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What eBay, Digg, Starbucks and Flickr can Tell us About Place and Mindshare

To any outsider, it made no sense at all. Having bought Flickr in May 2005, Yahoo! announced that in September 2007, it would be shutting down its own image branch, Yahoo! Photos.

What made the decision seem strange wasn’t just that Yahoo’s members had to move all of their images over to Flickr. It was that at the time Yahoo! Photos was picking up almost 6 percent of the hits generated by image sites compared to just 4.5 percent for Flickr. Its store of images too was much higher than Flickr’s. At one time, Yahoo! Photos could boast that it had around 2 billion images on its servers, compared to 500 million for its smaller rival.

But it was clear that Flickr had something that Yahoo! never had and, it seems, never will have. It had magic.

Putting your images on Yahoo! Photos was useful. It let friends and family see them. Putting your images on Flickr was cool. It let you think of yourself as a photographer. That’s something that’s almost impossible to compete against.

Between April 2006 and April 2007 when Yahoo! announced that it would have only one photo service, visitors to Flickr rose by 22 percent. During the same period, visitors to Yahoo! Photos fell by 60 percent.

Flickr isn’t the only company that’s been able to wipe the floor with competitors despite offering a service that differs little. No auction site has been able to knock eBay off its perch. Starbucks, recent difficulties aside, has been able to spread around the world faster than Hollywood gossip even though the world was hardly short of cafes before. And Digg remains the most important social bookmarking site for online publishers even though there are a host of good alternatives.

What all of those companies have in common are the two ingredients that make marketing happen by itself and which allow a firm to grow quickly into an unbeatable giant: a community that thinks the same way; and a place for that community to come together.

Digg — The Place for Ron Paul Fans Everywhere
That mindshare is perhaps most apparent on Digg. Where else can you find so many people so enamored of Apple, video games and Ron Paul? Becoming a top Digger means linking up with other Diggers, leaving comments on each other’s Diggs and networking to ensure that your recommended articles reach the home page.

It’s a process that encourages people to start thinking alike — if they didn’t already — and while it means that much of the recommended content can fall into the same narrow band of topics, it also reinforces the site’s clique-y appeal. If you don’t get it, you’re never going to Digg. If you do, you just have to.

It’s unlikely that that was how Digg’s founders saw the site developing when they launched it — which means it’s hard to repeat the recipe yourself — but it is perhaps the most extreme example of how mindshare can bind a community into one place and build momentum.

Flickr Lets Photographers Share Photos — and Photo Love
The secret of Flickr’s success at mindsharing is perhaps easier to identify. Although the aim of the site is simply to enable photographers to share their images with others, it’s become much more than that. The groups have allowed photographers interested in every subject possible to find like-minded people and swap tips. The comments give constant ego-boosts as well as encouraging advice. The APIs have made looking at other people’s images fun.

And it’s also become clear that photo buyers are browsing the site looking for images to license for a fee.

Spend any time at all on Flickr and you’ll quickly come to feel that you’re sharing the space with millions of people who enjoy photography as much as you do.

That might not be saying much — lots of people enjoy photography. But it is saying much to build a service that focuses on something that many people like and deliver it in enough different ways to keep even people with the slightest interest in photography happy and feeling as though they’re part of the group.

In some ways, in fact, Flickr’s mindsharing space is the opposite of Digg’s: a place where everyone is welcome and quickly made to feel part of the club.

Starbucks Built a Community on Coffee and Cream
Starbucks, which is much more commercial than either Flickr or Digg, has a much weaker mindshare than either of those sites — which might be one of the reasons it’s running into trouble. But it is still possible to say that there is such a thing as a Starbucks community, a group of people for whom a day isn’t complete without a double latte vanilla frappuccino.

Starbucks’ ability to create mindshare is really a result of its products. Like Ben and Jerry, another company with a cultish customer following, it created its own range of unique items which both say something about the person drinking them and provide a spot where they could do it together.

While Flickr’s mindshare is built on something as abstract as a love of photography, for Starbucks, it’s as tangible as hot milk, coffee and domed tops for the mountains of cream.

Whatever a company manages to come up with to produce the sort of mindshare that creates a community, the result can be the last ingredient that has kept eBay on top for so long: critical mass.

Once enough people are using a company’s service, it becomes very difficult for competitors to break in and very hard for users to leave. For anyone with an item to sell, eBay is the place to sell it because it has so many buyers. Just as for anyone with a picture to show, Flickr is the place to display it because it has so many image admirers.

So what does all this mean for a geek-minded entrepreneur?

It means that if you can make your ideal appeal to a community — whether that’s a tight clique, a love of a subject or the unique products you sell — you should find that you grow fast… and stay big.

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