Main Street, USA

The Internet is becoming too expensive

Talk about another tech bubble notwithstanding, the Internet may be getting too expensive for small businesses, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and other small operations. Exploding advertising costs, skyrocketing development costs, and pressure for an almost unobtainable top position in Google is crowding out the very people the Internet was once hailed to help the most: the little guys. Part of it is caused by high development costs for really good websites.

I’ve been doing website development work on a freelance basis for over a decade, and full-time for the last five years. I’ve had people hire me to help them grow a business in everything from vitamins to wedding cake toppers. The results have been the same for a great many: they are unprepared for the cost, time, and effort necessary to be successful. And it’s no surprise they do.

The Internet isn’t the great equalizer we once saw. Today the Internet is like Main Street, USA with a million shops all competing for the same customers. And unlike companies of yore like Amazon which could sometimes get ahead simply by being first in their category, businesses today are rarely first at anything online.

When you start a business, you need the basics: a website, some business cards, and maybe some brochures. If you’re a really small operation you go to Vista Print or Wix or some other mass producer and you get yourself setup with a site and some cards. Except you know that what you’re getting is the equivalent of writing a resume in Word by going to File > New > From Template. It might fill a void, but it doesn’t get noticed.

So you hire a designer, or at least try to. First you have to wade through what must be the most clogged and spam-filled set of top Google results for any industry. Then you have to wade through people who can do something in your budget, which is increasingly hard to find and tell at-a-glance. Ask a web designer about costs and it’s like asking a doctor how much an appendectomy costs. Any shop with more than two people won’t get excited about anything under $10,000. Do you have $10,000 to throw down on a website right now? Even larger shops don’t do anything under $20,000.

So you go looking for “a guy”. Someone who works by himself on a contract basis. These are people like me, and they’re about like the mom-and-pop auto dealer on the corner. A lot less selection, and who knows where they’ll be tomorrow, but they’re close. Some great ones are out there, but how do you know? You probably don’t and never will. It’s a game of luck.

Assuming you get your site setup and your business cards printed, now you need to advertise. So you think about Facebook, but as of this writing only 16% of your followers will initially see your post. As Facebook ratchets that down in order to drive up the number of companies who pay for their advertising, the writing is on the wall that soon nothing will happen for Facebook Pages without paying first.

YouTube almost demands some modest amount of video editing skills to get noticed, which means another contractor.

You could do email marketing since 45% of all online sales are still driven through email (social media accounts for less than 4%), but you don’t have anyone to email yet and you won’t for a long while. So you turn to, what, Craigslist?

And once you do all that “the right way”, you end up with no money left to devote to your product or service. What was supposed to be a highway full of clamoring customers is instead an over-crowded room full of competitors and increasingly hurried customers unwilling to do business with anyone that charges even $5 for shipping. The Internet has become more costly for a lot of businesses than opening a shop on Main Street was 60 years ago.

There are some options to break out. It requires creativity in being more ridiculous, funnier, smarter, or more interesting than your competitors. Some people have that and some people don’t. And like competing in a popularity contest, it’s a lot more work when you don’t. You just can’t afford not to be in it.

We’re in an era of unprecedented specialization. It requires niches and niches inside niches to compete in and be truly unique. Just like FedEx got ahead by becoming “the overnight delivery company” at the expense of all their other shipping speeds, maybe it’s time for you to focus in on one very, very, specific need in the market.

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