Sometimes you have to cut back to move forward

If you think that innovation is just about creating new products and services, you’re missing what might be the most important step in leading a publication forward.

A publication makes its greatest progress not when it introduces new products and services but when it shows the discipline to leave tired or failing efforts behind. You must fight the inertia that’s holding you back.

This month I began shutting down what where once the most popular services on my family’s violin website. While these were the first services we offered on the site, and the ones that defined us to our early audience, they’d become a major time drain for me, and were failing to leverage any significant income for the site.

Making the decision to close these services not only created an opportunity for me to devote more time to the stuff that is working on the site, it also forced me to confront the reasons why these services weren’t thriving anymore. An innovator who’s also designing and launching, but never taking a look back at her work – axe in hand – never learns any valuable lessons from the audience and customers she’s trying to serve.

When my wife and I launched the violin website, neither of us had time to do much with it. So I coded up some automated directories, which any registered member of the site could join – one for teachers, another for shops, and later, one for camps and summer festivals. The directories provided content for the site that readers valued, and the chance to be in the directories gave people a compelling reason to register with the site.

Years later, after my wife began spending more time writing for, editing, and coaching contributors to the site, those old directories fell behind our discussion board and blogs in pageview and visitor traffic. Sponsors wanted to be part of those blogs, interviews, and original feature articles on the site. I couldn’t get anyone to sponsor the directory pages, and the click-through data from those channels were just atrocious.

And yet, the directories began eating more and more of my time. No longer were interested violinists joining the site to get access to the directories, now they were attracting sweatshop spammers from around the world. Spammers looking for free backlinks to their scams and affiliate storefronts were polluting our listings with thousands of submitted entries that had nothing to do with the violin.

At first, I manually deleted or blocked the submissions. Then I started writing scripts to block them, or mass purge them after the fact, if they’d gotten through. But the spammers kept getting more sophisticated in their attacks on the site, and frankly, I got tired trying to stay ahead of them.

For what? For directory pages that were hardly unique any longer? When we began, no teachers’ associations had membership directories online. Now hundreds did. Other listings of summer camps and music festivals abounded. Directories aren’t what we provide best anymore. That’d be our original interviews, features, blogs and discussion board – in short, our editorial content. So why not ditch the effort to prop up failing directories and spend our time and effort building more great original content instead?

The only directory we had that retained much unique value was our business directory. So I salvaged that by converting it to a paid directory. If violin shops want in now, they must pay us an annual fee. That effectively eliminated not only the spammers, but also small, undercapitalized shops that really couldn’t handle inquiries from our global audience.

By the way, I can’t recommend enough that local and niche Web publishers develop a business directory for their advertising customers. With so many spam-laden business directories polluting the Internet, readers appreciate a well-targeted, up-to-date directory that lists only real businesses serving a specific community. And business customers are willing to pay to be in a directory that’s spam-free and promoted to a real audience of engaged community members instead of drive-by Web searchers. A directory is an easy sell to a local business owner who can’t spell “CPM” and doesn’t want to hassle with a complicated banner ad campaign, too.

But I wouldn’t have been in position to create that new paid directory for our site (which has led to five-figure annual income for us), if I’d been satisfied to leave our old directories be. By picking up the axe and taking it to the directories, I chopped away a lot of waste that had been covering up a better opportunity for our site.

So innovation involves not just creation, but destruction as well. What are the old pages, services, products and habits that you or your organization is investing significant time and money to maintain for your publication, only for insignificant revenue or other value in return?

Swing your axe thoughtfully, though. I gave our directories over 10 years before cutting them down. They had their run. Killing a new service before giving it a decent chance to find a customer base can cost you far more than leaving a dying service to linger. But once you’ve given it your best shot or a service has run its course, don’t let fear or apathy keep you from killing a project that’s sucking money or time, or polluting your pages with inferior content.

And once you’ve given something a shot, don’t kick yourself if someone else makes it work. Remember, ideas are worthless. If someone else executed an idea in a way you couldn’t, well, good for them. Go find an idea you can execute with success. Focus on what you and your organization do best, and let your axe keep your way forward clear.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at