So you want to promote your website online…for free, preferably.
By now, you probably know from experience that the “build it and they will come” philosophy is flawed. You can have great content — in fact, you need at least “good” content — but unless you know how to promote it, your site is a ghost town. But you also don’t have the budget to go straight to advertising online.
You don’t need a grab bag of tips and tricks. You don’t need best practices to “go viral”. What you need is an actual process to follow consistently to create a “flywheel effect“.
Here is an exact, step-by-step strategy that I recommend to anyone who wants to promote their website online. The specific details vary, but it’s a pretty tried and true path for anyone who wants to promote their website.
Start with Definitions & Goals
Before you do anything, you’ve got to start with the foundation: what are you trying to achieve?
Aside – “making money” or “getting customers” does not count. The key is to get specific. Quantify your marketing in other words.
This is the part so many people either get stuck on or skip entirely. Usually, website owners just want to dive in and start doing, doing, doing.
While getting your site out there and testing is great, you need a balance. It’s just as important to test with the right methods as it is to collect a ton of data and learn from it
There are three things you need to figure out before you dive in:
- what you’re promoting
- who you’re promoting it to
- how much you can actually spend on promotion
Let’s break these down.
What You’re Promoting (Your Product)
What is it that you’re actually offering/promoting on your website? A product? A service? Valuable content?
Whatever it is, you need to be able to define it and sell the value. What makes you different from the million and one others out there?
Remember, this doesn’t need to be your life’s mission. In fact, it shouldn’t be. You just need to define your product in a clear and concise way. Keep it simple and to the point — and make sure you emphasize why you’re different.
Who You’re Promoting It To (Persona)
A persona is marketing jargon for a profile of your target audience. And having one is crucial to your marketing plan.
Before your start promoting your website, you’ve got to know who you’re actually promoting it to. What do they want? What problems do they have? How do you solve those problems?
Create 2-4 personas for your brand that outline your ideal customers. Be as descriptive as possible by including things like job title, favorite device, pay scale, main frustrations & problems, end goals, what they do in their spare time, etc. Use this detailed guide by Moz to guide you through the process.
Remember that your personas don’t have to be the end all be all. The focus here is to define your initial target market that’s small enough you can effectively reach them but large enough to get some sales and feedback to polish what you’re offering (your product/website/brand).
Nearly every business started this way (think about how Facebook started by targeting college students). Here’s a podcast episode explaining this concept [skip to the ~ 11-minutemark].
How Much You Can Spend on Promotion (Time & Financial Budget)
Thinking there’s no overhead online is lethal. You’ve got to put real numbers behind what you’re doing. Marketing costs money or time… so put real goals in place.
Outline your budget, even if it feels arbitrary. Define your product/services costs, profit margins, and what kind of marketing spend gives you a positive return. Here’s a more extensive post on quant-based marketing.
Lay the Foundation
Once you have your goals and definitions laid out, it’s time to lay the foundation. While “build it and they will come” is a flawed philosophy, once you start getting them to come, you need to be sure what you’ve created is decent and captures data.
This is divided into three steps:
Website / Destination Set Up
To promote anything online long-term*, you need a decent website. Whether you’re an eCommerce business who needs an online store, a local business with a brick and mortar store, or an educational website that needs a place to publish content, a decent-looking website will put you ahead and allow you to do more with your brand and marketing.
*Aside – when I say long-term – I mean that you don’t want your project compromised by the whims of a platform (I’m looking at you, Facebook Pages and Google My Business). For short-term projects, plenty of people do well with marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy while content publishers do great with a good email marketing platform.
If you don’t have a website yet, I recommend setting your own website up with a common, well-known software like WordPress and hosting it on your own hosting account. I have a simple guide to doing that from scratch here. There is a learning curve, but it will provide maximum versatility for most long-term website owners.*
*WordPress is for most, but not everyone. It does have a learning curve. Here’s how WordPress compares to Wix, how WordPress compares to Squarespace, and how WordPress compares to Weebly. Your end goal should be a website that is best for *you* and your goals. The general strategies below work regardless of platform.
For eCommerce shops, I recommend either using a high-quality hosted eCommerce platform like Shopify or BigCommerce or setting up an eCommerce website with WordPress and WooCommerce.
If you have a website and know it’s a mess, use this guide to help you clean it up.
Create Focused Pages
Depending on what you’re goals are, creating focused pages can be an essential part of conversions.
