Updated January, 2011
What good is a campaign if no one knows about it? Inadequate promotion is a painfully common problem in the online world — rarely can you hide your light under a bushel and expect your site to shine. Let’s look first at the basics of getting attention, then we’ll look at how to keep those readers once you get them.
Be A Resource
The first step in self-promotion is to be worth promoting: content that is both broad and deep is vital to attracting readers from every source — rich content tends to yield more search engine traffic, more links from other sites and more repeat visits from people who have found you. I’ve beaten this into the ground before, but you’re more likely to get readers if your site is relevant, easy to navigate and regularly updated.
Have you heard of the concept of the Long Tail? Introduced by Chris Anderson of Wired, the Long Tail is the idea that in a sea of sites, a handful get massively more traffic than all the others, but those also-rans get much more traffic as a whole than the big few (the Long Tail is the looooong list of sites trailing off from the leaders on a chart of overall traffic).
True internally for Amazon and other retailers, who make more money in total from books that sell two or three copies a day than from bestsellers, it’s also true for broader resources on the internet. The online audience naturally fragments in a small number of very popular topics and a much, much larger number of niche topics.
Why does this matter to you? One of the most important things a site can do is to be significant within a given segment in the tail. Be a valuable resource, make yourself easy to find, and people interested in your topic will find you.
The Basics of Self-Promotion
Okay, poof, we’re a valuable resource, so let’s start telling the world. First, submit your site to Google, Yahoo, Bing and the other MSN sites and the also-ran search engines. They’ll probably find you anyway in the long run, but why not make it easy on them? [Note: we’ll talk about getting good search engine placement below.]
Don’t stop with one round of submissions. When you add a new content section (“Why Blue Fizzies Hate America”), make sure that you submit the section’s front page to Google — it’ll show up much sooner that way . The other search engines seem to update more slowly, so I’m not sure how much it helps to let Yahoo or Bing know about a particular content section, but if you have the time, it can’t hurt.
Next, how visible are you beyond the search engines? Are you mentioned on the relevant pages on the web that cover your topic? Not link farms or link-spammers (sites that link to massive numbers of other sites in an attempt to spoof search engines), but actual substantive sites about your subject. If not, it’s time to go through the tedious and time-consuming task of tracking them down and letting them know about you. It’s as simple and as annoying, once you’ve done it about a hundred times, as finding the email of the site editor and sending a short and polite note to let him or her know about your great new set of resources about the Blue Fizzie Menance.
Not everyone will answer you (many, many sites are no longer kept up, and some actively-maintained sites are run by big fat jerks), but if your content is worthwhile, you should gradually build up links. Links obviously help your traffic directly, and as we’ll discuss in the section on search engine optimization, they’ll help you with visibility in search results as well. Don’t forget reference sites — are you listed in the Open Directory and in any relevant Wikipedia articles?
And of course, social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are potentially rich sources of website traffic and public attention — in fact, so many people have come to use YouTube as an information source that the site has effectively become the most popular search engine in the U.S., after Google. Fill those profiles with content and keep them current!
Are you leveraging your other resources? Never, ever, ever let a piece of paper leave your office without a URL on it SOMEWHERE. Not a business card, not a newspaper ad, not a “fact” sheet, not a direct mail piece, nothing (unless you’re trying to maintain plausible deniability, and that’s naughty). This is sometimes a tough one to beat into your colleagues’ heads, but every communication is a chance to promote your online presence. If you’re spending money and/or time to promote your ideas in the offline world, don’t miss the opportunity to give people a chance to go online to learn more about them.
Getting More Aggressive
Okay, we’re done with the passive stuff — let’s start bugging people. Press releases are a classic way to get the word out, but make sure you always have your URL in them. Besides going directly to journalists, press releases that go out through a distribution source like P.R. Newswire or PRWeb also show up in Google News, Yahoo News and other content aggregating sites. The profliferation of online journalism (blogs and newsletters) creates a huge demand for content, and you never know where your story will show up. When I was running Political Information.com (no longer active, and now preserved by a museum!), our press releases generated some attention in traditional news outlets but got great coverage in niche newsletters.
