A year ago, tiny James River Drums of Richmond, Va., joined the thousands of businesses that stake out new turf in cyberspace every day. Founder Dennis Johnson, who chucked a 16-year career as a purchasing manager at an engineering firm to sell African-style hand drums, figured his spiffy $3,000 Web site would generate sales around the country--even the world.
But weeks passed, and Johnson's Web site drummed up nary a customer for the home-based business. He had no idea why--until a Web-savvy friend gave him some seemingly obvious, yet often ignored, advice: It's fine to have a site, but you've got to bring people to it.
It's easy for a Web site to get lost in cyberspace. "I think that most businesses come to the Web with really high expectations, and they are learning it's not `build it and they will come,"' says Ken Allard, group director of site operations strategies at Jupiter Communications LLC, a New York computer-industry consulting and analysis firm.
Of course, legions of pricey consultants stand ready to help "drive traffic" to your Web site. But budget-minded small companies are learning to play this game, too. They're opting for cheaper--and often more creative--solutions, judiciously spending limited promotional dollars to market their sites, buying consulting services a la carte for specific technical tasks, and relying on some free, grassroots approaches.
In Johnson's case, some fairly simple technical changes on his Web pages help people find the James River site when they search for "African drums." The fix, performed by a consultant for just $150, entailed refining "meta tags," the special coding on Web pages that enables search engines to find them. His traffic grew from virtually nothing to anything from 85 to 140 visitors a week--enough to generate about 60% of his still-modest sales. (He gets the rest through free drumming demonstrations in his area and some print advertising.)
Where do you begin? There are hundreds of Web sites that offer free or low-cost help to boost Web traffic--everything from sites that will register you with multiple search engines to so-called link exchanges for swapping ads with other sites (table). "No single thing will make your site successful," says Syd Rubin, a partner in e.magination network LLC, a Baltimore Web hosting, design, and promotion firm. "It's doing all of the little things."
For starters, you should register your Web site with the leading search engines--Alta Vista, Excite, InfoSeek, WebCrawler, and Yahoo!--by filling out a registration form at their home pages. Alternatively, you can register for many search engines at once at sites such as www.register-it.com. Old-fashioned, nontech marketing works, too. Haddonfield Running Co., a two-store running-gear outfit in Haddonfield, N.J., started a stampede to its Web site by putting its Web address on, well, everything. "We listed our Web site on our cards, on the front of the store, with the logo, on the bags, on the bottom of every sales slip," says Chairman Joe Puleo. While he doesn't benefit from online sales--the shoe and apparel manufacturers prohibit them--he attributes a 15% increase in his in-store sales to runners who visit his Web site, attracted by useful content such as race registrations and health tips for runners.
Carl Delmont, president of Freedmont Mortgage Corp. in Hunt Valley, Md., used both direct-marketing brochures and local TV and radio advertising to publicize his finance company's Web address, or URL. Monthly traffic jumped from 1,000 to 3,000 hits, which Delmont says generate about 120 applications.
Still other Web-site businesses have managed to promote themselves by publishing their own E-mail newsletters, which go directly into subscribers' mailboxes, or sponsoring somebody else's. To find a newsletter to sponsor, try the Direct E-mail List Source (www. copywriter.com/lists), which compiles the names and Web addresses of newsletters, E-mail lists, and brokers who will place ads in the appropriate newsletters. Eric Targan, the New York City- based owner of E-mail Marketing News and the 200,000-subscriber Joke of the Day E-mail list, says reaching a list of random subscribers generally runs $20 for each 1,000 readers. More targeted audiences cost up to $300 per 1,000.
For some free self-promotion, many entrepreneurs participate in Usenet bulletin boards and subscriber-based E-mail discussion lists, or "listservs." (To find and subscribe to such groups, try www.dejanews.com or www.liszt.com.) After posting a comment, sign off with a "signature file," or "sig," that includes your URL and perhaps a favorite saying or a free offer. "Make 'em laugh; shock 'em; get their attention somehow," says Lisa Hickman Bryan, whose Indialantic (Fla.) marketing and public relations firm, Word Works , has found 98% of its clients through postings.
"Swapping" links with other Web sites is effective, too. You can do this informally, by inviting other sites to link to yours in return for your linking to theirs. Or try joining a "Web ring," a group of sites, usually addressing a common theme, topic, or audience, that allows the surfer to click from one to the other. You can search 44,000 rings at the Ring World directory, run by the site WebRing. Then, visit the home pages of rings you'd like to be a part of. A "ringmaster" determines whether you can join.
Do Web rings work? John Newport, 27, co-president of Newport Industries International, an office-supply and electronics wholesale operation in Oak Harbor, Wash., used a search engine to find Web rings about electronics. He says that by joining several of them, he increased Web sales tenfold, to $50,000 a month. "As soon as I got on them, I got 37 extra E-mails from people who wanted camcorders," he says.
Sometimes, however, nothing targets your market like a well-placed banner ad. Banners, put on Web sites and the pages of search engines, link directly to the advertiser's Web site. @Backup, a San Diego company that backs up computer files sent over the Internet, frequently buys banner ads, sometimes trying out different ones to see which draw the most traffic, says Chris d'Eon, the firm's marketing director. You can also have your banner ad appear on a search engine's Web page by purchasing a specific "key word." The ad pops up when someone searches for the word. Barewalls Interactive Art LLC, a Cambridge (Mass.) company that sells about 200 art posters a day over the Web, spends most of its promotional budget buying words like "poster."
Lorne Lieberman, the company's marketing director, says the ads attract motivated customers "with dollars to spend" right away.
The cost for key words generally ranges from $35 to $85 for every 1,000 times the word is used, says Leonardo Bilello, senior account executive at DoubleClick Inc., which sells key words for Alta Vista. But if you want banners on the cheap, try one of the so-called banner exchanges, such as LinkExchange, that let you swap ad space on someone else's site for space on yours. Or, you can go to a banner repackager, such as Flycast Communications Corp., which sells banner space at a discount. One caveat: You can't always control where your ad appears.
For more control, you're better off buying banners directly from a site you favor. It's typical to pay $3 to $5 for every 1,000 banners displayed, or as much as $10 to $15 per 1,000 for more targeted audiences. To create those banners, graphic designers charge anywhere from $50 to $1,000 apiece. The smaller, cheaper agencies are often a better bet. "They won't put a full-motion movie in your banner that bogs down the viewer's machine. People don't buy from that--we've tested," says @Backup's d'Eon.
Indeed, trying a bit of this and a little of that is what this elusive art of Web site promotion is all about. Of course, if you do want help, there's plenty out there. A search of Yahoo! unearths a new category, Web services. It has 7,809 sites...and counting.