The real business model for Web 2.0: corporate clients
by Josh Bernoff
Everyone seems to want an answer to the question "When will Web 2.0 startups start making money?" The implication is that unless we can answer the question, the "bubble" of Web 2.0 will burst and all of us who believe in this stuff will be revealed as fantasists.
The fact is, it's incredibly hard to make money as a Web 2.0 startup aimed at consumers.
There are hundreds of these companies, and they all clamor to brief us at Forrester. Each has its own twist on blogs, social networks, ratings, user generated video, or whatever. It's hard to get people to pay attention to a new tool, and the value of the tool depends on lots of participation -- the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You competitor is always one twist ahead of you. Some of these startups will succeed but the odds are one in a thousand -- you need just the right idea, at the right time, with the right push or set of potential customers, and you need to take off with such velocity that you leave the competition in the dust.
Once a startup like this does take off, there's that other pesky little problem -- monetizing the success. Google transformed the online world by first generating huge traffic, then finding a business model. But Google's success was based on a fantastically clever advertising mechanism that was automated, attracted new advertisers, and served searchers nearly as well as it served advertisers. Facebook hasn't yet unlocked that advertising gold mine, and flubbed up its most prominent try with Beacon. Twitter has no business model yet. Ning has hundreds of thousands of visitors, but still runs Google AdSense ads. And these are the successes. No wonder people are skeptical.
A few of these companies may (and likely will) unlock that genie as Google did and take off. But for any given startup, the odds are astronomical.
The amazing thing is that there are a class of startup companies making good money right now from Web 2.0. They're not flashy and they don't grow like mushrooms. But they've got all the business they can handle and they are growing. I am talking about companies that serve corporate social application needs. This isn't the typical Web 2.0 business paradigm, since serving corporate customers means lots of client service, which is people-intensive -- it doesn't lift off miraculously like a pure technology startup. In fact, in many of these companies, the technology itself is positively mundane. But the startups grow because they deliver value for which they can charge a premium and get customer loyalty. The customers of these companies don't defect when something shiny and new comes along, because they like the service they're getting.
Here are some examples, listed by the objectives they help companies accomplish (for more on these objectives see Chapters 4 through 9 of Groundswell).
Listening. Communispace now has hundreds of private communities that its client companies are using to learn about their customers. It succeeds because it's unlocked the key to running and moderating these communities effectively, and grows despite charging $150K or more per year per community. The other class of listening companies are the brand monitoring companies, and the track record here is great. Research giant Nielsen bought BuzzMetrics. Another research giant, TNS, bought Cymfony. J.D. Power & Associates bought Umbria. MotiveQuest, which is still independent, has typical clients happily paying
$70K $30K and up to work with it.
Talking. Talking with the Groundswell is tricky, but there are plenty of agencies ready to help you with it. After building dozens of campaigns and sites, Blast Radius was bought by mega-agency Wunderman. Brains on Fire ignited the spectacular success of Fiskateers. The digital divisions of companies like Edelman also compete in this space, as do the big Web service companies like Avenue A/Razorfish (now part of Microsoft).
Energizing. Ratings and reviews are the easiest way to energize customers to sell others, and the companies that provide them are taking off. On behalf of its clients, Bazaarvoice's
clients have generated over 10 billion customer reviews has served over 10 billion reviews to consumers. PowerReviews works with over 200 retailers. And ExpoTV has built a business around consumers creating reviews on video.
Supporting. Support forums work -- they please customers and they reduce costs. Lithium has an impressive client list including Dell, AT&T, Comcast, and Sprint. And forums are just one type of community. The community space is crowded, but other companies with growing client lists include Jive Software, Awareness, and Mzinga/Prospero.
Embracing. Startups that enable clients to source ideas from their customers have a bright future, because customer-generated innovation is hot right now. Salesforce.com bought Crispy News and turned it into Salesforce Ideas, which powers idea sites for Dell and Starbucks. And Innocentive is growing rapidly, with 50 companies including Procter & Gamble offering prizes of $10,000 or more to innovators that can solve their problems.
While many were distracted by sparkly consumer-facing startups, these companies were building and growing solid businesses. Look how many of them were acquired! This is no bubble, because companies that deliver business value to clients have durable growth potential. Could this be the Web 2.0 business model everyone is looking for?
If you're interested in what this means for marketing people working with startups (and you're a Forrester client), see our related document, going live today.
Photo credit: Jeff Kubina