Everybody wants more traffic. And free traffic, especially.
We've previously covered why you should forget about traffic when you start out. Instead, focus on getting paying customers, right away. If you follow the advice on this site, you'll soon find yourself with a solid business and a small number of customers or clients... but what then?
At some point, traffic generation becomes the logical next step to focus on. That's what this post and our next series of podcast episodes is about.
To start things off, here's a comprehensive list of methods and strategies you can use to get traffic. Specifically, these are bootstrap-friendly "free" traffic generation methods.
Click here to download the MP3 version of the podcast episode that goes along with this post.
When you bootstrap your business, budget is always a major consideration. And that's why "free" or "organic" traffic is such a buzzword in online marketing. We'd all love to get tons of traffic without having to pay for it.
Before we get into our list, consider this change in mindset: it's not about getting "free" traffic, more often it's about paying with time instead of money.
More importantly, there's a distinction between traffic that has ongoing costs (e.g. pay-per-click advertising) and something that may come with some up-front cost, but doesn't scale proportionally to how much traffic you get.
Truly free traffic doesn't exist. Think of traffic as something you have to spend resources on. Those resources can include money, time and effort or brain-power. By considering the cost and potential returns of different methods, you'll be able to make better decisions about which methods to use, than if you just think of all of the following as "free".
With that said, let's get down to business.
If you follow our customer first approach to building a business, then this is the perfect traffic generation method to start with.
You're working with individual clients, helping them directly and getting feedback from them that helps you improve your product or service. The most straight-forward way for you to turn this activity into more traffic is to ask for referrals.
The best part of all this - and the reason it's the first method in our list - is that you don't need any special software or systems to make this happen. This referral tactic requires nothing more than person-to-person conversations and maybe a spreadsheet to keep track of who referred whom (if you include incentives).
The goal is to take your "customer first" approach one small step further: you're already interacting with clients 1-on-1, building out your product and validating your business. In addition, you can ask for referrals in order to slightly increase the number of new clients and potential future customers come your way.
The strategy won't lead to floods of traffic, but gives you a good boost to start off with.
There are 2 options to consider, when making referrals a part of your process:
Incentives can be great, but it can also feel a bit icky to refer your friends and then get rewarded for it. It can feel like you sold out.
To mitigate this feeling, you can offer an incentive both to the referrer and the person they refer to you. For example: your client gets a 10% discount and the person they refer also gets the discount.
To get started, simple, word-of-mouth referrals are perfect. The same marketing principle can also be applied as your business scales up, by integrating a referral system in your product. This works best for online courses and software products.
The idea is the same as in method #01, except that you automate the process. New customers will see that there is a way for them to earn a bonus or discount by referring friends, they receive a unique referral link and they can share it on social media or directly with friends. The software automatically keeps track of referrals and, depending on your setup, can also automatically distribute your incentive rewards.
Here's an example of what users of CoSchedule see in their dashboard:
Each user gets a simple referral link to share and every user they refer gives them 10% off their subscription price.
The goal is to create a steady flow of new leads for your business by "activating" and rewarding your happy customers and clients. A good referral program can be evergreen and self perpetuating, because the more happy customers you have, the more referrals you get and so on.
Find something valuable you can offer to reward customers for their referrals. Ideally, it's something relevant to them and something that's uncomplicated. Rewards like discounts on your next purchase, gift cards, t-shirts and other swag are great. Cash rewards should be avoided, because paying out $$$ implies having to file various forms to remain tax compliant (for both you and the recipients of the rewards).
We've all familiar with the idea of a story or video or meme "going viral" and spreading all across the Internet. This kind of virality is what many hope for, but it's not reliable or reproducible. We will cover this type of virality (see method #06), but first, let's look at a more reliable and predictable kind of viral traffic generation.
An alternative approach to tapping into the viral nature of the Internet is what we call the "systematic snowball". It works like this: create a contest or giveaway in which people can win a prize. As part of this contest, let people increase their chances of winning by referring more people to the contest.
This way, the more people see the contest, the more new people will be referred to it, which leads to more people seeing the contest and so on.
Rewarding people for referrals builds a snowball effect of traffic and extends your reach beyond your already existing audience. The goal is to create a contest that appeals to the right kind of people, matching your target audience. A good outcome is that you get many new leads for a relatively low price (e.g. a contest reward that you can give away at a relatively low cost). Don't expect a "viral explosion" type of outcome. More commonly, this method extends your reach, but not by a huge amount.
The easiest way to set up a viral contest like this is to use a service like Gleam, UpViral or Viral Loops. These tools are different in some details, but the fundamentals are always the same: you can set up your contest parameters, different rewards for sharing and referrals and create a landing page that advertises the contest.
The most important factor to the success of a viral campaign like this is picking good rewards. The rewards need to be valuable enough to get people really engaged and wanting to win. But they also need to be "targeted", so that they don't appeal to just anyone and instead attract people who are in your target market.
This method continues the theme of getting more traffic via referrals. When you sell a product or service, you can start an affiliate program to reward publishers who promote you. Most affiliate programs simply pay out a portion of the generated sales to the referring affiliate. For example, for every $100 sale someone refers to you, you pay them $20.
Affiliate marketing has been an important traffic source for almost all products I've sold. I've found that the best approach is to create a highly exclusive affiliate program, in which you closely vet and review all applicants and only approve the ones that are the best match for you. An open affiliate program can end up costing you more than it brings in additional profits.
The goal of an affiliate program is to build and cultivate good relations with affiliate partners who will promote your product through various channels. This helps you offload some of your marketing work and reach new audiences.
