As a Knight Fellow at Stanford, I was asked a lot to speak about how I made my website, Zambia Online, become so successful, and how some of my client web sites, like The (Zambian) Post website, grew so phenomenally.
In principle, it is actually very easy. There are two aspects to this: the creative or artistic side and the analytical or scientific side. For Zambia Online, my team was in charge of both the creative and scientific sides. For our client web sites, the client was largely responsible for the creative side whereas we provided consultancy services on the scientific side. What are these sides?
The creative side produces the killer content that drives the phenomenal growth. Yes, it is simple in principle but not so easy in practice. It’s either you can create wildly interesting content or you can’t. Fortunately, I led a team – which included my business partner and technical lieutenant, Michael Chishala – that could. Zambia Online continuously produced many separate killer websites and killer articles and grew phenomenally with this simple formula until it became arguably the most active web site on the continent of Africa (which is how I ultimately got my three different Stanford Fellowship invitations, my National Endowment for Democracy Fellowship etc). The Knight Fellowship is now awarded to mid-career professionals who distinguish themselves in both journalism and technology applications because Stanford wants to inspire such leaders to find a way of innovatively saving journalism in the challenging world of new disruptive technologies.
The creative process of making a killer app or killer web site is actually the same as the process for writing a killer article. Thus, before I started writing for the controversial American magazine, Unz Review, I simply told the publisher and editor (Ron Unz) that I had a “killer article” for him. Fortunately, he believed me and published it under his Science section. That article (“The IQ Gap is no Longer a Black and White Issue”) became not only my most read article, it also became the top article in the history of the Unz magazine itself. It went as far as impressing the algorithms of Google so much that when you do a search for generic terms like “white IQ” or “black IQ” or “IQ gap” today, it is the number one result in Google!
After two years of the article still attracting top visits for his magazine, Ron Unz has now listed my article as the top of the magazine’s “Past Classics” on the front page (that is, top among the 9 past classics, five of which were written by the editor himself.)
Ron Unz is an incredibly smart guy who received degrees in Theoretical Physics from Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge, and also built (and sold) a software company before running for Governor of California when he was still in his early thirties!
One of the reasons I chose his magazine to publish my article was because he had also written a killer article that shook the controversial world of the IQ debate a few years before mine did. Both his article and mine were written by outside writers with a hobby interest in the subject who had observed a subtle statistical or logical error that went unchallenged in the field (despite contradicting some public data). The field of global cognitive research has particularly been controversial because of the theories on racial intelligence differences, so any observation on mathematical or logical errors was bound to attract a lot of interest.
The creative principle for writing a killer article is the same for creating a killer app or killer web site: the concept itself has to be new and interesting – not just a slight variation of what already exists. There are many people who come up with apps or web sites that they think should become hits if they put enough advertising dollars behind them. But it doesn’t work like that.
The biggest fad in the industry these days is the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) fad. There are many consultants who claim that they can take your web site to the top of the Google rankings if you can just pay them enough money. And the truth is that they may indeed raise your site’s profile among the search engines by guessing what the search algorithms look for and making changes in your site that make your site more likable to Google. However, this can only go so far. Basically, the best they can do is remove the mistakes that are making Google punish you in its rankings. By the simple statistical principle of “regression to the mean,” this means that if your web site was so bad, it has no choice but to improve in its rankings, and the SEO consultant will look like a magician — at least for a while!
But it is ultimately not a sustainable process. SEO can remove the negative but it cannot create the positive. There is no way the process can create a killer site that predictably destroys the competition (especially since their SEO guy also knows the same things).
For that, you need what happened to my Unz article in Google rankings. It rose to the top of Google naturally, because readers actually loved it. Google loved it because people loved it. And this is the golden rule: if you want Google to like you, start impressing Google (SEO), but if you want Google to truly LOVE you, start impressing your users passionately!
But to impress your users you have to give them something that they genuinely find interesting and helpful. Something that adds a new experience to them (or new knowledge in the case of articles.) Give them something you are passionate about yourself!
At Moneynet and Zambia Online, we not only published very interesting articles, we also continuously created very interesting new public web sites. Among the first of these was an idea I came up with in the early days called “Dear Mr President” that invited the public to write “open letters to the president of the Republic of Zambia.” This was a shocking concept to many Zambians, as they were new to the practical concept of Democracy. Our web site thus became a test for the new government that was claiming to be changing to a democratic culture from the old dictatorial ways of the president they had replaced.
After “Dear Mr President” we created many more interesting concepts and magazines that kept attracting people. Over ten years after Dear Mr President, we expanded the concept to another new killer site:“Dear Zambia.” Whereas Dear Mr President was focused on writing to the president and telling him your mind, Dear Zambia was about the public exposing any institution, private or government, that users had interaction with so that they could change their customer service or stop their corruption!
We also formed other business portals, like Banknet, which put important information from all the banks on one portal site. The concept was so impressive to the media that they reported about it in South Africa and other distant places. Killer concepts get you free publicity by definition. You don’t really need a huge marketing budget if you are focused on creating interesting concepts, as they will be easily covered by the news hungry media. Besides the many local news reports, we were also fortunate to have mentions in globally influential publications like the New York Times, the Atlantic, etc.
The Scientific Side
I actually became a web/digital analyst accidentally. I didn’t know there was such a field when I started looking at the log files of our first web site and just started wondering where the traffic was coming from, which articles and sections were most popular, which ones led people to leave the site, and so on, until we systematized this process. This was before there were easy programs (like Google Analytics, IBM Tealeaf, etc) that can help you visually with this process.
It’s a critical part of focusing on the consumer and making them love you instead of merely focusing on making Google like you. We were thus already doing web analytics and user experience management before we ever heard of these terms. It is just a natural process if you are that kind of person who wants the best for your users or customers.
The other big question I face in this process is “how do you create a creative team?”
There are many business books about this and they try to teach you this in an MBA program, but I can save you the money: they are all wrong!
Think about it. If there was a business guru or management professor who knew how to create killer apps or killer teams, all those rich companies will just send their people to him and they would all become super-innovative.
The real truth is that a creative team is inspired by any leader who is very very creative, especially if they are also gifted with common sense. Normally, such a creator will in fact attract people who are also already creative. It’s that simple: creative people want to work with creative people just as smart people want to work with smart people.
Steve Jobs did not read some business book on creating killer creative teams or killer products. He was just a killer creator himself, period. He hated the products on the market and wanted great products for himself and had the talent to do it. By doing this passionately, he inspired teams of creators who also wanted to change the world. There is no other secret or hidden theory!