A short time ago my my partners and I launched a startup project of our own and within 4 months time we had picked up national exposure to the point that we were negotiating 4 potential sponsorships and had requests from at least a half dozen or so other parties interested in being a part of our project. A couple other things that are worthy of mention is that during that 4 month timeframe we had accumulated over 1,000 followers on Twitter and had approximately 20,000 Facebook Fans.
For the sake of this post I will not mention the project itself because these principles apply to pretty much any project, instead I will discuss some key ingredients that went into growing that project in such a short period of time.
Consider the Focus of your Project…
Fortunately for us we had a very popular topic and were able to draw from a very loyal fan base. Whatever your project is, be sure to have modest expectations when trying to measure your success. It stands to reason that a website that caters to fans of Football is going to draw more attention than a website catering to the bread making community. Also keep in mind where your audience is located, if you are launching a website that reports news and events for a small region of the United States, you obviously can’t expect to see the same amount of traffic or have the same kind of impact that a similar website has that markets to a national audience. I am not saying that you should change your focus of your project either, I know many successful websites that only cater to a niche or regional audience.
Tips for Development
If at all possible, I recommend using one of the popular open-sourced frameworks that are out there. A couple of things that I would look at when trying to decide on a framework or CMS would be the size of it’s support community and how well you like the management process, because I promise you that you will spend more time managing the website than you think.
My preference for most projects is WordPress, many websites today are built upon WordPress and there are a couple of reasons for this, one is because it has probably the largest community of developers and users than any other CMS on the planet and secondly because it’s extremely flexible, I haven’t ran into many situations where I couldn’t build in some kind of functionality into my wordpress projects that a client was asking for, it’s extremely versatile. A couple of other solutions that are out there that are also probably worth looking into are Drupal, Joomla, and ModX. If you go with one of these as your foundation I don’t think you will have any problems scaling your project as it grows down the road.
When working with a developer on the front end, be sure to lay out your vision for the project as clearly as possible, this is extremely valuable because it helps the developer know what your needs might be 6 months to a year down the road and he can often times allow for this more acutely during the development process.
Design is Huge!!
If you do not have an eye for design, or maybe you think you do and others have told you that you don’t, do yourself a favor and hire a graphic designer to assist you with the logo, layout, and any other graphic elements of the site. Making a first impression is extremely important while trying to build a community. The website needs to have very slick graphics, attractive layout, etc. I have seen it time and time again, a website can be thrown together without any of the basic elements of design and have the best content in the world and it will flop, of course there are a few sites like craigslist.com that will continue to defy the laws the nature but it’s always a good idea to look good!
Every aspect of the project also needs to mesh well and be consistent with other portions of the project. We wrestled with this on our project because in addition to our wordpress application we also had a simple machines forum running with approximately 400 members on it that were active daily. We eventually came up with a theme design for our forum that meshed well with our layout for the wordpress site but it took some time to get these exactly right, or at least in my eyes and I am somewhat particular when it comes to design.
Never stop tweaking the site, if you see areas of the site that could possibly perform better or be more visible to your users, be sure to tweak them on the fly, your visitors will appreciate that you have their ease of use in mind each time they recognize these edits.
Cast a Huge Social Net…
Social Media is the buzzword these days, it actually has been for a couple of years now inside the industry. By social media I am referring to where people hangout online. For instance I have friends who still hit myspace just about everyday, but the vast majority of my old classmates are all on Facebook, a lot of my friends from within the tech community all interact on Twitter. These are all examples of social media.
Being able to identify who your audience is is very important, but what is equally important is how you plan to connect to them inside these social networks. There are tools out there that will allow you to build a following, or you can hire my partners and I and we will be happy to consult with you and point you in the right directions. The first process for doing any of this is to figure out where to invest your energy first, for us we had a startling revelation on the front end of the project, we thought that our younger fan base would be on Twitter and were shocked when our page went viral and picked up almost 20,000 fans in a weekend.
Let’s say your project has to do with college football and you want to connect to College Football fans on Twitter, there are about a half a dozen or so proven ways to connect to other fans. Some of these methods only require a little bit of work on the front end but I have found that the quality approach isn’t as easy as others would have you to believe. There are some issues to consider with each of the social networks such as follow limits on Twitter and Groups versus Pages inside of Facebook. Again, this is where a company like Pleth would come in and help you identify the best approach for your social campaign. It’s not a shot in the dark like you would expect, we actually have some methods in place that have proven to be effective.
Work it Everyday!
Just having an impressive following on the social networks is one thing but maximizing that following is another story. There are a couple schools of thought regarding Twitter especially, some companies follow back their followers regardless, and some do not. It is my belief that the quality approach is to become involved, sure it’s nice to set back and post links to Twitter and Facebook knowing that a few of your followers are actually going to click through based on the law of percentage, but what would happen if you actually engaged in conversations with your followers? My experience has been that the more you engage your followers the more likely they are to be loyal visitors to your project, and also the more likely they are to invite and share your content with their friends.
I would routinely budget 2 hours a day toward social media management and could have possibly devoted more time if I had it available. I would engage other users on their comments and they would do likewise. I would also occasionally post links back to competing projects just to show that “it wasn’t all about my project” and was more or less about the common interest we had with our followers.
Make it Easy for Visitors to Get Involved…
Probably one of the smartest things you can do on the front end of your project would be to incorporate some user authentication tools like OpenID or my favorite one so far, Facebook Connect. By doing this you allow even the first time visitor to your website the ability to post a comment on your content with just a few clicks of their mouse. Without these authentication tools they visitors are forced to register on your site alone and for the most part they have to really like what you are doing to devote the minute or two it takes to do that. Be sure to promote the fact that you use Facebook Connect on your site, I have found that it does encourage your visitors to comment more.
