From the December 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Here's the bad news: Search engine Inktomi recently surveyed the Web and counted a mind-numbing 1 billion Web pages. Wow. Just a decade ago, the Web didn't exist. And even five years ago, it was just a playpen for supernerds. No more. Now every business needs a Web site-but just because you build it doesn't mean a soul will ever visit. "Putting up a Web site can be like opening a store in a back alley," says Jim Datovech, president of Gaithersburg, Maryland-based IT consulting firm Operon Partners. "You've got to work to win visitors."

What's more, traditional marketing campaigns don't necessarily produce results for Web sites, warns Mark DiMassimo, president and creative director of DiMassimo Brand Advertising, a New York City-based agency that handles many dotcom clients. A case in point: "Generally, television advertising for dotcoms has been very ineffective," says DiMassimo, whose agency surveyed consumers and discovered that only 6 percent of heavy Web users said they had ever visited a site due to a TV ad.

"Put your dollars where your customers will be," urges DiMassimo. Seem basic? Not to the dotcom companies that plunked down tens of millions of dollars to buy Super Bowl ads. "Having money is no excuse for spending like a drunken sailor," says DiMassimo, who adds that the critical test always has to be, Will my potential customers see the material?

Baiting Your Hook

What works in luring visitors to a site? Although heavily funded Internet companies can make seven- and eight-figure deals to buy prime advertising real estate on major Internet portals and online services like Yahoo! and AOL, you're likely priced out of that race. So winning visitors becomes a matter of creative, persistent marketing. The good news is that it's still the little things that will bring plenty of traffic your way.

For instance? "Always put your URL on letterhead, business cards, in e-mail signatures-wherever potential visitors are likely to see it," says Datovech.

Another low-cost traffic builder: "Get active in online discussion groups and chats, and, where appropriate, always give out your URL," says Shannon Kinnard, author of Marketing With E-mail: A Spam-Free Guide (Maximum Press). Sell bird toys? Scout out the many groups that focus on birds-a good place to find them is at Deja.com, a site that archives discussion lists-and get active. That will spread the word about you and your site.

Posting items for sale on major auction sites such as Amazon.com, eBay and Yahoo! is another big-time traffic builder for any Web site that retails. Those sites let you identify yourself to viewers, and a few dollars spent on putting out merchandise for bid might just bring in lots of traffic from surfers seeking more information.

Classified ads offer more possibilities for traffic generation on the cheap. Check out both Excite and Yahoo!. Classifieds are free there, and viewership is high.

When it comes to off-line advertising, expert opinion is mixed. Some pros advocate big spends on traditional media, while others tell you to fish where the fish are, which means advertising online to promote an online store. One idea is to incorporate your URL prominently into offline advertising for offline products or services, but not to launch an offline campaign for an online-only property. When money is tight, go where you know you'll find surfers.

A Direct Approach

For many businesses, using good ol' e-mail may be the surest-and is certainly the cheapest-way to build traffic to their sites. "E-mail still gets results," says Hans Peter Brondmo, chair of PostCommunications.com, a San Francisco-based e-mail marketing firm that numbers Palm Computing, Victoria's Secret and Wells Fargo among its clients.

One key to making e-mail effective: Use "opt-in" sign-ups, where Web site visitors are asked to indicate whether they want to receive e-mail from you. How to get sign-ups? "Offer a free monthly newsletter," says Kinnard. "The key is to give really good information."

Effective newsletters usually mix news about trends in your field with tips and updates on sales or special pricing. Another key: Include hyperlinks so interested readers can, with a single mouse click, go directly to your site and find out more about specific topics of interest.

Once your marketing efforts start attracting surfers, and then customers, to your new business, you'll need to find out exactly who's buying your products or services. Getting to know your market will help you chart the direction of your new dotcom business.

Know Thy Customer

If there's a first commandment of doing business, that's it. Knowing customers is easy in a brick-and-mortar store. Talk to them, size up their clothing, hear how they form sentences. A traditional storefront owner knows a lot about who's stopping in, but how do companies on the Web know their customers when all they amount to are wispy cybervisitors?

The good news: Every Web site visitor leaves a trail that, when properly analyzed, will tell you the country of origin, browser and platform used (such as Windows 98), Internet service provider and more. This data is collected by Web hosting services in a "Log" file, but only hard-core techies could ever have the patience to scroll through a log, because it contains a mind-numbing avalanche of details. Your Web hosting service probably provides-free of charge-a basic analysis of those logs. If so, the company will run the log through interpretive software and tuck the output in a folder that's usually called "Stats."

Better analysis is easy to come by using third-party software tools designed to dissect log reports and automatically produce spiffy, usable reports that will tell you not only which countries are producing visitors but also those visitors' ISPs and more. Top choices among analysis tools include:

  • WebTrends Log Analyzer: This program offers a cool tool set, including a "geographical profiling" tool that allows for tracking visitors' specific cities of origin. Get a trial download from www.webtrends.com. Cost: $399 (all prices street).
  • HitList Professional: You can get some 40 types of reports in a few mouse clicks. It's a full-featured, fast and easy-to-use tool. Get a trial version at www.marketwave.com. Cost: $395.

