Keeping Hold of Your Website Audience

August 24, 2007 by Staff Writer

We all know that content is king and that lively, pertinent content is best for keeping your visitors coming back for more. It is also a fact that even a king needs to reach out to his subjects occasionally, not least to ensure they do not forget his face. This is also true of websites. Rather than just relying on a loyal following coming to your site repeatedly, it helps if you take some measures to guide them back to your site every now and again. 

Imagine your site has only been online a couple of months. Chances are upwards of a hundred people will have visited during that period of time. Of that hundred, perhaps 50 arrived by accident and leave immediately. Of the other 50, perhaps 25 look at the site and find they were not particularly interested in what it offers, while another 10 might visit it once or twice and then stop. The other 15 though represent the start of a regular audience that takes an active interest in what your site offers.

If you were in a bricks and mortar environment, you would want to in contact with those people. If you were running a club, you would at least want their addresses so you can send updates on club activities. Particularly if you were a business, you would certainly want to keep in touch with these 15 people. Why should it be different if you are running a website?

Getting access to everyone who ever visited your site is highly unlikely and if it were possible, might not benefit you. As we have suggested, those who arrived at your site by accident would probably think you were spamming them (sending unsolicited email) and probably not appreciate it. How though do you keep in contact with the visitors who would appreciate it?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Newsletters

No matter how good your content, your visitors’ attention might be drawn elsewhere and they might temporarily stop visiting your site. An email in an inbox can prove very difficult to ignore and can offer a gentle reminder that your site still exists.

Newsletters represent the lifeblood of many a website, and for some, become so popular they become the focus of revenue generation. For the uninitiated, newsletters are emails that provide text and graphics rather than just text. You have probably seen one along the way - the emails you receive that ask you to ‘Download Pictures’ are very probably newsletter type items.

Generally, newsletters provide a ‘taste’ of what is current on your website. The newsletter might provide the first few lines of an article or news item and then ask people to “Click here for more” and be taken to the full version of the article on the website if they are interested in it.

OK – great… but how do you get your visitors’ email addresses? This issue has to be handled well because people generally feel very sensitive about the way their email addresses are used.

First, create an ‘Opt In’ form on your site. This can either be part of elaborate advertising, or a simple little banner-sized item which requests people sign up for the newsletter by giving their name and email address.

Another way of generating email addresses is through email forms. Your site may have an email form that visitors use to contact you should they wish to order a product or express an opinion. At the bottom of the form (but in clear view) you can place a tick box which suggests “I would like to join the (your website name) mailing list and receive (current updates), etc.”

The courageous amongst us keeps the box ticked, meaning visitors have to “untick” the box NOT to be included in the mailing list. The cautious leave the box “unticked” so people have to make an effort to join. Either way, when you receive emails you must act on instructions and, either dynamically (using programming), or manually, add emails to your mailing list when requested to do so or not as the case may be.  

Once you have the emails, you are ready to send a newsletter. It is very important that the newsletter you send is NOT regarded as being spam. People may sign up for the newsletter and forget they have done so. Likewise, people may forget to untick a tick box at the foot of an email form. Either way, when they receive your newsletter, they might not appreciate it.

One of the best ways of managing this situation is to ensure people have the option to ‘unsubscribe’. This means they will be removed from the newsletter mailing list and not receive future editions. Make sure that you have a polite notice in a dominant position – something similar to this will suffice:

“If you have received this newsletter in error, or no longer wish to receive it, please click here to be removed from our mailing list”.

Most newsletter software will automatically remove an email from a database. If you are doing things manually it is your responsibility to ensure you receive a notification from people who want to be removed from your list and that you remove their email addresses.

Spamming is serious, even if unintentional. In some parts of the world it is a criminal offence, punishable with fines and prison. At a minimum, if someone thinks you are sending them spam, they can contact your ISP and ask your site be brought down. Most ISPs will comply with such requests without hesitation for fear of getting a bad reputation themselves.

People who have genuinely signed up for your newsletter will though get fed up if they start receiving it at times they did not expect. If this is a daily newsletter, make sure that people know that when they sign up. Likewise monthly, yearly or occasionally! Most importantly, have something to say. Make sure that your newsletter offers variety – receiving basically the same newsletter day after day or week after week can soon demote your newsletter to spam.

Certainly do not, under any circumstances, start adding emails you find along the way to your mailing list, regardless of whether you think people would appreciate it. People have lost their websites and livelihoods for doing so.

Although a lot of newsletters start life as an Outlook email, when a newsletter grows, webmasters need to transition to a more powerful and robust solution. For those with a server a number of programs can be used to send a newsletter. PHPList (http://www.phplist.com/) is an Open Source solution that people rave about. Being Open Source it is free. Likewise, there are countless commercial newsletter software solutions out there. You will have to plough through what is available and see what suits your purpose.

All ‘on site’ solutions though need managing – you need someone to install them and take care of them. If that person is not you then costs occur. Likewise, sending out thousands of newsletters can put massive strain on your server, and you might need to upgrade it at further cost. A possible alternative to this is a commercial newsletter service.

