Expert Advice: Web Marketing 101
Tuesday August 31st, 2010
by Bryan Mills
How to build your presence on the web
As the “web guy” here at Wonderful Machine, I often get asked about the secret to building a successful website. How do you increase traffic, get a top Google ranking and run a website that turns visits into profits?
Trying to realistically answer a question like that is a pretty gargantuan task. I have to start by telling people that web marketing is not a straightforward endeavor. This is an organic marketplace, driven by word-of-mouth, hype and the connections you make with other people. Success might come from the places you least expect it, and what works for one person might not work for you.
So why even try? Because in the history of civilization, it has never been easier for creative professionals to produce, publish or connect with others in their industry. Having an online presence is about increasing your visibility to everyone, and establishing yourself as an authority, expert or maven (you are all of the above, aren’t you?). You get to be your own PR firm.
Since the Silicon Valley tech-bubble crashed in 2001, there’s been a sea change in the way people run businesses online. People don’t need large teams and millions of dollars in venture capital to generate profit. Instead, some of the most talked about successes in recent years come from individuals or small teams that built something they thought useful, and leveraged social networking, blogging and new technology to cultivate rabid fan bases that are happy to spend money.
I imagine most photographers don’t consider themselves web entrepreneurs. They’ve already got one business, and don’t need another. They just want to take pictures, and get paid. Am I right?
That might be a good mindset for running a photography business, but not necessarily for marketing online. If you’re running any business at all, part of it is going to be a web business. And after over a decade-and-a-half of businesses on the internet, it has become clear that the best successes are the ones no one ever predicted, and that the industries who didn’t embrace innovation or experimentation are now gasping for air.
So here is my advice in a nutshell: Do something you’re passionate about. Promote it shamelessly, but politely, and when people react positively to it, give them a reason to become fanatical about it, so they’ll spread the word.
Let’s talk specifics.
Set your expectations
First, set aside any pre-conceived notions of instant fame or “viral” marketing. There is no single strategy, technology, website tweak or publicity that is going to bring you overnight success. Here at Wonderful Machine, we freely admit that we’re only one part of the equation, and our services are best used as a resource rather than a solution. There isn’t a marketing firm on earth that can actually guarantee increased traffic, top ranking on Google searches or conversions of website hits to revenue (and if any company does tell you this, they’re being disingenuous at best).
At the end of the day, you are the single most passionate person on the planet about what you do. The work for promoting yourself is going to rest on your own shoulders. And remember, the most important part of “building an online presence” is the word build. You’re creating something out of nothing, and it’s going to take time, hard work, and a good bit of luck.
Getting past your portfolio site
An almost universal truth about photographer websites is that they contain a portfolio gallery built in Flash. And for many photographers, that’s all they do.
But simply having a portfolio website isn’t good enough. It’s probably doing you as much good as a print portfolio that just sits on a bookshelf. Portfolio sites tend to be static. They often make people wait through a progress bar, or click through an animation to get inside. And in terms of presentation, they do little to draw in users from a variety of angles. Even if you’re regularly updating your images, how are you communicating to visitors what’s new, or what’s fresh and interesting? How are you establishing your reputation?
Asking someone to give you their attention and actually spend time browsing through a website is much harder than you think. A 2006 study demonstrated that people make snap judgments about websites in less than a second. This means that there’s a very tiny window for you to prove to a visitor that your site contains fresh, relevant, and valuable information for them. If you think there’s one tear sheet, photo, or video that’s going to make prospective clients perk up and consider your work seriously, then you need to make sure you’re putting it right under their noses—either on the web, through a news feed, or on Facebook. Truth is, the design and structure of most portfolio sites are simply outdated, and no longer compatible with the way people are using the internet to find information.
Does this mean you need to rethink your portfolio site? Not necessarily. Your portfolio remains the primary tool for showing your work to interested parties. What you need to focus on is generating that interest in the first place.
If you don’t already have a blog, start one. A blog is the cornerstone for establishing identity on the web. Treat your portfolio site as the curated exhibition of your work, and your blog as the informal conversation happening at the corner pub.
The importance of writing and SEO
Starting a blog means creating more content, which is the bread and butter of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is a broad and nebulous topic that isn’t really the focus of this article, but it’s important to cover a couple of basics—the first being that photographers need to write more.
I know what you’re thinking. You got into this business because you want to tell stories with pictures and communicate visually, right? I understand, and I sympathize. But on the web, your site stands at the mercy of a cold and calculating Googlebot – who understands words much better than pictures (or Flash websites). And until computers are better at parsing meaning from pixels, that’s how things will be.
The most fundamental way to think about how search engines work is to imagine that every web page is assigned a rank according to its “authority” on a given search phrase or set of keywords. The higher your authority, the better your place in search results. And the more you write on a topic, the more times Google will index your site for those keywords.
But that’s only half of the equation. To increase your site’s authority, you also need other websites to talk about your content, and link out to it. And it really helps if the sites doing the talking have a high authority on the same topics you’re writing about. Search engines are trying their hardest to find the most organic way to determine which sites will bring the most value to searches. They do this by looking at the words and links on your site, and the how they relate to words and links on other sites. SEO is the process of making your website more legible to a search engine.
My second piece of SEO advice? Don’t sweat it too much. If you’re prolific in producing good content and getting the word out, search engines will take notice eventually. And if you’re not producing much content, then there’s not much SEO can do for you anyway. Always remember that your end goal is to please real humans, not unsympathetic Googlebots.
Find a voice and establish authority
When it comes to crafting content, a lot of inexperienced bloggers focus on writing about their own lives and experiences. This is okay at first if you’re still trying to find a voice or theme—but it can be a mistake to devote your entire blog to your own photography projects or awards you’ve won. It provides little benefit to readers, and generates no discussion.
