NETSENSE: How to get busy visitors to keep coming back

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This month's NetSense question is one I am asked often by frustrated Web marketers who have developed terrific sites, seen a nice initial response and then watched their site visits drop off significantly.

The question: How do I encourage revisits to my site?

You already know the answer. You just think it's more complex than it really is.

Here's a scenario I'm sure you can relate to. Let's say you're a human resources executive and one day you find a site for a company offering a number of services you might want to consider using.

Because you don't have the time right then to dig deeper into the site, you do one of three things. You bookmark the site, you write the URL on a piece of paper or, if you're really a geek, you e-mail a copy of the site to yourself for reading later.

Then, as often happens, months pass and you never return. You simply got too busy, found another service or, more likely, you forgot about the site completely.

Thousands of businesspeople have bookmarked files loaded with sites they haven't looked at in months, if at all, beyond that first time they bookmarked it.

Therein lies the problem and the opportunity, and the answer to the question.

First, let me state the most important axiom of any business-to-business marketing Web site: If you do not offer some type of outbound communication option to your site visitors, you have missed the most powerful opportunity you have to bring them back to your site.

Whether it's a monthly e-mail newsletter they can opt to receive, a printed newsletter they can sign up for or even a discussion list that you offer and sponsor, the goal is continuing your dialogue with them after that first visit.

An inbound tool

It's amazing how many sites don't offer visitors a way of communicating with them unless they return to the site. Web sites are thought of as outbound marketing tools, when in fact they are inbound. In other words, users have to come to them.

Second, marketers should use the outbound e-mail piece wisely. Keep in mind that you have two primary goals with outbound e-mail. One is to give them useful information that is helpful by itself. The other is to make that information lead readers back to your site.

In the case of the human resources site, imagine if they had immediately offered me a monthly e-mail newsletter called "EHR-news -- E-mail Human Resources News Headlines." This newsletter could have 10 headlines, each with a brief paragraph covering news items and events in the human resources industry, sent to all subscribers once a month. If readers spotted an item they liked and wanted to read the full story, they could click in their e-mail or cut and paste the URL and go back to the site.

Outbound lures

The point is that when people come to your site the first time, they are basically saying they are at least somewhat interested in what you do and want to take a look. So rather than just having them bookmark your site and forget about you, offer them an outbound service that provides something of real value for free and that comes to their e-mail in-box.

If you decide to go this route, recognize that you need to do more than scream, "Come back to our site please." You need to offer something of real utility that's in the vertical niche you serve. That's what drew the visitor to your site in the first place.

Eric Ward began the Internet's first third-party Web site awareness-building service in 1994. He also publishes the URLwire, a private e-mail-based news service for new-media editors, writers, reporters and reviewers who cover the Web.

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