Home Book Reviews The Content Trap, Part I: Classifieds – User Connections
The Content Trap, Part I: Classifieds – User Connections

The Content Trap, Part I: Classifieds – User Connections


content trap imageHarvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration is known for its case study methodology. In the Content Trap, Dr. Bharat Anand describes several corporate users, their industries, and the ways in which these companies improved their connections to enhance their growth and success.

We have witnessed declining newspaper readership over the past few decades, and many believe that the culprit is digital alternatives. Dr. Anand notes that this decline has been underway for more than 60 years, caused by multiple technologies from radio and TV networks to cable TV and 24/7 news channels.  The impact of the Internet is no greater on readership than the technologies that preceded it. The other two sources of newspaper revenues are classified and retail ads. Classified ad revenues declined precipitously during the past decade (2000-2010) and the reason is that sellers and buyers favor products with more connections.

Sites like Careerbuilder.com, Monster.com, Ebay, and Craigslist were the culprits and the feedback loops offered between buyers and sellers were much more efficient than traditional newspapers. Readers of newspapers didn’t migrate to news on the Internet, but the sellers and buyers of classified ads moved so quickly that the classified’s subsidy of the news organization lagged the ability of newspaper management teams to cut costs. Papers did not capture digital user connections fast enough. According to Anand, feedback loops in classifieds exemplify one of the most important digital business ideas – network effects.

Network effects are all about user connections. They are why tech companies appear to be obsessed with “free” content, fast growth, and rapid prototyping.  The more users of a networked product, the greater the value of the network to the user.  Think of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and instant messaging services.  There are indirect and direct network effects and either can be very powerful, if used correctly. The strength of network effects can overwhelm attractive product features. Craigslist, for example, won over its rivals because it established more connections faster. Product managers who only think about product content will lose out to companies that establish more user connections even though they may innovate less often. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are companies that established connections by migrating from a product approach to a platform approach.

Networks can be used for content creation as well as consumption. Crowd-sourcing and user-generated content are terms familiar to all of us, represented by such crowd-reliant models as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WikiPedia, Kickstarter, and GoFundMe. The first challenge is to create great content and the second, to get others to read and share it. Having content shared creates an incentive for people to create it. Crowds also require management, including selection, incentives, and curation. The connections need to be worthwhile in order to expand the network. It’s not enough to allow people to create content; the right contributors are necessary and you want them to connect and share.

Schibsted, a Norway-based media publisher, provides a compelling case study. They created an online classified ad business in 1995 and, by 1999, were behind in market share. In 2000, they launched a restructured online classifieds product named Finn, and within a year and a half, they had the top position in real estate. Cars and jobs followed and by 2007, Finn had a 90% market share in the major online classifieds categories. Schibsted bought a Swedish competitor, Blocket, and exported its classifieds model to more than 20 countries. By 2015, Schibsted’s classifieds business was operating in 42 countries and they held the top position in classifieds globally. Schibsted revamped its online news operation similarly by growing connections.

Another good example is Tencent, a Chinese company that originally offered free instant messaging and is now a $100 billion business. Its entire strategy is based on user connections. After providing a free instant messaging service, Tencent began collecting revenues by charging users for unique personal online identities. Its next major product offering was personal avatars, from which users could supplement the avatars with various features for a small charge. Three years after its founding, Tencent entered online gaming, creating connections across different products to offer a portfolio of connected networks. It later created a mobile product called WeChat, growing to 300 million users in China alone.  By 2013, more than 90% of Tencent’s revenue came from user charges and only 10% from advertising.

Anand concludes this part by recommending that companies create to connect. Product quality, hypertargeting, user personalization, and customization are popular prescriptions for digital success.  However, trying to achieve them without developing the connections that allow the company to manage customers as a portfolio is a mistake.

*Author’s note: Unless otherwise noted, the factual observations and images included herein are the intellectual property of Dr. Bharat Anand and/or Random House Publishing Group.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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