Friday, August 25, 2006

Death of a Non-Entity
(or: if a website with no visitors falls in the blogosphere, does anybody hear it?)

So it seems that, after just seven months of awkwardly lowbrow unfunniness, the Time Inc. frat boy humor website will be closing it's, uh, gangplank. Not too surprised by this, since the site was largely, how do they say it in Germany, not funny.

Office Pirates was Time Inc.'s big stab at getting a piece of the snark and frat humor market, which has been dominated by websites like College Humor and Gorilla Mask and to some extent Gawker. Yet despite a large marketing push (something you don't find too often for websites devoted to pictures of cleavage and "witty" commentary on popular culture) it never took off. By never took off, I mean nobody read it. It just wasn't funny. It was "Animal House" directed by Ted Turner, "There's Something About Mary" starring Tom Green.

The concept was flawed from the beginning. It was clear Office Pirates was aiming to mimic the College Humor template. And by mimic, I mean like a game of telephone where the middle phone is Helen Keller. There was no originality. No defining characteristic. It was, "Hey, these guys are successful, and they don't even wear suits! If we throw a bunch of money around and change the website template we can do even better, and then buy more suits."

See the big difference between marketing a website and marketing a movie, or a book, or a CD, is that you can't depend on initial interest to be a success. If a movie is hugely hyped, even if it sucks a big opening weekend can cause it to make a profit, or at least break even. Same goes with books and movies to some extent, though those media forms have longer shelf lives and are more apt to find an audience without a huge marketing push. There's more room for word of mouth if the product is terrific.

People tend to see movies once. Buy a CD once. Buy a book once.

Websites are a completely different animal. For a website it that to succeed, it must draw returning viewers on a weekly, if not daily basis. That's the whole idea behind websites like Gawker. Not only do they do what they do often, but they do it well. And every day there's fresh, funny content to appease its fans. They keep people coming back.

In my opinion, successful websites come from nowhere. They're not born in marketing meetings, but through word of mouth. They're organic. And organic in a natural sense, not in a "Grown in a hydroponic lab under strict supervision by dull white guys in raincoats" sense.

A couple of years ago, I, along with some colleagues, met with the creators of College Humor as they were pitching a book based on their website. The creators were three guys in their early twenties. They looked like they could have very well spent the previous night playing beer pong and eating off a hangover at their campus's 24-hour diner.

Their reason for starting College Humor? Simple.

"We started it as a way to make our friends laugh."


They didn't see advertising dollars, merchandise. They didn't expect to monitor their daily traffic on Alexa or Technorati. They just thought it would be funny. And other people agreed. It was only after it became hugely popular that the money started rolling in. They didn't have a corporation eyeing every hit, calculating every dollar of ad revenue. They started it on passion, and people responded.

Fortunately websites, unlike most frontlist books and movies, have a long shelf life to grow an audience. With patience, you can build up an internet audience over several years. Do you think a publisher or bookstore would allow a hardcover to stay in print for two years, waiting to find an audience? Fortunately websites don't have to deal with shelf space or co-op (just competition from the 40,000,000 other blogs and websites). But if you build it, and build it well, they will come.

But if you build the ship out of popsicle sticks and try to sail it in choppy waters, that thing will fall apart faster than Andy Dick at a Comedy Central roast.

So bon voyage, Office Pirates, we hardly knew ye. I bet those College Humor guys have a few job openings.


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