By Burt Helm
Serial entrepreneur Munjal Shah had an ingenious idea. He came up with a way to help computer users sort through the sometimes countless images stored on their hard drives. So in 2004 he started building a Web site, Riya, that uses sophisticated facial recognition technology to scan a photo library, sorting and labeling prints by who is pictured.
Mastering the technology and launching the business was one thing. Then came an even harder part: getting users to show up. That can be especially daunting with online photo-sharing, where snazzy startups tussle with such established brands as Hewlett-Packard’s Snapfish and Kodak’s EasyShare Gallery.
THE OLD WAY. But it’s a challenge faced by just about every Web startup. With new companies emerging constantly, building an online presence is fraught with confusion. How do you create awareness on a shoestring budget? Do you take out ads on other Web sites? Buy “keywords” from Yahoo or Google? Hire a PR agency?
All can be effective, but they come at a cost. Take keywords, where the advertiser pays on a per-click basis for placement alongside a Web search triggered by certain words or phrases. Depending on the search term used, a company can end up paying dearly when its site is clicked on, even if the visitor doesn’t stick around, much less register or make a purchase.
Hiring a PR consultant can set a company back anywhere from $60 to $350 an hour. But that doesn’t mean a business is up a creek if it doesn’t have the funding for a big-budget marketing campaign. Web experts point out some clever ways to generate traffic without having to spend too much money.
PRIME THE PUMP. An important early step: Give users a reason to hang around. Make at least some of your tools and features free, says Lynn Stott, director of TechSoup, a Web site that offers tech tips and advice for nonprofit groups. “Too often, small businesses really wanted to keep everything close to the chest, and charge for everything — but you’ve got to prime the pump a little bit,” says Stott.
Give potential customers time to play around on the site, whether with snazzy tools or articles with related news or advice, and it will help them build trust in your little startup and warm them to the idea of doing business there.
Pete Flint, chief executive of real estate search engine Trulia, tries to make his site fun even for people who aren’t looking seriously for homes. For one, he pairs a variety of price-range and size filters with Google Maps, helping Trulia build users who feel tied to the brand ahead of time. Real estate brokers who “had helped us build and design the service then e-mailed their agents and said: ‘Check it out,’ and their agents in turn mentioned it to the buyers.” Flint says.
PARTY PARTNER. At Riya, which was launched publicly on Mar. 26, Shah’s team created a feature that lets users import a party invitation from a site like Evite. When users upload photos from a particular event, the tool automatically tags them so that they show up alongside everyone else’s party photos. Shah’s hoping people will keep coming back as new photos are added.
For companies that opt for online advertising, experts recommend proceeding judiciously. It may seem tempting to buy space associated with searches based on general words, such as “travel,” “photos,” or “real estate.” But such broad terms can be extremely expensive and competitive.
Instead, buy cheaper, less common terms, says Brad Fallon, a marketing consultant. “You have to choose your battles,” he says. “Instead of ‘New York Hotels,’ buy ads for the phrase ‘Discount Hotels New York City.'” It may generate fewer clicks but will yield a higher return, he says. Travel site Kayak.com eschews “cheap travel,” which costs about $1.25 per click, instead buying phrases of specific routes like “New York to Chicago.” That one costs a little under 50 cents on the Yahoo search engine.
BLOG IT. Another tip for Web startups: Find partnerships that bring built-in bases of traffic. Flint says one of Trulia’s first steps was giving a heads-up to real-estate and tech blogs, to get enthusiasts interested. Kayak.com, begun in January, 2004, by veterans of Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity, sought arrangements whereby it would provide travel-search services for bigger Web sites, such as USA Today, About.com, and AOL.
Founders Steve Hafner and Paul English met with AOL when their idea for the company was just three weeks old. “At that point, AOL said, ‘We agree with the vision, we’re not so sure you can execute it — you don’t even have business cards,'” Hafner says, laughing.
Kayak eventually won business from AOL, which directs users to Kayak’s site. “[AOL] was the first big punch,” English says. In addition to aiding them acquire traffic, it helped distinguish them from other travel sites.
Determined to spend next to nothing on marketing, Shah hatched his own plan for Riya. In late August, 2005, he started keeping a regular blog about launching his startup.
LOYAL FOLLOWING. “The idea was to have frank conversation with potential users,” getting them involved with the process from the beginning, Shah says. “I just started telling the story of the company with me as the protagonist, with regular entries with mock-ups of what I was trying to build, or just posts where I’d say: ‘God, this was frustrating today.'”
A few established bloggers, including BusinessWeek‘s own Rob Hof pointed to his blog, and Shah started generating readership. Blogging is a tack adopted by other startups, including plumpstocking.com, an online stocking stuffer store. Founder Kathleen Vignos regularly weighs in on the challenges and milestones of starting a business.
Does it work? Blogging and other methods helped Riya establish a loyal following before the site went live. In the first 24 hours, nearly 1 million photos were uploaded, he says. “All in all, I think we spent $2,000 on marketing and promotion, including the pizza and T-shirts at the launch party,” Shah says. In less than a month, the company is halfway toward its traffic goal for the whole year, giving hope to other new businesses eager to build a Web presence without going broke.