Focus pages are landing pages that target a very specific need, but they don’t have to be complex. They are simply pages that visitors can land on and take a specific action (buy your product, sign up for your service, etc.)
Why use landing pages? Because nobody cares about or even sees your homepage. Your homepage is for people who already know who you are and are just navigating around to find what they already know exists.
Landing pages, on the other hand, are for new (or returning) visitors to land and convert (AKA take whatever action you want them to take). These pages should target what your audience is searching for on a granular level.
For example, if you’re an eCommerce business, you’d want to create product pages targeting specific product information (i.e. Blue Swimwear) or a specific audience (i.e. Swimwear for Women Distance swimmers).
For service-based businesses, you’d want to create service pages targeting what your customers are searching for (i.e. Atlanta Dentist or Root Canal Services)
For sites that are focused on content creation, think about pages that can organize your posts into broader topics and orient readers who land deeper into your site and encourage them to take additional actions (like reading more or subscribing). Use this guide to using category and tag pages in WordPress to accomplish this.
If you have way too many ideas – then think about how to organize your site by topic / keyword.
Set Up Analytics
Before you start promoting your website, you need a way to capture data through an analytics platform. There are tons of options, but Google Analytics is the go-to solution (it’s also free).
If you’re unclear on what Google Analytics actually does, start here.
Depending on what you’re promoting (see above), you’ll want to set up specific goals. For example, if you’re an eCommerce website, you’ll want to make sure you have eCommerce checkout set up. If you’re a local business, you’ll want to track things like clicks to call and contact form completions. Use this guide to set up call tracking in Google Analytics.
You should also link Google Analytics to Google AdWords and set up a retargeting audience with Google Analytics. And lastly, you should set up a Facebook Ads account and place a retargeting (audience pixel) cookie on your website.
Work on Getting Traffic
Now that you have the foundation down, it’s time to get people to your website. This where a lot of people get way too detailed… way too fast. Why?
Because not all marketing channels operate at the same speed. They’re also not all used the same way — they have different strengths and weaknesses. They complement and supplement each other instead of compete, and it’s all about how you use them together.
For example, the US Navy’s main war-going unit is the Aircraft Carrier Group. But it’s not just made up of an aircraft carrier. Instead, it’s a grouping of different types of ships that all do different things at different speeds so that the whole group together is nearly invincible.
A lot of business owners want to start with SEO or with a fully fleshed out social strategy. To keep to the analogy, that’s like sending your battleship and aircraft carrier to scout out for the rest of the group.
Bad idea. Battleships (aka SEO) and Aircraft Carriers (Social) take forever to get going and to turn. Save those until you know where you’re going. You do not want to invest hours and hours and tons of resources and thought into SEO and Social if you have no idea if they will pay off.
Start with channels that can speed up, slow down and change direction at will. That means 3 things: direct outreach, community involvement, and paid traffic, specifically AdWords Search Network.
Testing with Direct Outreach
It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of promoting something because you think it’s amazing. But here’s the thing — what if no one wants it?
Too often, we make assumptions for our audience. So before you go into a full-blow promotion plan and start running ads, emailing everyone on your list, and working on your SEO tactics, it’s good to get some validation.
Start by soliciting feedback from a small, targeted group. These should be people who are active in your niche, would ideally collaborate with someone like you, would give you some feedback and maybe even promote your website for you.
What we’re really doing here is finding complementary marketing “parents” — think of other bloggers and businesses your target audience also visits. There are infinite ways to do this process. The key piece is to find someone who shares your interests or has a need that you can fill. Here are some examples.
Friends & Family
Ok – friends and family will often be interested by default. They won’t be able to provide useful feedback. But here’s the thing – you are probably friends because you share interests. Additionally, you might share interests with your family.
Those family and friends are a great place to start with your outreach. It doesn’t mean spamming your Facebook page. It does mean not being afraid to show off your work personally to interested friends and family.
Individual Brands / Influencers
I hate the term “influencers” – and I don’t think that you can or should compete with big brands for social media celebrities. Instead, you should use your own advantage as a DIY website owner (rather than social media manager) to find people that you respect and listen to. Figure out what they need / want. Do they need co-promotion? Topic ideas? Reach out and pitch.
Individual Bloggers / Site Owners
A blogger of any size & influence will be deluged with pitches from big companies. Again – use your advantage as an actual site owner to go around the social media managers to reach small and up & coming bloggers. Use your agility to solve problems that agencies cannot quickly solve.
