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How to Make Your Visitors Come Back

Imagine a bath, a nice old-fashioned marble tub with brass taps that are just the littlest bit too shiny to be truly tasteful. Now imagine that you open the tap, sending a steady stream of water cascading into the bath. You wander away to drink a cup of coffee while the bath fills, humming tuneless nothings under your breath. You return, eager to wield a loofah, to find the bath EMPTY!! Next time, you really will remember to put the plug in...

What is valid for baths is equally valid for your website. It is all very well generating a steady stream of visitors to your site, but it is a hollow victory if nothing compels them to stay -- or to come back.

Community vs Transience

If your site received 5,000 visitors last month, which scenario is more preferable: 5,000 visitors coming to your site once, or 1,000 visitors returning to your site five times each?

I'd take the 1,000 visitor scenario any time! While it is always good to expose your site to the widest audience, in the long term the only way to get ahead is to keep your existing visitors coming back, and to build a sense of community around your site.

Regular visitors are almost infinitely more likely to recommend your site to their friends and colleagues; if you are selling something, it is your regulars who are really going to set your sales figures jumping...

The Uphill Battle

It is a daunting prospect indeed to grow your traffic without bringing your visitors back. Imagine that you have set yourself a target of 10% monthly growth in traffic. If none of your visitors come back, you're going to have to find more and more visitors every month -- in the end, you'll be defeated!

A quick look at some figures illustrates this point. Imagine your site had 5,000 visitors last month, and you want traffic to grow at 10% per month... then over 12 months, your situtation could look like this:-

Visitors/ month New visitors needed (No visitors return) New visitors needed (1/3 of visitors return)
Start: 5,000 -- --
5,500 5,500 3,833
6,050 6,050 4,217
6,655 6,655 4,638
7,321 7,321 5,102
8,053 8,053 5,612
8,858 8,858 6,174
9,744 9,744 6,791
10,718 10,718 7,470
11,790 11,790 8,217
12,969 12,969 9,039
14,266 14,266 9,943

As you can see from the above, it is a much more manageable proposition growing traffic for a site when existing visitors come back...

Building Community

There are many ways to build a community around your site, and we will look closely at some of these later in the course. A brief, and non-exhaustive list follows:-

A) Currency: We're not talking dollars and pounds, but about the need to keep the information on your site as up to date as possible. I have experienced first-hand the vertiginous drop in visits that accompanies stale information, and it is not a pleasant sight when you are checking your traffic logs. The trick is to set a target that you are comfortable with, and then meet that target. For instance, if you have the time to update your site only every 2 weeks, then make that crystal clear from the start. Regular visitors will thank you for saving them the effort in checking back with your site every day, only to find nothing has changed.

The URL-MINDER by NetMind can help you to let people know when your page has been updated. By signing up for the service at their site, and then adding a little bit of HTML code to your own site, your visitors can automatically be sent email whenever you update your pages. Saves you a lot of work!

B) Mailing lists: One of the key ways to build community around your site is to start a mailing list to keep on winning "mind-space" from your regular visitors. What can you put in the mailings? Anything really... news about your field of interest, helpful tips about things, discussions or anything you can dream up. It is vital that you make your mailing list "opt-in": you only mail people who have explicitly asked to be put on the mailing list. And don't forget to make it easy for people to unsubscribe as well. We'll be going into great detail about how tt up and run mailing lists later in the course.

C) Bulletin boards: You can set up a discussion board for visitors to exchange ideas and information. There are loads of bulletin board programs out there, but one stands head and shoulders above the crowd: the aptly-named "Ultimate Bulletin Board" from Prime Web. This will run on most servers running UNIX -- just check with your web hosting company for details. There is a freeware version available, or you can buy a license for the latest version for $35 for non-commercial use or $130 for commercial use -- money well spent in my view!

D) Comprehensiveness: If you can make the information on your site so complete that it effectively becomes the "bible" for whatever subject your site deals with, people will come back to your site again and again to keep on checking that information.

E) Word of mouth: Encourage your visitors to tell their friends about your site. While a simply-worded message will do ["Please be sure to tell your friends about this site"], you can smooth the process for them by signing up with a service such as Recommend-It.com

What does Recommend-It do? It's a simple idea, but a very effective one. You can specify a paragraph or two describing your site's best features. When your visitors click on the Recommend-It button, they can specify a friend's email address and then type a personal message. The service will automatically add the site description and URL you supplied and send off the email. That way, you can harness your visitors' willingness to tell others about your site, while at the same time controlling what they say about it.

You can try the service for yourself here. Just click on the link, supply a friend's email address and type in your message. They will see the following text: "PR2 is a free course in website promotion, tailored to the needs of small business and personal sites. Learn to promote your site simply, progressively and effectively."

Do You Like This Website?
Click here to Recommend-It (tm) to a Friend or Colleague!

F) Content partnerships: Many sites are willing to "give" away free content that you can incorporate into your own site. Usually the price you pay is a link or banner advertisement to the site offering the content, or maybe the content will lead people off your site. Nevertheless, entering a "content partnership" can be a great way of offering a little sizzle along with your steak. One example of a content partnership is a search form that enables your visitors to search the Web for sites and information about a particular topic (usually, you would tailor the search so that it is keyed to the same topic as your site). If you want to find some search engine boxes to put on your site, my own SearchEngines.Net site has many to choose from...

G) Email response: It is crucial that you make an attempt to respond to most, if not all email. My rule of thumb is to respond to all mail with suggestions or comments, but to ignore mail that shows the writer has clearly not even looked at your site or your Frequently Asked Questions list (if you have one). I also ignore any email connected to MLM or pyramid marketing, and any mail promising me I will get rich quick if I follow the enclosed advice.

The response you send to any email doesn't have to be much -- a couple of lines will do -- but it shows that someone actually read your message. The WORST thing you can do is automatically send a reply saying "Sorry, but we can't respond to individual email"... give me silence any day over such an impersonal response!

I hope that this feature will help you take the first steps towards building a community around your site, rather than simply a restroom on the infohighway.

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