Online newsletter services are generally cost effective and hassle free. They take all the responsibility for sending your newsletter, freeing you to concentrate on core competencies. There are a number of good ones. YourMailingListProvider.com is a great one – I have used it for years. There are though several options and it is well worth doing a proper investigation to find out what is best for you.

2. Forums

To some, forums are the residue of the 1990s and strictly Web 1.0. To others, they are a way of life. To a sad few, they are life.

If you have not seen a forum, you must have been living under a rock. If that is the case, here it is - forums are basically pages where people can leave comments on topics of interest set up by a forum owner. If your website is about travel, your forum can offer topics such as “My best overseas adventure”, “Budget flights to the US”, or even “Carbon Offsetting”. People then leave comments on their opinions or experiences of the topic. For example, “I went to the US on Rockbottom Airways and it only cost $14” – that sort of thing. Most forums operate by allowing people to reply to other people’s comments and so discussions take place and your visitors start creating content for your website - a significant perk.

Some forums take over the websites they are part of; others fall flat on their faces. They can be difficult to get going depending on the topic. Many forum operators have a number of accounts where they simply add topics and comments to “talk” to themselves until someone takes the bait and starts a proper discussion. However, if they do take off, that can be a problem too. People can leave offensive comments that need removing and spam is a problem on forums, too – how often have you seen an advert for Viagra on a pet forum?

You need people to manage a forum. You will start by deleting unwanted listings and banning unwanted members who have broken the forums rules (make them public) yourself, but most forum software allows ‘moderators’ to do the same. Moderators are people who have permission to delete and ban people on certain forums and not others, or on all forums, as their permissions are granted by the website owner.

Why though is a forum important for someone trying to keep hold of a website audience? Well, aside from the obvious ‘stickiness’ of a forum, most forum software allows ‘Private Messages’, or ‘PMs’. This option allows members to contact other members. More importantly, it allows a forum operator to contact forum members. At sign up, forum members have to provide an email address that PMs are sent to. Although email addresses are not usually available to a forum operator, it is of little consequence – a PM gets the message to forum members, so you can advertise your latest promotions or let them know when the next club dinner is using this function.

One thing that is important to remember about forums is that people quickly generate a sense of ownership. PMs sent for advertising purposes might not be received well if not expected. Make sure that you explain exactly what you are going to do before people signup. Most forum software provides a sign up page where people have to tick a box to indicate they accept the terms and conditions of forum usage. Likewise, software usually allows webmasters to change the terms and conditions on the sign up page. Ensure that your terms and conditions state that you will at times send PMs to make members aware of current promotions, or the advertising of other websites or businesses if this is what you are planning. So long as it is very clear how you intend to operate your forum at the outset, people cannot really complain. They have a choice as to whether they join or not.

Again, there are a number of forum options. Popular commercial software includes VBulletin and Invision. Free Open Source offerings include phpBB. Many web hosts offer a forum solution as part of their packages. However, as with newsletters, forums need managing. They have to be installed, and someone needs to maintain them. Once again, if that is not you there are costs aside from often expensive license fees. A viable alterative then is online forums, which are often free (paid for by third-party advertising) or provided at a moderate cost. FreeForums.org, HostMyBB.com, and InVisionPlus.net are examples for free options. Again, there are many to choose from, and some offer the ability to move forum content to your own site if it a forum proves successful. Choose the one that meets your needs.

3. Mail Server Groups

In fact, Mail Server Groups is probably an old-fashioned term these days – I think most people just call them Google or Yahoo! groups these days, regardless of the fact other options are available. Like a forum, Mail Server groups are based around a particular topic or theme and attract people interested in that topic or theme. The difference is, rather than the asynchronous postings delivered to a forum, Mail Server groups are real time. When you make a comment to Mail Server group, it is delivered to the inbox of all of the group’s members. Replies are delivered to all group members too, prompting genuine, real time discussion.

Of course, the prospect of having a community discussing issues important to your site / business has obvious advantages. You can contact your users or customers and get immediate feedback on activities or initiatives. You might learn a few things important for the improvement of your business, but most of all, you will have access to those who have visited your site. The possibilities are endless, but for the purposes of our discussion, they certainly help you keep hold of your visitors.

4. Blogs

Blogs these days are ubiquitous. Very similar to forums, blogs provide interactive discussion. Like forums, your visitors will have to register for to join your blog, enabling you to keep track of your active visitors. WordPress is an Open Source (and therefore free) blog solution and recognized by some as a leader. However, as with the other solutions we mentioned, there are numerous free alternatives. Blogger.com (owned by Google) provides a very useable and highly customizable alternative to managing a blog yourself. Many highly respected and high profile companies have their blog here, so do not feel yours would be out of place on a free solution. You need simply provide a link to your free blog to get things rolling. Consider all options available to you first though WordPress.com offers an online version of its Open Source solution.

As we said at the outset, content is king, but webmasters these days have a number of tools to help them keep hold of their audience. However, the options are not just restricted to those outlined above. Consider all aspects of Web 2.0. Social networking sites like Facebook, Live.com, MySpace, and even YouTube could also prove to be the solutions you need for your particular situation. Be creative, and keeping hold of you audience using noninvasive and respectful approaches means you visitors will come back to your site time and time again!

John Hughes - Web Editor for HostSearch.com


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