Growing Online Loyalty Organically

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Those coveted loyal users. Every Web entity seems to want them, yet others seem to stumble into them, creating unexpected thriving online businesses or communities in the process.


If one thing is certain, it is that loyal users cannot be bought. They must be earned.


There is a resounding, recurring theme in earning repeat users: Provide great content and value, and people will come back. Story after story proves this, whether talking about a transactional site, a community or simply an online resource. With little to no advertising expenses whatsoever, if you provide the goods - consistently and effectively - you are much more likely to sustain your visitors over the long term.


What is even more interesting to observe is how these long-term visitors can mold the business entity itself. This "organic" evolution starts with an idea, but once developed into a Web entity, it quickly seems to take on a life of its own. It can take someone's personal Web page and build it into a powerful and influential force. It can move an online publisher to e-tailing. And it can shift whole business models, causing sites to be revamped and revenues to be replaced in midstream.


Make it a must-read. Nowhere is this organic evolution better displayed than on the now-infamous Web site FuckedCompany.com. Founded by Philip "Pud" Kaplan as a "dot-com deadpool," a joke site he shared with six friends, the Web site has morphed into a community of more than 200,000 unique users per week, replete with message boards, a newsletter and an online store that nets about $20,000 monthly. Kaplan has even wielded his considerable influence to assist the families of the Edgewater Technology shooting tragedy, encouraging site visitors to contribute to a fund, which to date has amassed more than $14,000.


The appeal of FC was that it was bitingly refreshing and strikingly informative. The "rumors" Kaplan posts often turn out to be true, so for anyone in the business who wants to stay in the know, FC has become required reading.


That same need to know was explored on another level with the Web site BestCalls.com. Launched in March 1999 as a public directory for investors to learn about earnings conference calls, BestCalls.com faced hostility from companies whose conference calls were open only to the illuminati of elite investors.


Because these conference calls reveal information otherwise unobtainable in a prospectus or annual report, a loyal user following quickly developed, which put BestCalls.com in the position of being an industry catalyst. Ultimately, BestCalls' 76,000 registered users were instrumental in causing the majority of publicly held companies to embrace open access to these conference calls and even in the adopting of a new Securities and Exchange Commission regulation about fair disclosure.


Traits of success. How do organically grown sites build repeat visitors so quickly? There are several commonalities, the first of which is the word-of-mouth factor. Though many Web strategies are now built to include a "viral" component, some organically grown sites have stirred the pot without necessarily trying. Positive media exposure is another factor - visitors weren't the only ones who found these sites compelling. The last factor seemed to be the fulfillment of an untapped niche segment.


As an example, take indieWIRE. Founded in 1995 as a sporadic newsletter about the independent film industry, it was published through an AOL e-mail account and did not have much of a subscriber base. Brian Clark and Karol Martesko, publishers of FilmMag.com, recognized indieWIRE's potential as a perfect niche service provider and purchased the newsletter. Their strategy was to take advantage of a well-known entertainment industry formula: tap into the fans.


They were not prepared for how involved their fans would become: Instead of just being outsiders, reading and soaking up information, indieWIRE allowed its fans to participate, and eventually the same people who were reading the materials were also writing them, guest producing and even becoming newsmakers themselves. As Clark said, "Loyalty plus patience is better than a big ad budget anytime."


Empowering the user. What Clark and others have learned is that giving your audience a sense of ownership and involvement can be crucial to developing loyalty. Take the case of AllRecipes.com. AllRecipes aggregates recipes submitted by users and, along the way, has added features such as meal planning tools, online recipe boxes and online shopping in response to user requests.


With no marketing dollars, AllRecipes has grown into a community of more than 2.2 million users, many of whom feel the site is their own because they are the ones contributing the main content.


"We are not viewed as a big corporation driving a moneymaking ship," said Jennifer Rice, company representative. "We are viewed more like a neighborhood library providing resources and information to the community."


Chase Norlin, ShareYourWorld.com chairman, echoed similar sentiments. Founded in June 2000 with one digital photo, ShareYourWorld now houses more than 23,000 photographs and videos from individuals throughout the world.


"We work because people love to be empowered and make money from their material, which in turn drives them to tell others," Norlin said. "To date, the Internet has been focused only on downloading, or selling. We are about uploading, sharing and helping people change the world."


Revenues evolve as loyalty does. Another site publisher benefiting from a loyal audience is Jenny Wanderscheid, creator of ChildFun.com. Started for fun in December 1998 as a children's craft site, it now serves nearly 4 million page views a month, has changed its focus to holiday ideas and coloring pages and grossed her an income in the high five-figure range last year.


Wanderscheid never expected to be in this position.


"This has really shocked me," she said. "I never expected my site to get this big, and I don't have a business model. I started putting some of my favorite links on a Web page for my friends. Then crafts, then crafts for a particular theme, then coloring sheets. I just kept adding whatever they asked for."


Revenues followed, first from affiliate programs, then from ad sales, which now represent about 60 percent of her income.


Tim Carter, founder of AskTheBuilder.com, first thought he would generate his revenue from banner advertising dollars. He built his question-and-answer site for everyday folks and solicited advertisers. As his user base grew, he added an online store, then a newsletter through which he generated more ad dollars. His revenue stream has now altered from 100 percent banner advertising, to 55 percent banner and newsletter advertising, 45 percent store sales, with the future favoring increased store sales as opposed to banners.


BestCalls first thought it would make its money in advertising. Instead, it has diversified, making a larger portion of its revenue from data licensing and revenue-sharing partnership arrangements. Similarly, indieWIRE has seen a shift from an ad-based revenue model to one that generates revenue from contract publishing and content licensing, as well as from ad revenues. Some publishers of free e-mail newsletters, such as TidBits and Heroic Stories, have even reported requesting and receiving voluntary contributions in order to sustain themselves. How's that for loyalty?


Whether grown intentionally or unintentionally, loyal users look for great content, value and a sense of belonging. Start by delivering these, and who knows what revenues you might be get.


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