Web Sites Only Snare Visitors Through Aggressive Promotion Strategies

While Web Fever has virtually all sports and fitness-related organizations boosting their commitment to cyberspace, Internet marketing consultants warn that without proper marketing and promotion, Web sites can quickly become cyber elephants.

"The now cliché, 'If you build it, they will come,' has lulled many online marketers into a false sense of opportunity," says Charles Sayers, an Internet marketing consultant based in Acworth, Ga. "The truth is that building Web site traffic requires a system of aggressive, attention-getting tactics."

For businesses just taking the plunge, or organizations looking to refocus their efforts, Internet consultants advise taking advantage of as many of the following Web site marketing and promotion strategies as possible:

Rent or buy a consumer E-mail list. This is one of the easiest - although potentially the most expensive - ways to promote programs and services on the Web. Essentially, businesses using this technique rent exposure in an already established E-mail customer distribution list. Often, the firm owning the list recommends via E-mail that its customers visit the site of the list renter, and sometimes includes a discount coupon for goods or services at the list renter's site.

Consider a professional search engine listing firm. Web users often turn to search engines like Yahoo! (www.yahoo .com) and Excite! (www.excite.com) to help them find specific information on the Net. Given the great power these search engines have to steer thousands of Net cruisers to specific sites, it should come as no surprise that many charge a fee to ensure certain businesses are among the top links listed. (Other search engines do not charge a fee, but it should be noted that only the most expert positioning firms or software packages have the ability to ensure a business is among the first links returned in a search.) Try one of these searches, and you can bet the result isn't accidental. When the keywords "fitness club Los Angeles" were entered into Yahoo! recently, Tanny's Personal Fitness (www.tannys.com) was the first link to be listed. Another winner in the listing wars is New York Sports Clubs (www.nysc.com). Its site was first up when the keywords "fitness clubs New York" were entered.

Another option: use a software program like Web Site Traffic Builder, by Draper, Utah-based Intelliquis (www.intelliquis.com). Traffic Builder automatically registers your site with more than 900 Internet search engines and puts your business in the appropriate category for each search engine. Plus, you can use the software to check your site's position on the Net's eight most popular search engines. A similar program, Web-Position Gold, by FirstPlace Software (www.webposition.com), focuses on getting your site listed high up on top search engines. (For more information on search engine positioning, check out www.searchenginewatch.com, a cornucopia of insight and information on the technology.)

Get posted in Web directories. Like search engine listings, directories can help Net cruisers get to your site more quickly. Health-club.net (www.health-club.net), based in the United Kingdom, offers links to dozens of health clubs across the pond. Meanwhile, Health Club Directory (www.global-fitness.com/directories/dir_hc.html), based in Portland, Ore., offers listings and links to more than 16,000 health clubs here in the United States.

Link your site. Probably the easiest, least expensive and most effective way to promote a site is to link your page with every other noncompetitive page on the Internet that shares the same interest. Or, in the words of Craig Settles,a senior strategist for Berkeley, Calif.-based Successful Marketing Strategists and author of Cybermarketing: Essentials for Success, "Link until you drop."

An example: YMCA of San Diego County (www.ymca.org) exchanges links with a number of YMCAs worldwide to help promote the international organization.

Enter as many Web-site contests as possible. Web sites that have the mettle should attempt to get their new site judged by the many "Cool Site of the Day" judging services. Sites that are judged worthy of an award are given the equivalent of a graphic blue ribbon they can post on their site. More important, the judging service also provides a free link to the winning page from its own home page - a perk that can literally generate thousands of visits to a new Web site, according to Sayers. Adds Jim Wilson, the Webmaster behind Virtual Promote (www.virtualpromote.com), "Keep in mind that most people who will be surfing to your Web site don't know the relative difficulty of earning different awards. All they see is that some people thought your site was good enough to win an award. Go ahead. Apply for everything."

Start your own contest. Another tried-and-true traffic generator, online contests have the added advantage of gleaning valuable demographic data about site visitors.

Establish a virtual press center. Among the most overlooked opportunities on the Web is the opportunity to establish a virtual press center on a site. Increasingly, journalists are turning to the Internet to search for stories and develop new ideas, and there is no reason why any business with a Web site should pass up an opportunity for free media exposure, says Settles. TriEd Fitness in Springfield, Va. (www.tinixstix .com), has a virtual press center at its site, as does Extreme Karate & Fitness in Rockledge, Pa. (www.extreme-karate .com).

Become an information clearinghouse. Web sites featuring in-depth informational resources are magnets for potential customers. A good start, for example, is to simply offer searchable links to 100 or more Web sites offering information related to the fitness industry. Alternatively, you may want to create a series of in-depth backgrounders on your programs and services.

Offer a branded news ticker. This is one of the more innovative promotion strategies being used today. Currently, a number of news organizations offer free, Web-based news feeds - including sports news feeds - to any Web site interested in running them. For example, Individual.com (www.individual.com) offers free news feeds to Web sites.

Start a message board. The Internet's answer to the local coffee shop or town square, message boards enable visitors to post messages to one another in a dedicated domain, and thus build a community centered around the sponsoring Web site. The Southern Bicycle League (www.bikesbl.org), based in Stone Mountain, Ga., is one of many sports organizations with a message board at its site.

Consider banner ads. Many Web sites are promoted by brief flourishes of color and text banner ads that float across the screen while Net cruisers are visiting related Web sites. "During the past year, many services have sprung up to help Webmasters find other sites to exchange banner advertising," says Virtual Promote's Wilson. Find a list of these services, as well as how to buy banner ads on highly trafficked sites, at www.virtualpromote .com/promote9.html.

Start a newsletter. Interesting and informative company newsletters are a time-honored way to establish an ongoing relationship with current and prospective customers. The Holiday Health & Racquet Club (www.holiday healthclub.net), based in Pittsburgh, Pa., has an online sign-up form for an E-mail newsletter. Deer Valley Racquet Club (www.deervalleyclub.com), based in Boone, N.C., has a similar newsletter sign-up at its site.

Offer coupons. This is another old-economy, bricks-and-mortar solution that works just as well - if not better - on the Web. Coupons can easily be offered on-line for easy printout, or periodically delivered directly to a visitor's Email box. The advantage of E-mail delivery is that the business can more easily build a relationship with customers over time, since they do not have to make any effort to search for the coupons. Bruce Drago's Karate America Family Center (www.dragosfitness.com), based in Blandon, Pa., offers a number of discount coupons on its site, as does Fitness First Health & Fitness Center (www.fitnessfirst.net), based in Feeding Hills, Mass.

Offer free classified ads. A bread-and-butter advertising staple of every newspaper in America, classified ads are also a big hit on the Net. Many businesses offer classified domains as a free service, just to draw more traffic to their sites.

Add "Send This Page" or "Recommend This Site to a Friend" options. A new twist on one of the most reliable forms of advertising - word-of-mouth - these options enable site visitors to forward your home page, or a quick heads-up about the site, to a friend's E-mail address.

Sayers says that sports-related businesses looking to maximize the Web's potential should first attempt to determine how many of their potential customers are actually online - and how easily business owners will be able to reach them. Obviously, he says, it makes no sense to invest resources in a Web page if only a small percentage of your potential customer base actually has an Internet connection.

If the majority of your customer base has Internet access, however, and you build your site with care, a huge number of visitors will soon be trapped in the Web you weave.