Globalising the mainstream

Meeting at Locus AmoenusSir Tim Berners-Lee’s article on the online version of the Scientific American might just have been shared by less than 7,000 people on Facebook, but that’s possibly the whole point of the article: it makes a plea to keep the Web neutral. A tough call which only appeals to what Prokofy Neva calls “technocommunists”, privacy-conscious netizens, and a few oldtimers who might have debated Tim’s views on the first USENET forums about the emerging Web protocol, in the early 1990s — discussions around the tag and why it wasn’t such a good idea 🙂

The rest of the world is pretty much joining Facebook like crazy, sharing all their personal data, and the trend doesn’t seem to be stopping so soon — even though Facebook grows way faster than the Internet, there is an upper limit of users: the world’s population. Still, it’s fair to say that pretty much everybody who is on the Internet regularly has a Facebook account (or several), even though they might not use it much. And certainly aren’t spending any money on Facebook.

On the other side of the coin we have niche markets. In an interesting article about the role of the mainstream appeal, Robin Harper, formerly VP of Marketing for Linden Lab, explains how the change from a niche market to the mainstream might force companies to develop different strategies. In her new role at Playdom she will most certainly have to deal with a mainstream product — new Playdom games on Facebook attract millions of players just days after being launched. Second Life, by contrast, just gets 300,000 new registrations per month, most of them never returning again. The business models behind both approaches have to be completely different.

There is no “best” choice (e.g. the mainstream is not inherently “better” or even “more valuable” than a niche market), just different strategies to pursue the same goal: profitability. BMW makes far less cars than Ford or Toyota, but that doesn’t mean that BMW is losing money, or that they don’t have an interesting market. Ralph Lauren, Hermès, Dior, Chanel all sell to niche markets, and they’re not bankrupt; they don’t need to follow American Apparel’s or Zara’s lead. Microsoft Windows has 90% of the operating system market, and Nokia still dominates the mobile phone market, but the most valuable company in the world is Apple (well, almost), not Microsoft, nor Nokia. So clearly there is a case to be made pro and against “being mainstream”; it’s definitely not an easy recipe for success, just one of the possible strategies.

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