Marketing your web site
On this page: Some of us have web sites for fun and creativity, but if your site has a commercial, public service or serious academic purpose, you need to think about marketing and image. Lois gives you some practical tips on how to make the most of your site, especially if you are a small organisation without a big budget.
Why is marketing a web site important?
It isn't sufficient just to post your web pages and wait for the world to come knocking at your door - it won't happen unless your site is the subject of one of those inexplicable crazes publicised in the media, which is about as likely as winning the lottery. You need to put some effort into letting people know about your web site, otherwise all your work in creating it is wasted. This article shows you the basics, including tips for search engines, traditional and email advertising, choosing a domain name, establishing a brand, and trust.
The first thing almost everyone thinks of in relation to web marketing is search engines (SEs), so I'll start there to get it out of the way. Search engines (like Google, Lycos, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and Altavista), and web directories (like the Open Directory and Yahoo) are a good way of getting visitors who don't already know about you, your product or service.
There are hundreds of SEO (search engine optimisation) tools and services aimed at improving your chances of being found, but most of them don't get much better results than you can, if you know what to do! Start with my simple search engine tips here, then go and spend as much time as you can afford at http://www.searchenginewatch.com, which is a very comprehensive and readable resource; for a little money, you can subscribe to extra content and regular tips, if this topic is really important to you.
After your successful submission and listing, what happens when those visitors arrive at your site? Remember, to keep your visitors happy, a web site must be easy to use, accessible to everyone in the intended audience, easy to find your way about, and nice to look at. If it falls down in any of these areas, then you have wasted your time in getting to the number one position for your chosen keywords.
Don't neglect traditional avenues to get your site known. Put the URL on your business cards and headed paper, print it on your flyers and catalogues, paint it on the company van and the shopfront, tell all your friends and associates, and see if you can get some free publicity in local newspapers, or on local TV or radio. Think about other ways of attracting attention. For example:
- write an article for a relevant trade magazine,
- sponsor a local event or charity,
- host a local organisation's web site for free,
- make a press release, or
- hand out postcards with the web address and a screen shot of the home page.
Savvy surfers often 'domain guess' - so if your domain has the name of what they are looking for, you may be lucky. But this is a long shot, and it's very difficult to register sensible generic domain names these days. If you have an established name, registering the name is good - as well as or instead of the thing you sell.
If you have to register a long domain name to get something you like, think about registering a shorter one too. People who have to type it in from paper or read it out over the phone are less likely to make a mistake that way. Instead of marzipancauliflowers.com, what about mcaulis.com? You can use the longer one in emails and web pages, where no typing is needed. Both names should be set up to point to the same web site, of course!
There is some debate about hyphenation in domain names. The general consensus seems to be avoid hyphens if you can. When you spell your domain, you can always use capitals to distinguish words that run together: MarzipanCauliflowers.com works just as well, for example.
(Note: at the time of researching this article (July 2002), none of these example domains was registered. If some clot registers them after reading this, tough. I thought of it first.)
If, like me, you get hundreds of emails a month promising cheap loans, improved credit ratings, prodigious increases in the dimensions of organs traditionally attributed to the opposite sex etc., then you'll know exactly why unsolicited emails (commonly known as spam) are a Very Bad Thing. They really annoy sensible people, and many will not buy from them on principle.
The key concept here is permission-based marketing. By all means, offer people the chance to subscribe to your email newsletter or product announcements, but don't even think of sending them to everyone in the galaxy, from some bulk email list or other. The only people to make much money this way are the ones selling the addresses, and they rely on suckers to do that.
If your customers have already given you permission to contact them, that's fine. If not, don't risk losing them in a blizzard of unwanted emails.
One form of email advertising that is legitimate is to include your web site address under your signature. If you can contribute usefully to online forums or mailing lists, this is a good way of getting exposure - but don't waste your time outside your area of expertise.
A recognisable brand is an important part of your marketing strategy. You want visitors to remember your web site, and a distinct visual identity reflecting your brand and aspirations is an important part of this. A wishy-washy site decorated with a few bits of clip art is not necessarily the best way to go about it.
If you already have a strong real world brand, then you have a head start in making a web brand. There's no need to invent another identity for your web site unless there are international trademark issues at stake. Don't waste your investment in design, recognition, and goodwill. If your venture is new, then you start with a clean slate. Choose a design that is easy to use on the web: you can see my page on colour and accessibility for some tips, but if you aren't artistic, you'll probably want to talk to a graphic designer.
A bricks and mortar establishment has many opportunities to build a relationship with customers that are just not available in cyberspace. Smiling staff, an enticing window display, an impressive building, a good reputation in the community, and so on.
Will your web site be the equivalent of the friendly neighbourhood shop with helpful staff, or the dodgy trader with a suitcase on the pavement? However trustworthy you are personally, no-one surfing past your site will know this. Your web site must project the image of an individual or company with which anyone would be pleased to do business.
This is mostly a matter of common sense, a quality conspicuously lacking in all too many commercial web sites.
- Have a street address and telephone number prominently displayed on the home page. If you like, have a photo of the staff and/or the premises too.
- Have a proper domain name and a matching email address. Space on a free web host and a Hotmail account put you firmly in the pavement trader category, I am afraid. Domains and basic web hosting are so cheap now that there's really no excuse not to pay if you want your web site to be credible.
- If you sell things online, use a secure system to take payments. (Yes, there are still sites that invite you to submit your credit card details in an email or insecure form. Although there is little practical risk in this - certainly no more than letting a waiter take your card out the back of the restaurant to make an imprint - it makes people nervous.) Consider offering alternatives for people who would rather make a phone or postal order, too.
- Make sure that your returns and complaints policies are clearly described, and that there are no hidden costs like shipping and handling charges - if you spring these on people as they check out, they'll probably just abandon the purchase.
My own personal tip is this: if you are a small business, trade on that - don't pretend to be a faceless corporation.
Some people, and some online services, use software to control the kinds of sites that they (and commonly their offspring) can visit. Several rating systems mark your site as suitable for everyone, or adults only, etc. Consider subscribing to one of these to make sure your site is available to the people you want to attract. I use the Internet Content Rating Association: visit their site to find out what you need to do.
Making the most of your web channel
The better your web site, the more people will recommend it to friends. It is generally thought that people who aren't impressed will either never use you again, or, worse, warn all their friends off. They are unlikely to email you if your site is deficient or unusable, so make sure you get it right!
Having a web site may also change the way you work. You certainly need to get into the habit of answering emails quickly, and make sure that your order fulfillment can cope with web orders: test this before the site goes live, please.
A web site is a 24-hour shopfront to the world. Even if you don't sell online, an increasing number of people like to find out what is on offer at their leisure, so they can make a visit or phone you during normal hours forearmed with useful information.
This is a real boon if you are appealing to people in other countries - as the owner of an English B&B establishment, for example, Australian visitors can check your location and facilities when they are awake, and email you with a request for a booking that you can pick up the next morning. Without your web site, they probably wouldn't even know you existed!
In conclusion, I hope the tips here are some use to budding web marketers, and will encourage you to make the most of your web site. If you want some pointers on starting a new site, have a look at these pages too: