Looking for a low-cost way to generate more traffic? Make it easy for your current users to bring family, friends and others to your site with a new phenom called magnetic web sites. It’s a type of web site that can grow very quickly, attracting users because of its usefulness, and becomes more valuable as users bring additional people to the site.
A recent report by Whit Andrews highlights a different twist on word-of-mouth marketing. It describes these magnetic sites as the next generation of web sites, pulling customers into a community of users.
Early on, a number of “cool-site-of-day” sites motivated people to email their friends about a new web site. This marketing technique became known as “viral marketing” telling others about a site that is interesting. While this helps a number of sites generate traffic, it doesn’t always create a loyal audience that keeps returning to the site. The value of magnetic sites, however, grows as the number of participants grows because it helps groups of people to become more productive.
One of the earliest examples of a site using people to invite others to participate is SixDegrees.com, a networking site based on the idea that you can meet people who know people who know you, and so on.
While many people want to network to meet new people online, other sites have come along offering specific productivity features in an attempt to attract an audience. The current crop of online photo album sites, such as Yahoo Pictures, eMemories, and PhotoAccess.com, all allow customers to share their family photos with either a limited group of people or anyone who visits that site.
Another group of sites focus on using the web to improve traditional activities. For example, eCal combines group calendaring for business and personal events with a master calendar available via the web and hand-held devices. Another example is PlanPack, a free project management and time tracking site that allows all participants to invite others to view tasks assigned to them.
Intranets.com offers features such as document sharing, contact management, and a group calendar, as well as customizable financial and news for a group.
Creating a magnetic site takes more than asking visitors and customers to recommend the site to others. It requires that the site be more valuable to individuals when they allow the site to invite their friends, coworkers, clients, and vendors into the online community of users who all gain value by participating.
Email is the best way to invite others into the community. However, it is important to structure the invitation mechanism so it’s difficult to spam anyone.
An effective method for authenticating users without being onerous is to send a confirmation email to new users containing a URL that includes their unique ID. When the new user clicks on the link, the web site validates the user’s profile, and they are automatically given access to the special features on the site.
When authenticated users issue invitations to other people through the web site it is more likely that the invitation is being sent to acquaintances who will appreciate being invited into the community. Although it’s not foolproof, this approach to authenticating users by invitation at least ensures that the person initiating the invitation is actually using the email address that identifies them. This reduces the malicious behavior and pranks that can occur if a site allows just anyone to send email to unsuspecting people.
Once a leader has created a community of people who use the site, it is beneficial to have a way for each participant to become the leader of their own community, which helps create a continuously growing user base.
With the community established, you can take advantage of the power of email to remind people to return to the site. Site email newsletters are good, but they usually have generic information about more activities on the site than any one reader is interested in. If you have a profile of interests for participants, you can tailor the content of each newsletter to have more appeal and a greater likelihood that each person will return to the site.
In addition to newsletters, another way to use email is to provide information supplied by others in the community. The web-based discussion forums that include email notification are a good example of this technique. However, meeting and event notices, project updates, and notices involving money are more magnetic types of data. These highly personal reminders are more likely to be opened and read than the general conversation emails from discussion groups.
A number of sites have tried to create magnetism by pulling people into a web of users, but some methods are less efficient than others, making participation not worth the effort. For instance, I kept looking for SixDegrees to make it easier to expand a network of acquaintances, but it seems a little unnatural to contact somebody out of the blue, who knows somebody, who knows somebody. In fact, when one of my personal SixDegrees contacts started being spammed by people a few degrees away, he asked me to remove him from the contact list.
The key to creating a magnetic site that performs well over the long term is to help people become more efficient at activities they need or desire to participate in, which makes you more valuable to your target audience.