Running an online store is a popular business choice for mums because you can work from home at any time of the day or night. Another option is to make an income from offering information online, but it’s not as easy to understand how it works. If you’re not selling a product how do you make money? Sarah Sharp of FamiliesRecommend.co.uk to tells us how.
When Helen asked if I would write a short article on starting and running an information-based website, I jumped at the chance. There is often a misconception that running anything online is both quick and easy money. From my experience it’s not quick and it’s certainly not always easy. However, there are opportunities out there, but they take effort and patience to achieve.
Let me give you some background…
I set up and launched www.familiesrecommend.co.uk with my husband in early 2009. The idea for the site came about following a family holiday in 2008, just before I was due to head back to work following my maternity leave. On our holiday we spent days out in lots of little towns in North Yorkshire and before each we would search the web for things to do and found lots of sites with lists of venues. What we couldn’t find were real life reviews from families outlining if it was suitable for getting a pram in and out, feeding, baby change etc. There didn’t seem to be anything we could find which did this whole review element on a site by itself that focused on families. Then on a trip to Pickering, we attempted to have lunch in a pub. After finding a seat and getting a menu we were told that children were not allowed in the bar. (Fair enough – but there were no signs to say this.) We were told we could eat in the restaurant but couldn’t bring the pram into the restaurant. Now this is entirely fair – the owners made a decision and we respect this – but it wasn’t for us. We decided to leave. However, had someone recommended a place in Pickering where we could be accommodated for our needs we would have headed straight there.
On the way back to our cottage we talked about a review site where we could read real life reviews from families about recommended places to go. After much searching, we couldn’t find a website that exactly met our brief; we decided to set up our own.
We got a local web designer to develop a bespoke site and once it was launched we set about trying to get it populated. We wanted (and this still remains the case) the content to be user generated and user led. This lead us to a dilemma, how do you get people to take your site seriously when it has very little content. And why would advertisers want to pay to advertise on your site when you have little content and little traffic? So, in the last 12 months, we’ve worked hard, generated a following and now the advertisers are starting to come to us.
If you are thinking about setting up an information based website here are some things to consider.
If you have a business name or a name for your website, then buy the domain names as soon as you can. At the very least buy .com and .co.uk versions of your name. If you can buy the other top level domain alternatives such as .info and .me this is a good way to retain your brand. When your site becomes successful no one can try and steal your thunder with the same name but another address. It also allows those who do not know the exact address to still find you. Also consider misspellings for example people often misspell recommend and so may type ‘reccommend’ – we therefore have a domain called familiesreccommend.co.uk
Think long and hard about how information will be added to your site. Will it be your own content? Will it be user generated? Or a bit of both? How will you get external (web visitors or commissioned writers) to write for you?
Then think about the type of website you need to answer the question above, and if it involves user generated content, then how will this be done, through email / web forms / other? And will the content appear immediately? Will it be moderated? Will you need to do work on the content before it appears on the site?
We used our entire budget on getting a great looking custom-built site. We really didn’t think too much about marketing it. As such our marketing strategy has been built about what we can do that is free and inexpensive, although perhaps this has made us slightly more innovative in the approaches we have taken. However my advice is to put aside a little bit of your budget for marketing and PR. Do you need a custom built site? Could you develop your site through an off the shelf package or online resource such as WordPress? These can be cheaper and effective.
Making people aware of your website
There are millions of websites out there. The chances of people finding you by accident are quite slim unless you work at getting people to visit you. Search Engine Optimisation is a must, but is a labour intensive process. Your website needs to have the right search terms included in the right places in order for the search engines to pick it up and list it. If you don’t get SEO right, you’ll not appear high up the search engine rankings and people will never find you. We employed an SEO specialist to tackle part of our site for us, and it’s starting to show good results. But SEO takes times to do and to show results – it’s not a quick fix. We have to SEO every new review and every new page on the site in order to make it visible to the search engines, which can be time consuming.
Keeping in touch with your visitors
You need to get people to your site and keep them coming back again and again. As you are not selling a product you need to keep reminding people you are still there. We ask users to register with us when they want to submit a review and to subscribe to our newsletter, this means we can keep in touch with them at regular intervals. Even if they don’t read the newsletter, just the fact your name appears in their inbox may trigger a visit to the site.
We also use social media to engage with our users everyday. By using Twitter and Facebook we actively tell our followers about what is new on the site and encourage them to visit us. This way the site is always being promoted but in an uncostly way. Also, we have a blog. We write about the things that we don’t cover on the site, like the decisions behind the colour scheme of the site to our own recent family trip to Butlins.
Go to part 2 of How to run an information-based website as a business.
Sarah Sharp is the co-owner of www.familiesrecommend.co.uk, an online review and information site for discerning families. She is married to Lee and is mum to Thomas, who is almost three years old. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.