Friday, March 27, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 9

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Six weeks had gone by since the decision was made to close Chowhound. Since then, I'd done a lot of thinking. I could make buckets of money fast, if I was willing to let others tart up the brand. Or I could raise seed money from family and friends and give Chowhound a careful makeover to appeal to biz types...all in my spare (ha!) time. Acquisition was a third option, but it would have to be a company that not only appreciated Chowhound's rare qualities in spite of its rough edges, but one that'd leave me confident that they wouldn't simply turn around and hastily tart up the brand. As the tornado of Web 2.0 whipped up, I held onto the dog's leash as firmly as I could.

The only thing to do was to set my sights on companies built around premium-quality content. Not lowest-common-denominator plays for maximal eyeballs, ala Yahoo, but outfits with a more high-minded approach catering to a more discriminating audience.

There aren't many companies like that, but one which sprung to mind was Washington Post. I'd written for Slate and Newsweek, been interviewed by Budget Travel, and had spent time with the Post's new food editor (while he created this piece in the Boston Globe). Plus, one of their business development managers had been talking up Chowhound internally for a couple of years. I had ties there. They'd appreciate the unlipsticked pig, and be willing to nurture it. Porcine cosmetics would be applied judiciously.

I made overtures, and there was interest. This was a big relief, because, amid the sea of unviable options, my "screw it" impulse - to pull the plug and vanish to a desert island - was twitching mightily. Über-burnt and now finding myself navigating shark-filled waters, my mind was starting to slide from the stress and exhaustion. A couple of colleagues at Chowhound began covering for me; vetting my outgoing mail, pre-reading stressful incoming mail, and generally checking in on me as if I were a doddering 90 year old with a heart condition.

In 1998 I'd written a restaurant guide which involved reviewing 150 eateries, largely unknown gems. An inexplicable cosmic irony drove dozens of faves to close before my deadline, forcing me to ferret out replacements from scratch...and it's really hard to find excitement-worthy restaurants en masse and under pressure! Plus, I vetted all 150 shortly before deadline to ensure timeliness, which involved visiting ten or eleven per day for weeks, bringing along multiple shifts of eaters. It was an unimaginable nightmare, made all the worse by the fact that the research burned through $4000 of my own savings after my advance ran out. The only way I survived was by thinking of the long vacation I'd take after finishing the book. But that's precisely when Chowhound's popularity exploded, so the vacation never happened. The seven year slog commenced with my gas tank 3/4 empty. I'd been obsessing ever since about my missing vacation. Lately, the thought had me nearly foaming at the mouth.

But this was no time to think of white sandy beaches. There was a business climate to take advantage of and an online community site to promote and protect...however contradictory those impulses might be.

Attentive readers may have picked up on a demographic issue. I've noted several times that chowhounds are an otherwise ungatherable market segment; they're the crowd that resists conventional marketing manipulation (their common characteristic being, after all, an unwillingness to be herded via conventional marketing). But, um, doesn't that mean nothing can be sold to them? Is a marketing-averse audience really a good thing in an ad-based environment like the Web?

Good catch, hypothetical reader! True, this audience is unsusceptible to the usual ditzy marketing of the usual mass market products. Chowhounds are uninterested in the dreary usual suspects, and impervious - even hostile - to the psyops of conventional marketing. But there are companies whose products are genuinely terrific, and who find themselves misfits in an advertising culture designed to hawk the humdrum to the masses. It's not easy to connect with an audience which staunchly appreciates quality.

Chowhounds' appreciation of quality obviously extends beyond food. Nutjobs who trek 75 miles for slightly better muffins don't watch whichever crappy movie is on at the multiplex, and they don't buy uncomfortable socks just because they're on sale at Kmart. They don't purchase lackluster bicycles or radios, and their music collections are full of people who can really sing. These are discerning and diligent consumers, mega brand-loyal folks who not only appreciate quality, but pretty much live for it...and evangelize it!

Companies with truly good products and services would love to connect with such consumers - consumers to whom they can pitch intelligently and on-the-merits. Companies like Virgin, Apple, Aveda, Saturn, Patagonia, and anyone with a particularly high-quality, high-value product - especially the new-and-exciting - could count on chowhounds to take interest, to early-adopt, and to spread word with ferocious passion. Where else can one find an audience so precisely tuned for that? It's a rare occurence, because such people, like cats, resist being gathered.

Anyway, that was my pitch. But, to return to the winds and drenching rains of the Web 2.0 tempest (visualize me shouting over the crashing thunder in my shiny yellow slicker)...

While waiting for Washington Post to get back to me, I received an email out of the blue from a business development manager at CNET. CNET was known for producing high quality tech news and reviews aimed at a discerning audience. Hmmm...

Read the next installment (#10)

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