Developing content in today's user-generated media world is easy; marketing that content successfully is not. Numerous bloggers and site owners regularly ask me to explain how they can drive traffic to their sites in order to support their monetization goals. After all, quality content (or a unique product) leads to traffic, traffic leads to branding, and the combination of branding and reach leads to monetization. I respond to these entrepreneurs by telling them that their priority should be to understand and utilize social media strategies and tools, all of which can be easily accessed and are free except for the investment of their time.
Below is a "cheat sheet" of the five most impactful and immediate do-it-yourself actions you can take to increase your site's traffic.
Access and empower your target audience within social communities
Social media is not as intimidating or complicated as it sounds. Simply start out by setting up your complete profile within various online and mobile communities, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, Seesmic, YouTube, Meetup, Naymz, etc. Don't worry -- registering is free and easy. Then look for your friends and existing readers or users (more on this below) by searching for certain keyword topics, groups, affinities, etc., or by looking at the connections one or two degrees of separation removed from you.
Also, browse around for like-minded influencers -- the people frequently starting conversations, writing product reviews, contributing their own posts, uploading videos, answering questions, or moderating the community.
Now, befriend these influencers and people you admire, and even consider inviting them as contributors or columnists on your site. For example, one female blogger I invited to be an early contributor to DivineCaroline was so honored that she added "writing at DivineCaroline.com" under her name in her standard email signature.
Keep in mind that using social media for marketing purposes must go beyond simply "collecting" a large amount of friends or connections. You need to connect with community members in a genuine way, by giving them feedback about their profile, sharing some content they might appreciate, or nominating them for an award. If you don't have content to promote, you could consider launching a new product or making an exclusive offer to members of a specific community.
A friend of mine whose videos are frequently featured on YouTube told me, "I find exposure on YouTube to be an invaluable, free marketing tool that gives me credibility among cool, online influencers. I'm able to see who has voluntarily voted on the quality of my videos and then reach out to them."
Twitter is a free, simple and effective tool for increasing your exposure, establishing a voice, and keeping tabs on conversation about your site, content, or brand. It's not a fad you can afford to write off; last month, Twitter's user base grew more than 33 percent to more than 8 million users in the U.S. The majority of publishers and businesses using Twitter have said the benefits of tweeting include keeping their brand in the public eye, humanizing them to readers on a daily basis, and building a stronger sense of community.
Even a traditional brand like BusinessWeek is sharing, connecting, and learning via this micro-blogging community. John Byrne, the magazine's editor-in-chief, solicits questions from his audience of 10,000 followers, points out newsworthy articles around the web, and highlights stories from the BusinessWeek website without coming across as too pushy.
Through Twitter Tracker, you can see a real-time listing of some of the most popular media, entertainment, and consumer product feeds. Twitter is only one community out of a handful you need to participate in, so I won't go into detail within this article. Rather, read these 10 tools for getting started using Twitter.
Leverage your existing user base
Encouraging your current readers or users to promote your site is the cheapest and most efficient way to acquire new visitors. First, take the time and effort to understand who your most loyal users are. Determine this by researching who regularly comments on your content, links to your site, or forwards your enewsletter most often.
Second, communicate with these users by doing things such as showing gratitude for their participation, asking their opinion, and replying to their comments or posts. I know a blogger that every week writes one post profiling a particular reader whose comments she appreciates. Not only does this reader become more involved and loyal, he is also likely to tell his friends to check out the post written about him. Now you can see how connecting personally with these users -- and boosting their egos -- will encourage them to talk about your interaction or your content with their friends and peers.
Third, show respect for their interests by asking for feedback about your site: What do they like most? In which section do they spend the majority of their time? What do they want to see more of? Implementing even small, creative tweaks to your site or content can result in a traffic upswing for the long-term.
Lastly, after you've communicated with and empowered your most active user base, find out where they came from and where they visit next on the web. This is called upstream traffic (the sites they visited before they came to yours) and downstream traffic (the sites they visit after yours). Companies like comScore and HitWise provide this information. Quantcast, a free service, also shows sites that your audience is likely to visit. As an example, Fast Company readers are likely to also visit USNews.com and DIYForums.net. Reviewing the sites listed and any emerging patterns can help you learn more about your audience's interests, suggest promising new content areas, and point out possible partners.
