The ‘Field of Dreams’ Syndrome

Of all the saccharine maxims of Hollywood, none are more corrosive to the soul of an online business than the ones espoused in 1989's 'Field of Dreams'.

A story of irresponsible land-management and hallucinogenic corn, the film follows Kevin Kostner as he pivots from his traditional business model, to one based on disrupting the afterlife of several members of the disgraced 1919 White Sox team. Kostner's approach to building a business is unconventional, and despite the persuasive rhetorical stance of the film, his rules should be avoided by all nascent online businesses. For your erudition and entertainment, I shall dissect them below.

"If you build it, they will come…" / "People will come, Ray…"

We hardly need concern ourselves with the spectral (or self-referential) origin of this voice – its advice is pernicious enough. If you build it, you'd better be damn well sure they're going to come, or you've wasted your money. Stands to reason, huh? Fortunately, the mind of the modern business owner tends to be more evolved than that of Iowan farmers with daddy issues, so adherence to this rule seems to have died out at around the same time as Kostner's career.

"They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom…"

Perhaps, as the sun finally set on the Reagan administration, in those first cool moments of twilight it was possible, just possible, that people had the time and money to act as the irrational agents of their unconscious desires. Contemporary economic reality is somewhat different, and whether you're selling travel insurance or sporting fantasy, it's imperative that you give them a very good reason indeed to come to Iowa.

(coda)

Obviously its also important to know exactly who 'they' are – after all, some people (most of the rest of the world apart from the US, Japan & Cuba) couldn't give a toss about baseball or the fate of Shoeless Joe.

"They'll arrive at your door, as innocent as children…"

Was the web ever innocent? Your average consumer is either utterly blase about the dangers of online fraud, forgery and poor customer service, or on the other hand, convinced that the entire system is populated solely by hucksters, pornographers and cut-purses. 

Assume that your visitors are as jaded as Charlie Sheen's legal team, and that you need to be the one volubly innocent as a child.

"It's money they have, but peace they lack…"

Not even going to start with this one. 

So, what should Ray have done instead?

Starting a new business is hard, especially when your USP is dead baseball players, who are notoriously fickle. Money is tight. Friends and advisers are cynics and pessimists.

It's easy to fall into the trap of doing the fun stuff today and the tedious stuff tomorrow. If you've built your new site, you want traffic arriving straight away, so you say to yourself that you'll spend money on Adwords & Facebook today, and measurement tomorrow. You've become Ray, relying on the phantasmagorical soul of the people to intuitively respond to your creation. You built it. You even paid for them to come. But what the hell did they do while they were there?

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball…"

Hmm, baseball is a highly statistical sport isn't it? You see where I'm going with this?

If you don't know how many people have tickets to your field of dreams, you can't decide whether to expand the bleachers. If you don't know how many bought hot dogs, you don't know how many abattoirs you need to contact for floor sweepings.

People will come, Ray, but how many? 

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