Give the Community Part Ownership
With our project we quickly identified about 10 or so bloggers that were posting blogs up on various services on the web such as Blogger and WordPress.com. We put out some requests asking for Guest Bloggers to offer their perspective on issues. Within 4 months we had approximately 10-12 bloggers posting anywhere from once to three times a week. That’s content that we didn’t have to write but what’s most valuable about this is that they can offer a perspective totally separate from your own which helps your project become more diverse in it’s offerings. For instance, we had a blogger who provided posts with an editorial type of flair to them while we had another blogger who could honestly have you rolling in the floor before finishing the first paragraph of their posts. We also had a writer who would only post about a paragraph or so each week but it was possibly the most informative weekly columns about our core topic I had read anywhere else on the web. Keeping your content diverse gives visitors to your website the impression that you are actually a lot larger than you really are, and this never hurts anything.
There is another positive about getting your Community involved with your project, they take on a sense of ownership and will help promote the community in ways that you might not be able to. For example, we had a forum on our project that was extremely popular, we posted a note asking for moderators and within a week or so we had appointed one volunteer as global moderator for the project and another dozen or so managing specific portions of the forum. I can’t count the times that I would run across these same peoples facebook profiles and tweets where they had links posted back to the message board.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
Granted this is something that always comes up on the front end of each project with our clients because for the most part there hasn’t been a grand awakening to the general public yet that being ranked high in Google isn’t a necessity anymore, there are other ways to receive traffic thanks to the social landscape. Now, am I saying that you shouldn’t do whatever is in your power to get to the top of Google? No, that’s not what I am saying at all, rather I am saying that we shouldn’t fixate on where we are at in Google like we did a few years ago when search engines were the ONLY way visitors found our content.
Fortunately for us we had a very good SEO campaign going, we actually showed up on the first page of Google for at least 3 or 4 key search terms and probably a lot more than that but I didn’t spend a lot of time researching out our rankings because it wasn’t a top priority.
Keep Track of Your Analytics, Do Comparisons
One of the most useful tools for me with our project was a free tool provided by Google called Google Analytics. These analytic tools gave me all of the information I needed, for example, what was the most popular types of posts we had on the site, I noticed a quick trend that our visitors all seemed to favor nostalgic and historical posts moreso than posts that covered current events, so I quickly started allocating more posts to that category and our numbers continued to climb exponentially each week.
One other thing that helped me out a lot was knowing where our visitors came from each week. We saw a large number of returning visitors which was comforting to know that we had a good product that hooked our visitors in. With Google Analytics you can also track referrers. This tells you who sent your visitors to your site, the primary ones for us were Twitter, Facebook, and then Google. Exactly in that order. The fact that our visitors were three times more likely to come from Twitter than they were the front page of Google helped motivate me to work our Twitter account following even harder, and trust me being in this industry for as long as I have, it was an eye opening experience to see this firsthand. I can’t emphasize enough how important social media plays with todays landscape.
Wait Until the Time is Right to Monetize!
When you first launch your project, don’t expect to throw adsense on your site and start making money overnight, I don’t think that there are many out there these days that actually have that expectation anymore anyway, but I always try to let our clients know on the front end that they need to budget on not making any money for a while that way they don’t have any false expectations going in.
Yes, we did make some money on Adsense through pay per clicks, were we making more than other websites that catered to the same community? Yes. We stumbled upon a few ways to inject adsense into content that we sent out to our follower in a way that wasn’t obtrusive or detracted from the quality of our content. It took us a little while to get this process down, but once we eventually figured it out we did make some money.
Affiliate Marketing is another story altogether, selecting the right brands to associate with your project is not something you should take lightly, you have to be wary of who your readers are and what their interests are to accurately provide ads to them on a large scale. Another thing that I am really big on is not going overboard, for me a small 120×60 banner is just as effective as one of those long creepy sidebar ads that advertisers all recommend. Respect the value of your online real estate also and don’t jump at an opportunity just because it appeals to your niche, negotiate to get the best return percentages on leads and sales you generate, after all you are the one providing the service.
While PPC, Adsense, and Affiliate Marketing are great, there are only a few rare instances where I have seen these actually make a project profitable. To make the real money you are going to need to produce a media kit with basic information about your project, break down ad sizes and figure out what you want to charge for each of these ad spots. Once you have this media kit in hand you can then go forward and pursue bigger fish for direct advertising on your site. As I mentioned earlier we had 6 sponsorships in the works that were each commited to paying pretty good money each month for their ad placements and several more that were contacting us with interest. Once the project takes off you will hopefully spend more time pursuing this end of the business than you will in the actual day to day management of the site.
Promote, Promote, Promote
One of the things that I did a lot of was to go on podcasts that catered to our same demographic and promoted our project. I would sometimes go on two shows a week and initially we didn’t see a huge jump in traffic but over time we could definitely tell it was helping. We also granted interviews with every newspaper outlet that asked about what we were doing and made sure to brag on the community aspects of the project, we picked up several loyal community members through these efforts that just happened to read about us in the newspaper.
I also contacted several friends I had in the media industry that I thought would be a good fit for what we were doing and provided RSS (really simple syndication) of our content to them to use on their website, these arrangements were a win-win for both us and the media outlets because they were getting free content on their websites and we were getting traffic we would have normally seen.
These are just a few of the key ingredients that I feel like were important to quickly get our project off the ground. These are pretty much the same staples that we advise our clients on everyday to maximize their web presence.