Journalists have an infinite black hole of content that they need to fill. They are always looking for a story (not a product). If you can create a story based on your insider expertise, then you should pitch them. Keep it short, keep it relevant. Start with small sites and use successes to pitch bigger publications.
The good example is a local package delivery service pitching a story about “porch pirates” to news outlets in Philadelphia.
Complementary Business Owners
Your product probably pairs with other companies’ products. Swimwear pairs with beach resorts. Festivals pair with beverage companies. Wood refinishing pairs with historic preservationists. The list is infinite.
Find businesses where you can co-promote.
Your vendors want you to succeed…because your success means more sales for them. Pitch your vendors on co-promotions.
Then, get to emailing and messaging. Send them to your landing pages or content piece to buy, subscribe, or review. Ask for feedback and referrals and keep notes!
Keep in mind that you are emailing people. It’s easy to get into a spammy quantity mindset. But remember that that a single, quality connection is worth way more than you can measure right now. Your goal is to get feedback and access. You cannot and should not make this a primary sales channel. Your goal is feedback to promote more effectively and more broadly.
Find Like-Minded Communities
To expand your direct promotion efforts means finding groups of individuals. And that means finding communities.
Communities can not only provide a lot more feedback – but you can also find opportunities to get sales.
The issue with a community is that you need to be a part of it. Nobody likes someone who shows up to promote rather than participate.
Even though you might need sales right now – you absolutely must set aside that need and look to the long-term.
Figure out what the community likes & needs. Provide that. Focus on being overly helpful rather than promotional. Here are some examples.
Industry Specific Forums
Whether it’s ProductHunt / HackerNews in tech or Wanelo for trendy shopping – there is an industry specific forum for everything. Find it and get involved.
Facebook Groups are super-accessible and cover topics on everything under the sun. They are a great way to build an organic presence on Facebook now that business newsfeed organic reach does not exist. Use creative Facebook Open Graph searches to find the non-obvious ones.
Yes – website forums still exist. And yes, they can be extraordinarily powerful. Do your research and get in touch with moderators.
Yes – people still read these. Set up alerts via Google or via RSS feeds and stay involved in relevant discussions on high-traffic blog posts.
Reddit & Crowdsourced Forums
Reddit is the world’s largest general forum – but everything from Kickstarter to Pinterest could technically be considered a forum. Again, find where your target audience hangs out. Focus less on the actual platform and more on the people using it.
Ever noticed the “questions about this product” or the discussion sections on Amazon product? Yep – those have insane engagement…and provide an opportunity to piggyback on Amazon’s traffic. Look for complementary products / services to yours that your target audience is purchasing. Use your expertise to answer questions.
LinkedIn & Business Groups
This angle is similar to crowdsourced forums – but for B2B and vendor relationships. Discussions happen all over the place on the Internet. Everything from Slack to LinkedIn Pulse to IRC are open. They are all tools for people to connect. Think about who your people are and find where & how they talk.
Do you know of high-traffic blogs that your target audience reads (not simply blogs in your industry)? Find out guest post requirements and go there.
Once you’ve found a channel that you feel comfortable with and “get” – focus on expanding your presence and being as helpful as possible. People will notice and talk.
Using Paid Traffic to Get Data
Jumping right into ads isn’t always the best approach for promoting your website. It can get expensive, especially for the return on investment. However, our goal here is a bit different.
Using some (even on a small budget) search advertising can be a great way to get data faster. Instead of relying solely on direct outreach and a content strategy that takes a few months to grow, we can get lots of data in a short amount of time by doing some advertising.
For a full breakdown of different paid advertising channels, see this guide about how to advertise your website online.
You should be doing a few different things with this data:
- Looking at what keywords are driving conversions. AdWords gives you this information.
- Looking at which landing pages (or content pieces) perform best based on your goals. How can you optimize those pages and use those findings to improve the ones that aren’t performing?
- Determining which ad copy performs best
- For eCommerce, identifying which types of offers do people find most enticing (i.e. free shipping, 20% off welcome discount, etc.)
- Setting up retargeting campaigns – not generic “buy, buy, buy” campaigns but interesting retargeting ads that you can afford to do when your traffic is small. If you want to divert some paid budget to Facebook, follow this guide.
