Why the Deck is Stacked Against Political Startups
On Friday, VentureBeat's Dan Kaplan wrote about PoliticalTrends.info -- a site that mines web data "to track political buzz in the blogosphere." It got me thinking about a rather unfortunate reality -- at least from the perspective of political junkies and would-be web moguls: Like newly launched restaurants, nearly all big-time political web ventures are doomed to fail.
It's not just that PoliticalTrends.info, as Kaplan notes, falls short of fantastic. Nor is it the challenge of selling advertisers on a site with a demographically scattered audience and content that might prove uncomfortably polarizing.
It's not even the fact that, as Markus Prior notes in today's Washington Post, that only a small slice of Americans follow politics with the same fervor that the Beltway crowd does.
And while many politicians and ordinary Americans might beg to differ, I'm fairly certain that it's not a matter of endemic incompetance among the journalists, campaign consultants and political publishers who keep launching these things. We may not all be in line for MacArthur Genius Grants, but I've watched and worked with some first-rate minds on these ventures over the last 12 years.
No, the real problem facing any for-profit political media venture is right at the top of Kaplan's post:
"... PoliticalTrends is intended to show off Lexalytics’s technology."
Lexalytics, the company behind PoliticalTrends.info, sells "brand awareness" monitoring and analytics technology. Their election site is a showcase for their real business -- it doesn't need to succeed as a stand-alone venture.
This is bad news for sites like Politico.com, just as it was for Voter.com and others in 2000, and PoliticsNow & Co. in 1996. (For the life of me, and I can't even recall a big political-site play from 2004.) Because every election cycle brings new Lexalytics out of the woodwork. And no matter how good you are, it's damn hard to compete against a loss leader.
Granted, a firm like Lexalytics is never going to match the original reporting and expertise that a Politico can provide. But the marketplace is even more crowded today. YouTube wants to use elections to showcase its video tools. Political groups and applications are multiplying like rabbits on FaceBook. Smart sites by individuals are here to stay, and don't have payrolls to meet. Expensive insider publications like the Hotline, CQ and NationalJournal.com are making election coverage freely available. And media behemoths like WashingtonPost.com and NBC are ramping up their election packages earlier than ever -- with the hope of bringing in ad revenues, certainly, but also as branding plays, and fully expecting to ramp them back down after November 2008.
All of which makes a permanent, public, stand-alone site look like a long-shot business venture -- no matter how good the content might be.
There's no pleasure in that conclusion, mind you. For political junkies, the more quality sites that succeed, the better. I've worked on several such ventures myself, and I have (or had, as the case may be) friends at virtually every site except PoliticalTrends that's mentioned in this post. So I'd love to be proven wrong on this one.
And who knows? While conventional wisdom holds that new restaurants make political websites look like sure bets, an Ohio State professor has found that restaurant failure rates aren't nearly as high as people think. So here's hoping the startups of 2008 don't find themselves in Hot Soup come January 2009.