As Strong as the Weakest Link…

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I am a sucker for behind the scenes stories. I cannot get enough of them. Whether it be business, movies, sports, whatever – I want to know what is happening when the cameras are not rolling. This week, Bill Simmons (more commonly known as ‘The Sports Guy’ as a writer for ESPN) launched his own website, Grantland. This is a website where the main focus is to cater to people like me, who enjoy sports and pop culture…AT THE SAME TIME. Anyhow, before this begins to come across as an advertisement for his product, I want to discuss an article that stood out to me: a behind the scenes look at the short-lived National Sports Daily, commonly referred to as simply The National.

Born out of the mind of the richest man south of the Rio Grande, The National was an attempt at a national sports daily paper – to include scores, featured writing, editorials, the whole nine yards. In a way it was greatly ahead of its time. While it would fail in under two years, its format would eventually find tremendous success in the form of websites like, CNNSI, et al. In fact, many of the big name writers currently at these websites are alumni from The National. It was a virtual who’s who of sports writing talent for the past twenty years. With a revolutionary format and amazing talent, The National should have succeeded, but it didn’t. In fact, it lost $150 million in just over eighteen months.

But what does it have to do with web marketing? I am getting there – patience is a virtue.

The point here is that a great idea put into action by great people can lead to a great product (which The National was), but it is not always enough. In the case of this paper, it did not matter that they had a great product, nobody ever received it. It was taken down by a terrible distribution system that led to inconsistent deliveries – not just to individual patrons, but also to newstands that were considered necessary for the livelihood of a country-wide paper that was light on advertising revenue immediately upon launch. One executive put it best:

“Even in the box right outside [the New York City headquarters], we couldn’t receive our own paper!”

For many companies & firms in today’s digital age, their website is their distribution system – not necessarily to get their product to their customers (although that does occur), but primarily to deliver their message as to why customers and prospects should spend money with them. If this message is delivered poorly, to the wrong audience, or unable to be heard/seen, then the actualy product or service being offered need not even exist – regardless of its quality. The National spent millions on writers & executives, but cut corners when it came to IT professionals and distribution systems. Said one writer:

“”We do [have the best writing talent]. But…the tech side doesn’t know what they’re doing. We can write and edit all we want, but if we can’t publish the damn stuff, we’re dead.”

Many CEO’s may not view their website as a core aspect of their business operations, choosing instead to categorize it as just one other marketing channel. But the website will often serve as the customer’s first impression. Its appearance and functionality may lead to how the user views the entire company. A professional site that operates professionally will give the appearance of a professional company. A cookie-cutter site with a propensity to crash will likely give off the vibe that this is how the company’s entire business operations perform.

It is important to learn a twenty year old lesson from The National. Having a strong final product and good people to manufacture/run it is necessary, no doubt. However, that cannot be done at the expense of the infrastructure and presentation of the overall company. It is the equivalent of using cheap screws on the billion dollar space shuttle. A business is only as strong as its weakest link throughout the delivery process. When a firm has a great product, it should go to great lengths to let the public know about it and provide them with easy access to it. This can pay off exponentially through (free) word of mouth advertising. Whatever the expense of a quality website development and efficient web marketing can total to, I doubt there are many instances where it is more expensive than customers lost through a poorly presented online delivery.