Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wetpaint: The New Geocities (or Something More)?

Wetpaint is a business that's been getting some positive buzz lately. It's certainly been a favorite of TechCrunch:
Wetpaint Emerging as a Leading Social Publishing Platform
Wetpaint Raises $25 Million and Launches WetPaint Injected

It's a local Seattle company, and I thought I should check it out, so I visited the site today and took it through its paces.

The software looks quite solid, if not without the occasional quirk. It took me well over an hour to sign up for a new site, though honestly I can't say if that was the fault of Wetpaint's servers or my own crappy DSL service. And once I was there it took some futzing around before I could figure out the interface: for instance, you can create a to-do that tells other visitors what needs to be done on your site, but to-do's are an element attached to a specific page within the site, rather than something you create in the ToDos section highlighted at the top of the screen. Minor issue, sure, but it took me a while to figure that out. A little help text on the To-Dos page would have gone a long way.

Once you get the site working, it provides a solid and full-featured wiki experience. This, of course, has its good and bad points. On the good side, wikis are among the most useful sites out there these days. If you can get a large body of people to come together and pool their efforts, you really have something; you can't rival a wiki's ability to turn visitor enthusiasm into viable web content. On the other hand, wikis are not the most visually arresting sites around, and Wetpaint's designs are no different: browse through their gallery of "popular sites" and you'll see one wall of text after another. Good site design and wikis are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, and there's a reason for that.

Wikis are also a lot of work (unless you have a staff of minions ready to do the work for you). A new Wetpaint site is a like a big, empty box, and unless you're prepared to devote a lot of time to filling it with content, it's going to look like a ghost town. Judging by my experience signing up for a site, this happens a lot. My first thought was to create a wiki around GTD, the productivity system I've used for the past three or four years. I requested the URL "gtd.wetpaint.com," only to find out that it had been taken. I visited that site and discovered that it is two years old, completely empty, and closed to all contributors. Pretty much the same goes for "gettingthingsdone.wetpaint.com," "getthingsdone.wetpaint.com," and "getthingsdonenow.wetpaint.com": barely a single useful page between them.

Browse wider, and you'll find that this is a common condition. I tried to find a Seahawks wiki and couldn't find a single one that was both current and actually about the Seattle Seahawks. I don't have official figures, of course, but my first impression is that the majority of Wetpaint sites are inactive, crappy, or both. That presents two problems: first it makes it very difficult to locate a good site via the Wetpaint homepage, and second, Wetpaint URLs are first-come, first-served: for two years now the owner of the clean and simple "gtd.wetpaint.com" has done nothing with his site, but the URL is apparently his for life.

If you're as old as I am, the word "Geocities" probably comes to mind when you consider this scenario. Back in the day Geocities was considered an up-and-comer. It allowed anyone to publish their own website with a minimum of effort, and for a time that seemed really cool and empowering. Then, in the fullness of time, Geocities turned into a vast collection of cheap, ugly, abandoned sites -- often fansites of one type or another -- that you learned to avoid if there were any alternatives at all. Wetpaint's software is much better than Geocities' HTML templates, of course, but if the business ultimately fails, my bet is that it will go down in history as simply "Geocities on steroids."

Which brings us at last to the monetization question. Wetpaint would appear to have two sources of revenue: they provide wikis to third-party sites (with the wiki fully embedded in that site's chrome, and its contents fully searchable), and they attach text ads to personal sites. The first option seems like the better business plan. Putting advertising on personal sites was the Geocities business model. Hell, it was pretty much everyone's business model back then. And that model never worked, for a simple reason: no one pays attention to ads unless they're motivated to buy something. So, while the "Quantum of Solace" fansite advertised on the Wetpaint homepage may be pretty entertaining, I doubt many visitors will be browsing it with their wallets at the ready.

To Wetpaint's credit, the ads are pretty unobtrusive and mostly lie below the fold. And if they can find a clever way to identify the most active sites and match their content with appropriate advertising inventory (putting, say, Netflix ads on movie sites), they might make a go of it. Otherwise, I expect that the personal Wetpaint wikis will be, at best, a loss leader for the business-to-business service. Whether that B2B revenue stream is enough to keep the business afloat is a question for someone who knows what he's talking about (which is to say, not me).

So is Wetpaint the second coming of Geocities? Too early to tell. The quality bar is certainly higher, and the B2B angle is something extra that Geocities never had going for it. But wikis aren't going to be the hot, new thing forever, which means the clock is ticking on Wetpaint's business plan. If I were Wetpaint CEO for a day, I'd be tempted to take these measures:
  1. Cull the crap. If someone creates a site but then doesn't add any content for two weeks, delete it. If a site has been inactive for six months or more, send a notice to its owner and delete it if they don't respond. Return these URLs to the active pool. Wetpaint isn't just a business, it's also a brand. You want people to associate your company with quality. Geocities became the trailer park of the Internet; don't let that happen to you.
  2. Fast-track the moneymakers. Certain types of site will be (relatively) easy to monetize. Books sites, for instance, could promote Amazon or another online bookseller. Movie sites could promote Netflix or Blockbuster. Take a look at your ad inventory and make a strategic decision about the sites you would like users to build, then make it particularly easy for them to do so: encourage them on the home page to think of these topics, give them extra templates and layouts, etc. Nudge your users in the direction you want them to go.
  3. Tap the educational market. I see corporate wikis on Wetpaint. I see personal wikis on Wetpaint. So where are the educational wikis? I can see where a college professor might want wikis to organize her class materials and focus discussion, and I can definitely imagine an elementary or secondary school teacher having his class collaboratively build a wiki on some subject, as part of the lesson plan. Seems like this is an untapped market, and it would provide a definite win-win since educational wikis would seed Wetpaint with sites high on the quality curve.
  4. Show what's possible. You know what would have been a great source of publicity for Wetpaint? A best-of-breed presidential election wiki, chock full of information and high-quality content that shows off what the software can really do. It wouldn't take a major staff -- maybe an editor and a couple freelance writers -- to come up with the occasional high-profile wiki (on Christmas, the Super Bowl, high-profile movie releases, or whatever else comes to mind) to introduce people to your product, show them what they can do, and get them excited about building quality sites of their own. Best of all, there would be no reason to retire these sites once you're done; you could simply turn them over to the community and let visitors maintain them.
  5. Promote the winners. The Wetpaint homepage already lists a gallery of the better sites, but you could do more here. Which sites get the most traffic? Which ones have the most registered members? Which sites are climbing the ladder? In short: where are the success stories? Read this post on cumulative advantage and use it to boost successful sites into true destinations.
There are some real opportunities and challenges here. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.