Our recommendation

Our recommendation? We’re split between “don’t even think about trying this” and what may be a more pragmatic approach. If you’re trying to launch a site with a very small target market, it seems perfectly acceptable to send email to people who may be able to help you find similar sites.

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You’ll have to use your own judgement on this one, and keep in mind that Internet users are very sensitive about this subject, and for good reason. Everyone receives unsolicited email, and it’s extremely annoying. If nothing else, this story should show you how a small, dedicated core group can be leveraged to create a much larger audience.

One final warning! Website operators who send unsolicited email risk more than their reputation. Nearly all ISPs and hosting companies include a prohibition against unsolicited email (also called SPAM), and sending out SPAM can cause your account to be terminated without notice. For more information, see “A Warning About Netiquette” in the Marketing section of this site.

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New method

Now, here are the results: 141 of the 200 recipients visited the site, all opting to receive further email. 51 more opted to correspond by email alone, and many of those who visited the site also sent email. The email received was very complementary, and no one complained about receiving the solicitation. Those who responded provided leads on dozens of smaller sites on the same subject, including many personal home pages, which they’d never have found on a search engine.

Traffic Sign "Marketing Strategy"
The next stage in their marketing campaign was to seek reciprocal links from all of the sites they had located, along with many others they found by following links from those sites. Because of the quality of their site’s content, they were extremely successful in their reciprocal links campaign. Three months after launching their site, they have over 800 subscribers to their newsletter, and their site receives over 1200 visits a day. Revenues from the site in the first quarter have already exceeded their goal for the entire year!

This story, in the final analysis, is all about targeting your message. This campaign was successful because their message reached people they knew would be interested, and because information on the subject is very difficult to find. As a result, none of the recipients was offended by being offered access to the information contained in the company’s web site. Firing off “targeted” emails to people who ask questions about dog food in the rec.pets.dogs newsgroup, in an effort to sell them dog food, is definitely SPAM, and will almost certainly cause problems for the sending party.

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Three newsgroups

They had found three newsgroups that occasionally contained postings about their area of interest. For two weeks, they read all of the messages in these groups. By that time, they had a list of 200 names and email addresses, of people who had a definite interest in the subject their site covers. Their plan was to leverage that list of 200 names into a larger mailing list, and jump-start their site’s traffic by asking for the addresses of other web sites for a reciprocal linking campaign.
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They composed an email message, which stated that they had seen the recipient’s posting in the newsgroup, and that they had just launched a site on the very subject the recipient had brought up in the newsgroup. Furthermore, they requested assistance in locating other Internet resources on the subject, in order to improve their site. They gave the recipient three choices: visit the web site and fill in a form (with a checkbox to opt-in and continue receiving email), correspond directly via email with a “live” person, or simply ignore the email (in which case they’d never be bothered again.) This message was addressed to each person individually, and in most cases included a direct response to the recipient’s newsgroup posting as well.

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An Email Campaign That Got a 96% Response

This story was too good to ignore, but the marketing technique that we describe here definitely falls into the gray area between responsible newsgroup participation and SPAM. We include it here because there was little agreement between anyone who heard about it – some felt that this was definitely a case of SPAM, others felt that the response received clearly showed that it was not. You’ve been warned, so here’s the story.
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The web site in question is targeted to a very small, niche market in financial services. There may, in fact, be only 10,000 people in the world that could possibly be interested in the site’s content. The site’s initial development had been completed, but the site’s operators, who were wizards in off-line marketing, were at something of a loss. They knew what type of people they wanted to reach, but they didn’t know how to find them. They tried looking for similar sites, but the search engines turned up nothing. Finally, they hit on a winning strategy involving Usenet newsgroups.

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Important things

Deceptive ads of any kind simply have no place in an ongoing business. If you have that so little confidence in the value of what your site offers, that you feel you must trick people into visiting, it’s time to pack it in. Think of a better idea, and try again when you’re ready to do business the right way. If you’re smart enough to swindle people, you should be able to make an even better living the honest way.
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It’s very tempting to try some of these little tricks, especially if your traffic is really low. In the long run, though, the value of your site, and its good name, depend on sticking to the straight and narrow path. Your banners should clearly communicate your message, and give people an idea of what they’re clicking for. Banner ads are never going to be the best way to bring interested visitors to your site anyway! If your site is well designed, with strong content and good value, a banner ad will never do it justice – spend some time soliciting reciprocal links from other sites instead.

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For Better Banner Ads, Skip The Gimmicks

As we proved with our ill-fated “click here for freeze-dried gerbils” campaign, there are plenty of tricks you can use to get people to click on your ad banner. You need to follow some basic rules, though, if you want to get any real benefit from your investment in banner advertising.

Some of the more common gimmicks to trick web surfers into clicking an ad are:

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Bogus contests. “Click here for a chance to win a million dollars” is a great banner ad tagline, if you’re actually giving away a million dollars. If you’re not, don’t pretend that you are. Giving people who click on such a banner a free sample of “lucky lottery numbers” is not going to make them happy they visited your site. All it takes is a few complaints to the right authorities, and you won’t just have a bad reputation, you’ll have legal trouble.
Fake forms. These are those little banner ads that look like interactive forms, but when the user tries to click the menu or text entry box, they’re clicked through to another site. To many web surfers, this is very offensive. If you have a banner that shows a fake search form, it had better take the visitor to a real search form. This is a bit of a gray area, of course – we’ve seen a lot of effective ads that show form elements, but they were easily identified as ads. If you want to use a form to entice potential visitors, why not make a real interactive form for your ad?

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