Before deciding to buy, ask yourself whether you really need the level of analysis being offered. Many low-traffic sites don't, and, for them, the free files provided by their servers may be sufficient. When traffic increases to more than 100 visitors per day, you probably need more fine-tuned analysis, and it's time to buy a more sophisticated tool-but not before then.

Getting to Know You

Logs provide a step toward knowing your customer, but more can be done:

Survey says: In this morning's e-mail, I got a discount coupon from Amazon . . . with a string attached. If I answered a half-dozen multiple-choice questions, I would earn a $15 credit good on any electronics item sold by the company. Through highly specific questions about competitors and Amazon's own product offerings, prices and service, Amazon picks up valuable insight into the thinking of customers and competition. Why aren't you doing likewise?

Don't wait to put a survey on your site-do it as soon as your site is up and running. Keep it short and offer a tangible reward. Choose, say, 10 or 100 customers. Then-and this is crucial-read every answer that comes in. If you want to find ways to run your business better, look at it the way customers do.

Mail time: Read and respond to as much customer e-mail as possible, because it too opens a real window on customers and their motivations. Sure, for every customer who has good things to say about you, nine will write with complaints, but read it, absorb it and stay alert to trends. If one person complains about your packaging materials, it's no big deal. If 10 do and you only sent out 12 orders last week, you have a problem-but the great thing is that now you also have the opportunity to fix it.

Private Eyes

Keeping Customer Information Private

Now that you're excited about gathering information on your customers, know this: It all has to be done gently, respectfully and cautiously. Web site snooping is a very sensitive topic these days-and odds are, sensitivities will only increase as more users realize exactly how detailed a trail they leave behind when visiting Web sites.

But there is a remedy, one that lets you gather the information you need while also reassuring visitors. It's simple: Develop a privacy policy, and post it on your site. Be clear, simple and direct. A good strategy is to say: "We never sell information that we collect about you to anybody." And if you offer visitors free sign-up to e-mail newsletters or sales notices, be quick to remove anybody who asks to be taken off your list of recipients-preferably on the very day you receive the request.

In You They'll Trust

In an era when "knowing thy customer" is seen as the path to riches, it's hard to resist collecting the vast stores of customer data that tumble into your lap when you create a Web site. Know where a visitor has been before-what sites he or she has visited earlier in the same Inter-net session, for instance-and an alert marketer can use that insight into the surfer's interests to tweak the site's offerings so they more closely match what the surfer wants.

For dotcom entrepreneurs, that means don't screw up, and you'll gain visitors' trust. And once they trust you, they will buy from you.

Bowled Over

Turned on by pink, retro bowling shirts? How about bowling jackets and T-shirts? In 1998, Tucson, Arizona, entrepreneur Gary Forrester, 47, thought there were enough bowling fanatics out there to make a success of Bowling Connection, where almost everything a bowler craves is on sale. So far, he's been proved right.

Entrepreneur: How do you promote the site?

Gary Forrester: There's a helpful site called Selfpromotion.com that makes it easy to list your site with all the search engines. We also promoted Bowling Connection by passing out fliers at bowling tournaments.

Another way we promote on an ongoing basis is by putting items up for auction on eBay. It's not only another source of income, it also drives people right to your Web site to order more of your products. And it's only 25 cents to list each item. This has probably been the most cost-effective advertising I've ever seen.

Super Mom

It's amazing, the opportunities that still exist on the Web. Ask Maria Bailey, 36. A onetime marketing executive with AutoNation USA, she launched BlueSuitMom.com in Pompano Beach, Florida, on Mother's Day 2000 with the aim of meeting the needs of executive working moms. Her take on the Net was that there were sites geared for working moms in general but none aimed specifically at executives who also happen to be moms. So she decided to build one. BlueSuitMom.com offers opportunities for networking, news geared for executive moms and tips on topics such as time management.

Entrepreneur: How do you promote the business?

Maria Bailey: We promote our business mainly by creating strategic partnerships. For instance, we have a partnership with Stork Avenue, the largest retailer of birth announcements. They were willing to put our logo on 15 million catalogs in exchange for driving traffic to their site. We also rely on the strong word-of-mouth network moms and businesswomen create, and networking within women's professional organizations, human resources departments and parenting organizations. In addition, we sponsor events such as parenting conferences, and distribute our content to other Web sites to build brand recognition. We've been very lucky in creating great press.

What unique advantages do you have vis-à-vis other Web sites?

We felt the best advantage we could have was to be the first to market-and we were. Being the first site aimed at executive working mothers has allowed us to create all the great press we've received.

What's been your biggest surprise in building this business and your biggest disappointment?

The biggest surprise has been how quickly the site and idea have grown. The response we've gotten from other Internet companies, offline retailers, marketers and associations has been overwhelming. We can't keep up with the people who want to do business with us.

The biggest disappointment, or the biggest surprise I didn't anticipate, was I never thought raising money would take so much time out of each day. It's a constant "chicken or the egg" game when you're juggling raising money, hiring good talent and getting the product to market.