FEATURE 

Increasing circulation in your virtual marketplace

To maximise sales from your website you must establish its presence within your products’ virtual marketplace - the community of websites frequented by your potential customers. For this you need a strategy, a budget and specialist knowledge, explains Mark Nunney from the Website Marketing Company.

By Mark Nunney

If you want to sell magazines on the newsstand you need to get them onto the right shelves in as many shops as possible. Getting this from WH Smith, Forbouys etc is hard work and expensive. You employ distributors and consultants to do this important work and they take a large percentage of your cover price in return.

To sell subscriptions via direct mail you need lists of appropriate names and addresses. These lists cost money to borrow or buy and it takes a long time to build your own. Again, you pay staff, consultants and list brokers good money to do this.

Selling on the web is not so different. You need to find out where potential buyers go — and how to get them to come to your site — before you can present your marketing to them. And if you want this done well, you need specialist knowledge to help you.

Is your head still in the sand?

If you don't yet know how important the web is for selling magazines and newsletters then the future of your company is at risk.

Already, there are plenty of publications for which their website is the main source of leads for subscription sales. Billions of pounds are being spent online each year and this will increase substantially. Your potential customers are spending some of that money and if they aren’t buying your products they are buying your competitors’. You must respond to this.

But you can't just build your website and hope it will be found. This is like printing your magazine, dumping it in piles in the middle of a desert and waiting for buyers … it’s like hoping to sell your magazine in WHS and other newsagents without having a contract with a distributor or ever contacting these shops … it’s like writing and printing your direct mail subscription marketing, getting it printed but not posting it to anybody … it’s madness.

You must have a plan, a strategy and a budget for your online market or your rivals will leave you behind.

Your online plan must include a strategy for building traffic. And your strategy for traffic should include discovering your product’s virtual market place and establishing your site’s presence in it. Let’s look at why you must do this and how you can do it…

How to get found in the virtual world

The virtual world — the world wide web — is a vast collection of billions of connected websites. How does anybody ever find your site? How does a search engine decide what site gets to the top of a list of a few million sites with content on the same subject?

First, let’s ask ourselves how people use the internet. How does your target market find what they want on the web?

There are two main ways your website can be found:

* Search engines
* Links from other sites

To get visitors from search engines, you need to at least make your site search-engine friendly. But you can do better than this. You can optimise your site for search engines — search engine optimisation (SEO).

The purpose of SEO is to make your site appear as near the top as possible on search engine results pages (SERPS) when your target market make searches. In this way, SEO’s job is to maximise visits from search engines by potential customers.

So SEO looks after the first of those two ways in which your website will be found. But there is more to good SEO than that. Good SEO will also look after the second source of traffic. Good SEO will maximise your traffic coming directly from other sites in your product’s virtual market place.

This is because a crucial part of good SEO is building quality inbound links to your website from other websites. And that means links from sites whose content covers similar subjects to yours; ie. your products’ virtual market place – the websites your target market visits.

Before looking at links in more detail, we need to understand their place in search engine optimisation…

The fundamentals of search engine optimisation

There are three pillars of SEO. They are:

* Content
* Site structure
* Links

In the game of building traffic to your website, content is king, links are queen, site structure is the rules of the game and SEO can make your hand trumps.

As long as it’s relevant to your target market, you can’t have too much content on your website. For publishers, finding content should be easy – it’s what they do. A small amount of SEO work on your content will make sure that each page on your site is used to target different search phrases used by your target market at search engines. This should be part of your page-production process.

But no matter how much content you have, if search engines can’t find it, neither can your potential customers when they use search engines. So you must make sure that your site structure allows search engines to easily find all of your site's pages. Although it rarely is, this should be part of how your site is built.

But having lots of optimised pages and a site that is built with at least a search-engine friendly structure is all a waste of time without links into your site. Search engines love links, especially Google, the most important search engine.

Google and the gang (MSN and Yahoo) consider links to be a vote for your site. But some votes count for more than others. Among the factors considered are:

* The site a link is from
* The links into the site the link is from
* The page a link is from
* The links into the page a link is from
* The content around a link
* The position of a link on the page
* The nature of a link (what text, if any, is used?)

The most important of these is 'the site a link is from'. Is it from a site-of-standing within your targeted virtual community? A handful of such links, done in the right way – optimised – is worth thousands of others. You need to know which sites are the elite…

Join the elite of your online community

Whatever the subject area of your publication, there exists a community of websites on the internet. These websites are connected to each other by links. You have to find that community and join it, which means you have to get links from those websites. But as with all communities, there is an elite — some are more equal than others.

Within all virtual communities, search engines attach more importance to some sites than others. These are the ‘expert sites’. Among other reasons, they get to be such because other sites on the same subject link to them. They, in turn, can bestow their expert status on others so that a mutually positive spiral creates a 'club of the strong'.

For your website to be successful you must join that club and to do so you need to find the expert sites within your community and get links from them. There are lots of ways of getting those links. Here’s a selection:

* Swapping links (reciprocal linking)
* Press releases
* Submitting articles
* Adverts
* Recruiting affiliates
* Writing blogs
* Offering RSS feeds
* All the tools of guerrilla marketing

And if these techniques get you links, remember that the nature of those links is crucial. Google, Yahoo and MSN are analysing everything about your links including the page they are on, where they are on the page, what content is around them and even how many there are from one site. And they compare your links so that, for example, unless you know how to hide it, they know when your links are simply an advertising campaign.

Get these details wrong and search engines might rightly (or wrongly) spot your links for fakes rather than a vote of confidence from your peers. To get it right, specialist help is recommended, even just to find the right sites to get links from.

However, even the best SEO professional can’t help you with the most important link building technique. The technique that beats all the rest is in your control. It is to have … a site with content that your target market wants to read and other sites will want to link to.