Tuesday, May 06, 2008

We built it - but why do they come?

April was a record month for the Agency website I manage.

We've been on an uptrend for awhile, but this month saw the traffic (measured in visits and unique visitors) jump north to an extent I did not anticipate.

It's definitely a nice surprise and gratifying to be able to claim that the website is growing faster than the average website growth rate in Australia (using Hitwise to prove this).

However how much is due to the work of my team and I, or that of the ICT team who actually code and deploy the site?

Websites are at an unusual end of the marketing and communications spectrum.

While they exist in a public (albeit virtual) space, there's realistically little passing trade who can stumble upon them.

Websites rely on people discovering about them through other means such as word of mouth, advertising, search engines and other websites.

Without these discovery approaches any individual website is virtually invisible except by lucky chance.

If your role is to manage a website, but you do not have influence over the communications going out from your organisation, you have to really consider whether you have much impact on the website's success.

Certainly the content can be kept timely and accurate, the navigation well-thought out and the design superb.

But if you built a shop in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain you'd probably get more passing trade (though they might glow a little).

So how does a website manager solve the audience drought problem?

If you listen to an SEO enthusiast, the secret is in optimising your search engine listing - Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

This involves a collection of techniques to ensure that when someone is searching online for appropriate keywords your site is up the top of the results list.

It can also involve paid search advertising, where you place paid ads next to search terms that may lead someone to your site. The bonus is that you only pay when someone clicks on the ad, making them a very cheap option.

There is also link exchange - where you agree to link to someone else's website if they link to yours. This works well if the other site already has the audience you want to attract, otherwise it can be a waste of time.

There's online advertising - banners, pop-ups, spots, and all the different shapes and sizes available. This is less targetted, but can still deliver good results if ad sites are well selectd.

Sponsorship and social marketing are also possibilities - sponsor another website or post your web address in appropriate topic forums and blogs.

However there's a vital ingredient all of these online tools lack.
  1. They're all online tools and don't reach your audience when they are not online, also
  2. if your audience doesn't know they need to visit you, why would they click on you in search results, a banner ad or a sponsored site anyway?
So what's the best way to get an audience to your website?

Your comms
My role as Online Communications Manager means that besides looking after the website and intranet (and advising on online advertising), I also poke my nose into any Agency communications or marketing activity just to make sure that our website is front-and-centre.

To ensure that my nose doesn't take any damage in all this poking, in return I give the people preparing the material the one thing they cannot get on radio or TV, in print media, in our own printed materials or in any other form of communications outside the web - unlimited space for their messages.
  • You're restricted to a 30 second spot on radio?
    No problem - tell the audience to come to the website and we can provide a home page item and 50 pages of background material.
  • Your new printed customer publication is restricted to a 64 page fold (due to print and envelope stuffing costs)?
    No problem - let's convert the document into a 120 page website section, which includes all the detailed information you really, really need to tell customers but cannot fit in a shorter form.
When people visit a website they've made a conscious decision to do so. That makes them more engaged than if the material simply arrives in the mail or is blasted at them from the car radio. This opens the door to tracking what they really want - which pages do they/don't they visit? How long do they stay? Do they email us? Do they post about us online?

I've found this kind of tit-for-tat trade a powerful tool to both ensure that the website gets the coverage it needs to be found and help reinforce in peoples' minds that the web isn't simply another distribution tool for the same material.

Your staff
The other very powerful and influenceable way to get your site into customer minds is via your call centres and other staff. This involves communication within your organisation.

To get your staff to recommend your website you must first convince staff that your site has something of value for customers.

To do this you must first identify and provide appropriate tools and content. This includes material of high value to your customers as well as content that staff find difficult to explain over the phone, or tools that allow them to complete calls faster.

Once the tools and content are in place there needs to be an ongoing commitment to educating staff that your website is the place to go. Call centres often experience higher turnovers than other areas of an organisation and staff can only keep so many things in mind at once, so a once-off campaign won't deliver lasting results.

So how do people find your website?

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