Instead, devote yourself to specific topics and write from the perspective of a mentor. Every working professional has something unique to contribute. Don’t be afraid to (politely) express strongly held opinions; people love to argue and debate topics in their own profession. Even better, pick one or two very niche topics and become a de facto expert on them. It will help increase your visibility to search engines and provide an indispensable resource to those who are interested in the same things.
For a practical example, take a look at Lisa Bettany’s blog. As a professional photographer and media personality, she’s spent time offering practical advice to budding photographers, but she’s specifically focused on becoming an expert on iPhone photography. Through the site, she is able to constantly promote her own work, but in a context that is far more useful to others than simply keeping a log of photographs.
Lisa’s blog also features a lot of posts that instantly hook readers. With post titles that include phrases like “5 Ways to…” or “Top Ten…” she’s producing content that’s immediate and clear in its intention to inform. Readers can very quickly and easily scan these kinds of posts to find value. They’re also perfect linkbait (to use a web industry term), which means content that encourages others to link to you and start a discussion. Leaving an opening for others to engage in what you’re doing is a sure-fire way to generate buzz.
If you’re not sold on keeping up with a daily or weekly blog, there are other avenues for establishing yourself. The advent of mobile internet and smart-phones has created a huge opportunity for podcasters. Convincing a few colleagues to spend thirty minutes talking shop on Skype twice a month can be a great way to give back to your professional community.
This kind of promotion is about establishing yourself in the public sphere of the photography industry, and being your own PR machine. It’s also about jumping up and down and waving to the giant sea of humans surfing the web, shouting, “Here I am! This is what I do! I love doing it, and I can bring this same enthusiasm to your projects!”
Engage your audience
…it’s really easy to reach 100,000 people who don’t want to hear what you have to say. That’s called advertising. And maybe a small fraction of those actually care. But it’s very expensive, and very hard. But to actually reach people who are coming back voluntarily to hear what you have to say is an incredibly powerful thing.
A few years ago, blogging and SEO were the cutting edge of online business promotion. Now they’re considered only one piece of the online marketing Swiss Army knife. Today, it’s almost impossible to do anything online without tripping over Facebook or Twitter.
The jury still seems to be out on the best way to take advantage of social networking sites for businesses, but simply maintaining a Facebook or Twitter page, regardless of method, seems to have a positive effect. Social networking sites definitely contribute their share to Wonderful Machine’s traffic, and they should be doing the same for you.
Social networks can act like a hand-curated wire service, if you know how to use them. As a web developer, I have a couple dozen other developers and designers on my Twitter feed who are constantly streaming the latest news, trends and gossip inside my industry. Most of the time, they’re promoting their own work, which I’m happy to hear about because I’ve already chosen to listen. If someone follows you on Twitter, they’re going to want to hear what you have to say.
My feed allows me to be in the know about something before it makes it into blogs, and long before the mainstream media picks it up. The rate of dissemination in social networks is blindingly fast, and your message can reach across the world in a matter of minutes.
And the best part is, everyone is talking to everyone else. There are almost no barriers to communication. Sometimes it can be hard to get somebody’s attention, but at the same time, it requires very little work to try. Tending to your social networks is one of those things that you can do on your smart phone while standing in line at the store or waiting for a train.
If your website, blog, or podcast is the podium from which you speak to the masses, then social networks are the water cooler everyone gathers around to gossip. Establishing a personal connection with people who express interest in what you do is a powerful thing, so never underestimate the power of reaching out to a group of strangers. It only takes one well-connected person to put your work in front of thousands of interested parties. (For free.)
Shoot first, questions later
More than anything else, web marketing is about just putting yourself out there. The web is a place of little bureaucracy, and incredible depth. The barrier to entry has never been lower, but that means the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low as well. When starting out, you will likely end up with more misses than hits. That’s okay—chances are no one will notice your failures. If they do, they’ll forget them quickly, as long as you keep at it.
There is no right or wrong way to market yourself on the web. However, at the end of the day, there’s a certain inevitability to the forces that shape trends and opinions online. Things change and mutate (quickly) over time. This is what makes trying to give any advice about marketing so difficult. It never hurts to keep a careful eye on what’s forming on the horizon, but to date, the best indicator of success is just an inventive mind coupled with dogged determination.
Places to go next
I’ve taken the time to compile a list of some of the better resources and tools available for you to take your web marketing into your own hands.
Publishing and Blogging Tools
WordPress – extremely popular blogging software
Tumblr – great for photography blogs or short, simple posts
SquareSpace – all-in-one design, content management and hosting for a reasonable monthly fee
100 Free and High Quality WordPress Themes – including gallery and portfolio themes
For Podcasting and Media Projects
How to Podcast with Skype – for the basics on creating a podcast
Submitting Podcasts to iTunes – on how to distribute a podcast via iTunes
Vimeo – great place to publish video if YouTube isn’t your style
Kickstarter – find funding for your personal projects
For Website DIYers
Smashing Magazine – best place to find free wordpress themes, icons, and design inspiration
Web Design From Scratch – good place to start if you know nothing about building websites
Nettuts+ – advanced tutorials for website development
Marketing and SEO Tools
Google Analytics - the best way to track visits to your website
Google Analytics Tutorial – video on setting up Analytics for your site or WordPress blog
Google Keyword Tool – place to research popularity and competition among keywords in google searches
SEOmoz – provides tools, reports and articles for SEO marketing
SeoQuake – Firefox plugin that allows you inspect SEO stats for any website