If you’ve decided to jump into online publishing — putting out an online newsletter, magazine or other content that will interest your business’s customers — you may think that designing your website is your biggest challenge. But that’s the easy part. Much trickier is gathering an audience that will sustain the publication. Here are some tips on building a loyal audience for your site.

Start where you are
The Internet is a surprisingly personal place. A thousand people, each with unique personal interests, can spend the same 60 minutes online together and never come close to crossing paths. It follows that the key to Web publishing success is forging a lasting personal connection with people based on your own skills, interests and contacts. In other words, the best place to start is with the connections you already have online. Then use those connections to build a community of like-minded people and keep expanding from there.

Your own interests and expertise are your strengths as a publisher. Study the information that is already available in your niche, looking for gaps you can fill. Then, fill the gaps with valuable information nobody else provides.

Your goal should be to create unique, valuable information that meets the needs of your targeted audience. On the Internet, there are many ways to provide that information that aren’t available to print publishers — for example, you can offer searchable, interactive databases and encyclopedias.

One online publisher, for example, is creating an online publication about his passion, electric vehicles (EVs). In his spare time (he’s a magazine editor), he’s been using his skills as a journalist to study the EV market, scoping out who the players are, what they have to say and how the industry is developing. He also travels to auto shows to test drive new cars, combs the Internet for information about EVs, and studies the technical literature about EV engineering and design. Now, using all of the connections he has developed and the information he has gathered, he is ready to launch EV World online (http://www.evworld.com).

Work your niche
Get to know the online habits of your prospective audience. What other sites are they likely to visit? Make a list and try to develop a relationship with each one. There are a variety of ways to do this. Your best options include offering to write articles (informative and not self-serving) for other sites, or posting messages with your Web address on their bulletin boards. Trade links and ads with other sites in your field, and if you can afford it, buy classified ads at related sites.

One web publisher doubled her traffic by spending two months (and a small amount of advertising money) working through all the sites in her niche in this way. Another got similar results by hiring and supervising a Net-savvy high school student.

Don’t neglect offline ways to publicize your website. Send press releases and emails about interesting features on your site to print as well as online media in your niche. List your Web address wherever you also list yourself — business directories, professional associations, and chambers of commerce. Speak at trade shows or conventions.

Example Gail Egbert publishes a quarterly magazine called The Needleworker and also has a website (http://www.needleworker.com). Gail travels to half a dozen regional craft fairs every year and has become quite a celebrity at them. Most of her print subscriptions have come from these fairs, which also generate lots of Web traffic for her. Her Web visitors buy subscriptions and back issues, generating enough money to cover all of Gail’s online expenses. The small advertising revenue from her site is pure profit for Gail.

Work the search engines
Lots of people will find — or not find — your site by using online search engines, where they type in the words they’re searching for. You need to do a little work to make sure your site will turn up when a potential reader conducts a search. Here are three good places to go for tips on making your site stand out to search engines.

  • SEARCH ENGINE WATCH
    (http://www.searchenginewatch.com) is an online newsletter that offers comprehensive, practical tips about making a site that search engines can find. There are also some good links for Webmasters here.
  • THE WEB MARKETING INFORMATION CENTER
    (http://www.wilsonWeb.com) has several articles including one called A Web Marketing Checklist: 23 Ways to Promote Your Site by Ralph Wilson.
  • THE TRAFFIC TRIBUNE
    (http://www.submit-it.com) is a newsletter covering the search engines and how to make a hit with them.

Use banner exchanges
An organized program of exchanging banner ads is a way for sites with modest traffic to break into an ad revenue business. Banner exchange programs work like this: You join an advertisers’ group, called an exchange, and trade banners on your site with other exchange members. You can specify where you want to run your banners, and the exchange takes care of all the bookkeeping. Members get detailed reports about when and where their ads were run so that they can measure their effectiveness. Each member makes available slightly more ad space than they use themselves, with the exchange selling the excess inventory for a small fee to other advertisers. That’s how the exchanges make enough money to cover their operating expenses.

One of the biggest and best exchanges is Link Exchange (http://www.linkexchange.com), which has hundreds of thousands of members. There’s no minimum or maximum size for participating sites, so everybody from big corporate sites to personal home pages can get involved. The participating sites are broken up into thousands of categories and subcategories so advertisers can target their banners. Since so many sites belong to Link Exchange, it’s a good bet that you’ll find the ones you want to trade with through them. But if not, search Yahoo! for the key words “banner exchange” and you’ll find more than 50 of them. Exchanges are free to join and use, making them a risk-free and sensible way to go.

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