Syndicate and execute link exchanges with relevant publishers
In today's Web 2.0 era and going forward, the sad reality is that very few large media companies will pay to license your content, no matter how awesome you think it is. Does this mean that you should hoard your content? No. Just the opposite: Syndicating content or widgets for free to other publishers and distributors is a great way to establish authority for your brand, and increase exposure and traffic for your site.
I caution you, however. From my years in business development, the most important thing I've learned about collaborating is that every partnership must be a win-win for both parties involved. So when you share your content, you need to confirm a fair barter exchange: You'll give content only if they'll include your byline, logo, and a hyperlink back to your site. To view examples, check out how Huffington Post displays partial articles from DivineCaroline and how MSN features technology articles from PC World.
Another opportunity with partners who have an audience you crave is to agree to do a link exchange with them. This approach -- in which you write about and link to a piece of content on their site and they do the same for you -- requires little effort and has the potential to drive decent traffic, depending on the size of the partner's audience and the relevancy of your content to what that audience is reading. This approach shouldn't take up a large percentage of your time, so be sure not to waste too many hours contacting publishers with small audiences or giving more links than you get back in return. Two easy ways to execute a link exchange include creating a "best of" categorized list, like ReadyMade does, or creating a weekly round-up article with a particular theme, such as Lemondrop's weekly Link Love.
Get exposure on social news sites
Social news publications and aggregators enable people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web. These sites, such as Digg, StumbleUpon, Fark, Yahoo! Buzz, and delicious, promote the best content as submitted and voted on by the community. When you contribute an article, image, or video, your submission will immediately be added into the mix, where other members can find it, access your site to read it, and vote for it. Once something has earned a critical mass of votes, it becomes worthy of appearing on the site's homepage, which is the traffic driver you're aiming for. Since you'll have to compete with some of the nation's leading content providers, you need to be strategic about which pieces of content you select to submit (they need to be unique and memorable) and which are most appropriate for a particular site's audience (for example, Digg and Fark cater to more males than females).
There are several simple ways to package and market your content for success on these sites: write strong, bold story titles; use subheads within a story; organize bites of information into lists (i.e. "Top 10 ways to avoid a layoff"); offer new details on a popular topic (i.e. wacky info that makes you a hit at a dinner party); vote for great content, not just your own; and submit your stories regularly and frequently. Don't forget to build a network on these sites -- invite your friends, find related authors, and add them to your friends list so that you can collectively find news together.
Create tools for users to share your product or content
What good is your content if readers don't know how to share or reference it? You need to add "take action" tools on all your article or video pages, such as print, subscribe to a feed, bookmark, share (email), etc. AddThis offers a free tool that enables users to easily share your content with social news sites. For example, when a reader wants to indicate he likes an article on NewScientist.com, he can scroll over the "share" button and select Digg.
Then he either registers or signs in as a Digg member, and can instantly vote for that article, thereby increasing the article popularity and promotional exposure.
Another free tool for exposing your digital content is a widget. You've probably heard the term, but you're too embarrassed to ask what a widget is and does. Basically, it's a compact, portable application that can be easily embedded into someone else's site or blog. You can use this format to showcase your site's headlines, features, images, or whatever you think will motivate a user to click through. I suggest asking a question, taking a poll, or somehow getting the user to enter information so that they feel more connected to your brand on a personal level. The Weather Channel's widget does this well -- users insert their zip code, and with one click of a button the local forecast appears. Products like Snap Shots and Widgetbox help you build, customize, distribute, and track your own widget.
Allison, who founded the Mrs. Fussypants blog, is a prime example of a content creator who used multiple social media tools and tactics to grow her audience. "I knew early on that I had to be proactive and that I needed something to offer my regular readers to spread the word. So I used Widgetbox, and also asked my readers to subscribe via RSS, favorite my site on Technorati, and write a blog post about me. One reader joked that soon I would ask them to name their next child after me. But all of these efforts have increased my traffic."
In addition, Allison received so many requests from bloggers to be featured on her site that she decided to create an e-zine, called Blissfully Domestic, with each category written and managed by a specific woman.
Through friends, fans, partners, and free tools, you now have the education (and zero excuses) to greatly benefit from social media.