In the last five years, there has been a major trend to build businesses on top of the platforms offered by major web companies, such as eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Apple (iTunes) and Google (YouTube, Search). Eight years ago, the big thing was to build an eBay business. Four years ago, the big thing to do was build a Twitter client or a Facebook application. More recently, the big thing to do has been to build apps and get distribution from Apple’s AppStore and the Google’s Play Store.
Working inside of an established ecosystem, such as iTunes, YouTube or Facebook allows you to tap into an established user base, but doing so place your business at significant risk. When you piggyback off the platform of a major company, your business only continues to exist as long as it suits the company whose platform you’re building off of. When the platform you’re working on decides they don’t need you anymore, you’re toast.
When Twitter decided that it only wanted users to use its official software clients, it made changes to its API that made it more difficult for third party Twitter clients to operate. It stopped promoting them in its feed and has publicly warned developers not to build new Twitter clients. When Facebook revamped the functionality of Facebook Pages to make use of the Timeline, third party developers that relied on the ability to put custom content on the homepage of a Facebook Page were pushed out of Facebook’s ecosystem. There are dozens of stories of developers getting removed from Apple’s AppStore for running afoul of arbitrary rules, such as AppGratis.
There’s a common saying in online business, and that’s “the money’s in the customer list.” In other words, your future ability to generate income is based on the relationship you have with your customers and your ability to contact them. If you’re working inside of an ecosystem, your list only exists as long as that ecosystem exists and as long as you stay in the good graces of that ecosystem. If your account gets shut-down or a social network suddenly changes the game, you lose your ability to talk to your customers. A while back, Facebook decided that it would charge commercial operators of Facebook Pages to communicate with their customers, and Mark Cuban famously abandoned Facebook as a marketing tool. If you have a major following on Facebook, but suddenly have to pay a significant sum of money to post a message to them where they’ll actually see it, your company’s future ability to generate income is constrained significantly.
The moral of the story is that you need to own your customer list. You shouldn’t rely on having a big following on social media, a bunch of subscribers in YouTube or a large base of installs of your app. You need to have the email address of each of your customers (or mailing address and phone number) so that you can contact them in the future regardless of the status of any social network or other ecosystem. Social networks come and go, but email addresses and physical addresses rarely change.
If you own your customer list and have the email addresses of your customer base, you will always be able to generate more income in the future, even if Google, Apple, Facebook or Twitter decide they don’t need you anymore. You can always let your customer list know about the next project you’re working on or find some related product or service to market them. The ongoing business relationship should be between you and your customers. Don’t let Facebook, Twitter, Google or Apple get in your way.