You can also reach out directly to journalists and pitch stories, but you’ll generally want to work with a press or P.R. expert so that you don’t make the kind of mistakes that alienate reporters. Again, you’ll probably have better luck with niche publications than with newspaper or broadcast journalists. Don’t forget podcasts and regular online video shows! They’re likely to reach an audience that’s passionately interested.
A classic way to reach a new audience is to position yourself as an expert (hello, e.politics!) and pitch stories to sites that cover your subject (hello, next step in my self-promotion process!). Newspaper op-eds and how-to or opinion pieces in online magazines put your campaign’s name in front of an audience that other people have spent THEIR time building. Make sure you get a link!
Special Tactics for Bloggers
Building an audience for your blog deserves a special section. Blogs can benefit from most of the tactics described above, but they also have access to tools that other sites can’t use as well.
Blogs are part of an online political discussion, and a good way to build your audience is to participate in that conversation. Linking to other sites and other discussions can build your traffic — trackbacks let you comment on posts on other blogs so that your content can reach that blog’s author. Also, bloggers are usually passionate about being read, and they’ll generally pay attention to the sites that are linking to them (which they can also find by searching for links to their URL on Technorati or Google’s blog search. It sounds simple, but it also seems to be what works. With Epolitics.com, I’ll be trying it out — I’ll let you know about the results. [Note: pretty damn good so far!]
Building an Audience/Keeping Traffic
One of the biggest problems with site marketing is that even when you can convince people to come to your site, most readers rarely come back. Increasing your retention rate is an obvious way to get your page hit count up.
Sites encourage return visits in two basic ways: by enticing people to return and by periodically smacking them in the face with words and pictures.
Show that you have updated content
If your content is old and doesn’t look as though it’s regularly updated, why would a casual reader come back? Make it obvious that your site IS regularly updated — put a What’s New section on your front page (and perhaps in the navigation on every page), use dates on pages, and highlight recent content as much as possible. For more on keeping sites up to date, see the section on using websites as a political tool.
Use columns and regularly-appearing features
Regular columns or features can hook readers — that’s why newspapers generally run op-ed columnists on predictable days. Your site might have a weekly feature on the ridiculous things your enemies are up to (Wednesday Wackos) or on a particular topic area (Tech Tuesdays, a la the Kojo Nnamde show).
As I discussed in the section on building and maintaining email lists, make it easy for people to sign up for updates. If you’re building an activist list, you’ll be doing this as a matter of course, but even issue sites and blogs can have an email list for telling readers about new articles. See the email list section for details, tactics and caveats.
RSS is another no-brainer, since subscribers to your feed will see links to new articles as they’re posted. It’s also essential for promoting podcasts.
Mobilize the Masses
Why tell your own story when someone else will do it for you? As we’ve discussed a couple of times before, your supporters themselves may be your best promotional agents, so encourage them to spread the word within the online (and offline) channels they use regularly.
Building an online community can be a good way to turn casual visitors into those passionate fans and supporters. Your email list is community at a basic level, since people do tend to identify with sites that send them information frequently (bitter as I am, I have a soft spot for several sites that have been sending me newsletters for years, even though I rarely read them) or for campaigns under whose auspices they’ve sent email or faxes to Congress or other decision-makers.
The next step, and a natural one for blogs, is to get readers involved in the process of creating content for the site by leaving comments on pages. On some blogs, the comments have become more valuable than the original articles. Big media outlets are definitely realizing the value of comments, and community-building is a major reason that the Washington Post and other major media sites have rolled out comment features for most or all of news stories, and some have even implemented social network-style features for readers.
For many organizations, a Facebook page can be a great way to assemble an online community, since people will naturally enter into conversations as they leave comments on links and status updates that you post. This kind of interaction also helps ensure that they see your content in the future, since comments and “Likes” on your page elevate your posts in your fans’ news feeds, and of course engaged supporters are also more likely to forward your action alerts or other posts to their friends and help spread the word that way.
Taking the idea of citizen involvement farther, campaigns can encourage readers and supporters to create content such as images or videos. See the section on social media for more.