Working in the web hosting industry, I come across a lot of interesting sites and not surprisingly, I’ve found that a good number of new site owners have at least one of two goals in mind – to become well-known on the Internet, or to make money…sometimes even both. It’s also not surprising to find out that less than an eighth of the people that have these goals will never meet them.
One of the more common trends I’ve noticed is the creation of free services. No individual wants to pay for using things on the Internet nowadays, and anyone who has a choice between a paid and a free service will consider the free choice first. Offering a free service also may mean big bucks for you in the long run, so if you were thinking about enhancing your presence on the Internet by offering a service, here are some tips to help get you started.
1) Come up with a solution
People turn to using services because they provide some kind of value that can help or solve a real-life issue. For instance, Mint.com offers free financial planning services. Facebook and MySpace offer social networking to help you keep in touch with other people. These services were unique to their time, which is why they are so popular – and now millions of people use them. The first thing you should think about when starting any new service is what you can offer for people that may have a dilemma or need for efficiency. Stuck? Carry a mini notebook around and jot down things that you do on a daily basis, then look back and think: Is there something on this list that would be easier to do or track if there was a something out there to help me out? Also, don’t waste your time trying to clone free services that already exist unless you’re prepared to offer something that they don’t. Instead, focus on coming up with something unique.
2) See what’s already out there
When I was in technical support, I would come across at least two customers every week that appeared to be starting some kind of social networking site, and some even admitted that they’re trying to launch the next MySpace. Let’s get a reality check here – most of the popular social networking sites out there have been around for years and by now have millions of users, and are endorsed by multi-billion dollar companies. You’re not going to have the next eBay or Youtube, so don’t waste your time trying. When there are already hundreds of services offering the one that you’re trying to launch, you really need to know what you’re doing if you plan on being successful at reaching your target audience. Your best bet at success is offering something that no one else does.
Instead, again, focus on bringing something new to the table or improving a service that isn’t as readily available. One of the best ways to get attention for a free service is basing it off a paid one that is at least moderately successful. The simple concept of something being free will entice your targeted audience to at least try it.
3) Figure out how you’re going to do it
Listen here, dreamer – if you want people to use your service, you have to do some a lot of technical planning. Depending on what kind of service you’re starting, you may end up needing a design and custom content management software for your website, neither of which comes easy or cheap. If you’re tech-savvy, expect to spend at least 10 hours a week for several months on development alone. If you’re not a technical person when it comes to programming and site design, well, let’s hope you have quite a bit of money saved up.
But – don’t just start throwing a bunch of junk together. You need to site down with a pencil and paper and plan out all the major aspects of your website before you get started. This tends to be the most time-consuming part of the entire process if you’re doing this all yourself, because you have to think about how everything is going to tie together as far as programming, layout, and security. Then there’s the actual doing of all this, which takes even more time. Be aware of exactly what you’re needing and how long it’s actually going to take. Once you have a plan, start on it as soon as possible. It helps to make an outline of what needs to get done, and then set deadlines for those items.
4) Think about maintenance
Running a service doesn’t end at its launch, that is, if you want your users to continue using it. You need to think about how you’re going to support and maintain your service – your users may try to contact you every so often if they need help, or the site itself may eventually need maintenance and updates performed. If you don’t think you’re going to be able to maintain the site yourself, see if you have any friends that will be willing to help out. Depending on how successful your service ends up, you may eventually need to hire staff members to help you maintain the site.
5) Make it free for them, but profitable to you
You’ll want to make all this worth your time, otherwise you’ll probably end up giving up. Free services are almost always supported by paid ads, which offer a per-click or per-sale incentive for you. Always consider putting ads or endorsements on the site that will bring in money, but make sure they are relevant to what your service is offering and they don’t affect the usability of the site. Search places like Commission Junction for affiliate programs or other services that you think your users will find helpful. Either way, find ways to make your site profitable, whether it be supported by ads, or giving the option for users to upgrade to a paid service that offers a few more features.
6) Cover your ass
7) Make it known
You need to get the word out about what you’re trying to do, and set it up far enough in advance to where people are actually looking forward – and waiting anxiously – to using your service. This means using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks to tell everyone about the site, and reach out to other blog owners that may be interested in posting about it. You’ll want to start letting people know about it at least 2-4 weeks before your expected launch date. Your site should have a visually-friendly page up indicating what services and features you will offer, when they will be available, and that it’s free. It may also be worth setting up a mailing list that people can opt into so they are notified of updates, and purchasing ad space on more popular sites, which can eventually pay off if your service is a success.
8) Stick with it
One of the hardest parts of starting anything is sticking with it. In this case, you may be looking at a project lasting six months to well over a year. If you think about giving up, motivate yourself by thinking about how much money you’re going to make, or how you’re going to be helping people. If you find yourself in a bind, consider getting help or making your goals a little more realistic.