The Essentials of Free Internet Marketing
Given a solid product, a well-developed Web site, and a carefully designed marketing strategy it’s possible to make good -- even excellent -- sales without investing any money in promotion. That said, it does take a serious investment of time as well as marketing know-how. Although you may still want to invest in paid advertising, free advertising methods can help keep your costs down.
Give them a reason to come
Give potential customers not only a reason to visit the first time, but a reason to keep coming back. Site design marketing strategy and must work together. Whether it's simply advertising a weekly sale item or something more involved, like inviting people to a contest in which visitors find pictures hidden within your Web site to win a prize, the site and marketing should complement each other. The site should be alive -- a product sitting quietly on a page won’t get much attention. Provide content that's original and valuable to your target market – not just rehashed newswire copy. Add a ”Send this page” script to your articles and try to have them published (with or without pay) on other sites whenever you can. Unique, relevant, and regularly-updated content will both bring you more visitors -- which will in turn improve your search-engine ranking -- and keep your old visitors returning. Organise your site to lead visitors toward making a purchase, enticing them to your products page with tempting suggestions in your one or two of your articles or in your sidebars. Use small banners as ”in-store ads” to attract to your products page from, for example, your feature article page. After all, even if visitors spend time at your discussion group or reading your weekly column, it’s little use to you unless they buy. Keep your advertisements to a reasonable level, though. While ad copy should be lively and seductive, trying to pass an advertorial off as unbiased information will look superficial.
Connect with the people in your niche and built a community of potential customers. Online and e-mail discussion groups are some of the easiest ways to mingle with potential customers. These groups are usually clubs of regulars, so get to know the people there on a human level, not just as a Web address. Use your URL in your signature, but avoid posting anything outright commercial. Many groups are, frankly, hypersensitive to anyone smelling of the promotions department. If you start your own discussion group, remember that people rarely leave messages on a board that looks inactive. Liven up the board to life first by inviting friends and family in and asking each other open-ended, relevant questions or by inventing a few personalities and talking with yourself for a while. Anything you can do to build a community around your site will help. People are far more likely to buy from someone they feel they know – not to mention someone they can find!
Encourage word of mouth
The ”Internet” was meant to be just that – a network of people exchanging information -- and linking often brings as much traffic as the search engines. Banner or link exchanges with sites of similar size and complimentary but not competing product-line will introduce your site to a targeted, buying audience. However, FFA links don't increase you search engine rank and usually don't garner much traffic unless placed in small, narrowly-targeted sites. A better option is getting listed in a directory relevant to your site’s subject. As a variation on the banner-exchange, try article-for-article or article-for-link exchanges with other sites and newsletters. A well-placed, informative article can attract a lot of positive attention.
Viral marketing is another way to encourage word of mouth. Offer free e-cards or a useful free e-book that people in your market will pass on to friends. Alternatively, selectively send out a story, tips sheet, or anything else uniquely useful that will get passed around. Something with your URL on it that comes from a familiar address has far more weight with the recipient than any email-list ad campaign from an unknown address. Have a ”Refer a Friend” scripts and offer an incentive for your visitors to actually refer their friends.
Do what you can to get into the major search engines and keep up on search-engine optimisation, but don't waste all your time on monitoring your rank. If you've found your market niche, your rank will almost take care of itself. Don't neglect the speciality search engines, either -- they exist for health, music, pet care, and almost everything else and offer a more targeted audience and less competition.
Drop in on them
A useful, regularly-delivered opt-in newsletter is the ideal way to remind you customers about your site. But don't bombard them with ads or fluff --make the newsletter so useful your readers want to pass it on to their friends. Within the newsletters, give them a reason to return to your site, such as a new article, a sale, or a quiz with the answers at the site. At some point send out a survey asking customers what exactly they want, either from Web sites like yours or products like yours. For even more mileage, offer to swap ads or articles with other newsletters.
Getting nothing for nothing
Not every marketing scheme works as well as its promoters would sometimes have you think. Generally free classifieds work only in the narrowest markets. Free sites (porthole sites) at tripod and the like can work if they contain real content and with perhaps a different slant than your main site or are used to highlight a specific product. Bulk e-mail ad-campaigns are often disappointing in results and may make you more enemies than friends. This technique, while it still brings in buyers in some markets, is working less than it used to.
Study, study, study!
Keep researching -- it may take some trial and error to find the techniques that fit your product and market. Given the rapid pace of Internet development, networking is usually the most efficient way to stay on top of advancements. There are a number of sites, discussion groups, and newsletters devoted to Internet promotions that will help you keep up with marketing trends and techniques and gather new ideas. If your business strategies are sound and your product is in demand, you may well be able to make a solid profit even without a bottomless advertising budget.
Marie Kirschbaum is a freelance writer with several years experience in low-cost Internet marketing for small businesses. She also writes on language-learning and translation topics.