Publishing Success: Niche Communities vs a Broad Audience

Would you tear down a 14 bedroom mansion to build a 4 bedroom house? That’s what Steve Jobs is doing, and this serves as a great example of focus: why some businesses grow not because of what they choose to do, but what they choose NOT to do. That something bigger is not always better.

I’ve spent most of my career (and personal life) focused on niche communities, and how publishing and media companies serve and enable those communities.

With the advent of the web, publishers and media brands are empowered with more data and access to those they are serving, what they need most, and how well current products and efforts are doing. And yet, I keep seeing a common theme: focusing more on growth to a wider audience, at the detriment to the original community they were tasked to serve. Now, I’m human, I understand the inherent desire to always grow – in power, in scope, in revenue, in influence. But what I become concerned about is the adverse effects to the community, when a single entity focuses more on their own growth. In a true community, power lies with the whole, not the few.

I chatted about this the other week with Scott Gould. He runs an event/community called “Like Minds.” I asked him a question about the pressure he feels to not just put his efforts to serving his existing community, but the drive that most have to expand that community. That, someone like him must feel the pressure to grow and grow and grow until Like Minds is as big as the TED conference/community.

This question really challenged him, as it challenges all of us. How much of our sense of personal success is wrapped up in this? That it’s not good enough to serve a small existing community, that sometimes ego prompts event/community organizers to look past them, increasing their own influence. That somehow, more power, that a larger audience, will mean that this SMALL good thing will become a LARGE good thing. But I can’t help but see parallels to modern day politics, where every candidate feels the world would be a better place if only THEY were in power – and elected officials spend too much of their term in office campaigning for the next election, instead of serving those they were elected to help.

This is the problem I see with some companies:

They have no vision, they have only desire.

Tons of publishing companies passed on Harry Potter when JK Rowling was shopping it around. But, after it’s success, many publishers tried to replicate that success with similar themes in books, aimed at the same audience. It was all wizards until Stephenie Meyer came around and then it was all vampires.

It’s the McMansionification of media. To be large, and desirable. To be all things to all people.

Why are some media companies and publishers struggling? Sometimes it’s because they look at their audience from too far away, and through a hazy lens. They see a wide landscape of potential audiences, and aim to please as many of them as possible. The temptation to scale, to find mass market success is too much to pass up.

Look at many niche media websites: their homepages have dozens and dozens and dozens of links. There are blinking things everywhere, too many categories, and a page that scrolls through 4 or more screens. And this, for even small niche brands that are serving a limited community.

It’s like they have an inability to focus – to determine who they are serving, what is most important to them, and how to connect that to a business model that makes everyone happy. So they put everything on the same level of being “critically important,” hoping that something takes, hoping no one is offended that something was left out.

In many ways, the web is antithetical to most of how mass media worked in the 20th century.

The web does an incredible job of organizing and engaging small groups. What’s more, it gives a business data to measure how well they are serving that community; tools to research what their community needs; the ability to improve their product offering quickly and easily; and it removes boundaries for profitability by allowing businesses to run leaner and serve community members anywhere in the world.

But the flip side of this is the traditional media model: The desire for more more more. This is why the term “viral” is so enticing to big businesses. And that’s fine for those larger businesses and media companies. The danger is when niche media brands look beyond their niche community, when they try to scale up, at the detriment of their original audience and mission.

What is wrong with merely engaging a devoted audience of limited size? An expert, passionate audience who holds you in the highest regard because you helped make their lives better.

The web has brought so many challenges for traditional publishers and media companies. Yet, I can’t help but feel that this is a positive change – that digital media and social media is your chance to shine – to engage – to shape – to innovate – to build – to matter.

But mostly, it’s your chance to care. To channel the energy and passion and expertise of your audience for positive changes to the community you serve.