Zombie Apocalypse quizzes and What Kind of My Little Pony Are You badges.  But there is the potential for so much more.

Consider, for example, consider this widget:

Firefox Get It Now Widget

That widget tells two stories in the blink of an eye.  #1, all the cool kids use Firefox, and you can be a cool kid if you just click the text.  #2, supposing you were not just a cool kid but the kind of kid who was so cool he was concerned other people knew it, you could click that second little link and show off how cool you were on your blog. 

(If you don’t see the commercial applications for this, let me hum a few bars: you’re providing something of value to customers, in this example something psychic but potentially something of actual utility for their site or readership, and in return they give you permission to both spread your message and they assist in spreading your marketing via the widget’s built-in virality.  Its a lot like AdSense, except minus the ad blindness, the constricting limitations of that ad format, and, oh yeah, the cost.)

So why don’t we see that all over the place?

It took me about two minutes to knock that graphic up in Paint.NET, and it probably shows.  So why don’t we see a lot more stuff like this on the Internet?  Well, its pretty bloody hard to do — to actually take that from a static JPG image to a widget, capable of not lying in the first sentence, showing the right alternative to folks who have Firefox already, spreading itself, and doing the math necessary to collect the statistics necessary to do the calculations to substantiate the claim, you have to have a bit of programming expertise.  Web app, backing database, Javascript, AJAX, uh oh.  Most people, including most businesses and most folks trying to spread a message on the Internet, don’t have that available.

So here’s my business proposition

I think you can make some subsets of widgets easily.  Click a button and BING the computer takes care of the magic for you.  I think that folks, after they see the results and how successful widget-marketing could be, would be happy to pay for a subscription to the website that makes it all possible.  (Why a subscription?  A bunch of reasons, most acutely “It makes me more money that way”.  Plus, integrated statistics tracking and widget serving makes the service much more valuable to my potential customers at a rate which far outstrips its cost to me.)

The basic, early-in-development idea is that I provide a bunch of pre-coded building blocks (Data Sources, Presentations, etc) and that folks can snap them together in minutes or seconds as opposed to paying contract programmers several thousand bucks for coming up with the same thing, minus the hosting infrastructure.  This appeals to me as a businessman because after I have the basic platform set up improving it is just a matter of bolting on new Data Sources/Presentations/etc, giving me an easy built-in development path.  Additionally, controlling access to particular Data Sources/Presentations via a tiered pricing model will help move folks from the inevitable free plan up to the $10 or $100 a month plans.

Now, if I were a Silicon Valley entrepeneur I would say “We’re looking at the potential of 100,000 customers by next year, giving us a valuation of $8.7 billion”.  Happily, I don’t live in Silicon Valley, and thus have more modest aspirations.  Here they are: I’m going to start by getting myself a customer.  Then I’m going to get 10.  Then I’m going to get a hundred.  And then I’m going to get a few hundred.  And then… then there is no then, because a few hundred paying subscribers translates into enough revenue to support me indefinately.

Why this project?

This is a scratch-my-own-itch project in a few ways: I wanted to make it possible for teachers to embed things like the list of popular bingo cards on their own pages.  Then I realized that to do that I would have to learn more Javascript than I am currently capable of doing, and then I would have to come up with a good way to explain how to do the embedding to an audience which does not have an outstandingly high level of average technical skill.  Plus, it gives me a chance to develop a bona-fide web app outside of work, and while all sorts of this scream “positive technical challenge” I’m fairly certain that I can come up with a minimum working solution before I get bored or frustrated with it. 

Now all I have to do is design, implement, and market this sucker… in 29 days.  Wish me luck!