- Once you have retargeting campaigns going, you should be looking at where your audience goes online. We covered this topic on this podcast episode.
- Improving your ad campaigns in general
Understanding Organic Search
The world of organic traffic sources is wide and takes time. So while I won’t tell you it’s the best channel for immediate satisfaction, there are still some amazing results to be had.
For most, a successful SEO campaign would be a huge win due to the sheer volume of traffic that Google organic search can drive. Google processes over 3.5 billion queries per day and most of the clicks go to an organic result.
You’ll learn pretty quickly that in paid advertising, clicks for commercial keywords can be quite expensive. That’s a cost you don’t have to pay if you rank in the organic search results.
When you’re setting up your website promotion strategy, you’ll just have to know what it takes to get organic traffic and what it will take on your part to get it done.
SEO boils down to 3 components.
The first component is technical SEO.
Technical SEO is all about ensuring that Google/Bing bots can crawl and index your website effectively. It’s about making sure you’re not generating tons of duplicate content. Here’s “Technical SEO for Nontechnical Marketers”
The good news is that you are using WordPress or an HTML-based website builder, you have the big barriers taken care of. The same applies to eCommerce platforms like Shopify, Bigcommerce or a self-hosted store with WordPress + Woocommerce.
If you are already using a different platform, a technical audit might be the one SEO thing worth paying for. Mentioning a “stand-alone technical audit with recommendations” to an SEO expert can be valuable if you’re on a custom built site. Just don’t let them sell you on “ranking #1 tomorrow!”
If you are using Shopify or Bigcommerce, then your technical issues are 90% solved if you have it set up by the book (Shopify’s guide and Bigcommerce’s guide). You should just be sure to use their SEO-related toolset to implement your on-page content, which happens to be the second component of SEO.
The second component of SEO is on-page content and optimization
It is all about “targeting” the right keywords and ensuring that your website is laid out in a coherent way that is understandable by search engines and users browsing your website.
Depending on what your goals are, there are a ton of different pieces of content that can bring in visitors. The goal is to bring in new people AND support sales. Don’t create keyword-stuffed content that won’t help customers on your website make a decision. Make the authoritative content that addresses problems, questions, etc of your market.
The great part about creating the absolute best content that you can find about everything your target market cares about related to your product is that it will naturally drive the third component of SEO – off-page factors.
“Off-page factors” is the third component of SEO
This is SEO-speak for getting links, with the caveat that all links are not considered equal.
Sketchy links, the type that you buy for $5, can harm your website. However, quality links placed on a related or well-known website are the primary factor for getting better visibility in search results.
There are a lot of ways to get links. But the best ways that I’ve found for website promotion are:
- Creating content that no one else has done well, and then promoting it. I wrote this guide to creating prequalified content. I’m a fan of this guide for the promotion angle as well
- Hustle PR promotion – Find the blogs they read. Find the news websites they follow. Find the social media feeds they are involved with. Research and stalk every single one until you can craft a manual email pitch (see direct outreach above)
- Get even more ideas in my guide to Ahrefs
Using Social Media
If SEO is your giant battleship, I think of social as your aircraft carrier. It’s easy to burn a lot of energy flying planes for no reason, but nothing gives you a tactical edge and far reach like your aircraft.
Social media experts make social out to be rocket science. It’s really not. Unless you started a business you know nothing about, you should know where your audience hangs out.
The key is to realize that you don’t have to be 100% present on every single social network. Effective social media is about having direct interactions where you build relationships and learn more about your audience.
So with that said, go ahead and claim your branding across all the various social networks, but focus on one or two that will generate an outsize of impact on your goals.
This is particularly effective for getting feedback on what you’re promoting. Similarly to direct outreach, you can use social media to solicit public feedback through forums like Reddit, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, etc. Just remember — it’s not about blasting your message out there for everyone and their mother. It’s about targeting the right audience. Find where they are and go there.
Lastly, remember you can make the process faster by paying to jump ahead. Just as you used Google Ads or alternative channels to collect data on what works and what doesn’t for your website promotion goals, you can use social ads to test networks.
That’s the website promotion strategy I would map out for any website. It’s a long post, but it’s a plan you can implement quickly by breaking each section into small, doable steps.
Immediate next steps: start by defining your goals, personas, and revenue/budget. Then, put a plan in place that takes you through each phase of the process outlined above in a methodical manner. Go one section at a time and break each down into smaller steps you can follow without getting overwhelmed.