To start your own affiliate program, you can use a solution like Refersion and integrate it with whatever payment or ecommerce solution you're using. Alternatively, you can use a platform or marketplace that handles payments and includes an affiliate program. For example: SendOwl, Zaxaa or ClickBank.
These solutions handle all the technical details of running an affiliate program. In addition, you should make sure that you have a way of screening affiliate applicants (we simply send applicants to a Google Form with qualifying questions first) and you should add affiliates to a dedicated mailing list, so you have an easy way of communicating with them and notifying them about new offers, launches etc.
Content marketing is the process of producing content on a regular basis, in order to:
Depending on your market and strategy, the details of the content you create can vary greatly. Most commonly, content takes the form of informative, written content in blog posts and articles. However, entertaining content, news content, video content or audio content can equally be used for content marketing.
The more content you create, the greater the pool of content that new visitors can find. They may encounter this content via search or on social media. If you create good content, it leaves an impression and people are likely to want to come back for more. And if someone has been exposed to a lot of great content from you, they're likely to see you as a trustworthy authority and be more willing to buy something from you.
The tools needed for content marketing depend on what media you want to create. The need for audio and video equipment represents a small obstacle for creating podcasts and video content. For written content, there's basically no barrier of entry. If you're reading this, you already have everything you need to create blog posts.
More important than the tools is how you use them. To give yourself a chance to succeed with content marketing, you need to have a unique angle or unique voice to your content and you need to create it consistently, for a long period of time.
The previous strategy is all about the long term. Consistent output of quality content eventually pays off. "The Big Hit" is the opposite. Here, we're talking about "going viral" in the sense that you create a single piece of content that spreads across the Internet like wildfire.
A great example of this kind of viral marketing is Dollar Shave Club, which was successfully launched on the basis of a single (hilarious) video:
The goal with this approach is to create widespread awareness of your product or brand, based on a single, highly shareable piece of content. If it works out, a single piece of content (like the example video above) can put your business on the map and give you all the traffic and customers you need for your business to take off.
To achieve a viral hit, your content has to be emotionally appealing and highly shareable. Viral content is usually something that's A) easy to consume and B) makes people laugh or pulls at their heart-strings in some way.
The problem is that there's no systematic or repeatable way to do this. Your best chance is to create highly shareable content again and again, hoping that you eventually land that hit.
This is a variant of viral marketing that lately has become the domain mostly of large brands, but that can be done on a smaller scale as well. The idea is to create something that is newsworthy, in order to get free coverage in the media. It's similar to viral marketing, except that it usually takes place offline, in the real world, instead of online.
An example of this is underwear brand Gold Toe putting huge underpants on the Wall Street bull statue:
In principle, something like this can be done on a very small budget.
The goal is to generate free media coverage that is associated with your brand or product and to do so at a much lower cost than if you had to pay for that same amount of coverage.
Note that for this to be successful, it doesn't have to get coverage on an international or even national level. For local businesses, it can be relatively easy to create something that's noteworthy enough to generate local coverage (and that's all these businesses need).
Pulling off a good PR stunt is mostly about creativity and opportunity. It's about finding a simple, yet remarkable thing that you can do, somewhere in your community. Creativity exercises and setting yourself some limitations can help in the process.
Guest posting is a form of content marketing. The difference is that instead of creating content and publishing it on your own website, you aim to publish your content on other people's websites, to get in front of other people's audiences.
This can help you establish yourself as a recognizable expert, get your name and the name of your brand or product out there and lead some traffic back to your website. It can also be an SEO strategy for gaining backlinks, although Google have stated that they make an effort to prevent guest posting from being exploited purely for SEO.
Get your content on to websites that already have established and large audiences. The goal is to "borrow" someone else's audience, which matches the audience you are trying to attract to your own site. If you do guest posting consistently, it can lead to a steady stream of traffic to your site, as well as increase your site's potential for ranking in search engines.
Mostly, you don't need specific tools to do guest posting. Just like content marketing, it can be done with practically zero budget.
Tools like Buzzstream or Outreach Ninja can help you systematize and automate your outreach, but they aren't required for guest posting. Similarly, tools like Gingko or Scrivener can support you in the writing process, but you don't need anything other than a notepad.
Here, the idea is similar to guest posting: you can create your own podcast and publish content to it (content marketing) or you can appear on other podcasts, as a guest.
If you can present yourself as an expert in your niche or you have an interesting story to tell, you can appear on countless "guest interview" type podcasts. Like guest posting, this gives you exposure to already existing audiences, without having to build an audience from scratch.
Get featured on podcasts, get in front of those podcast audiences and tell your story/share your expertise. This helps you spread the word about what you do and establishes you as an expert or e-celebrity in your space.
The key to making guest podcasting work is to reach out to podcast hosts and have an interesting story to tell and/or something of great value to teach. If you appear on a podcast or two and make a good impression, it will become a lot easier to get featured on more podcasts, because it's less of a risk for the hosts.
This is an old-school strategy but it needs to be mentioned: you can simply reach out to website owners and ask them to link to your content. For example:
The goal is to get links from other websites to your website. It's as simple as that. Those links can lead some traffic to your site, but more importantly, these are the most "natural" and real backlinks you can get. They are arguably the best kinds of links you can get for SEO.
The most important part of this traffic strategy is your research. You need to find as many target sites as possible that are highly relevant to the piece of content or page that you are trying to get a link to. Then, you need to find a way to contact the owners of those websites.
This can be done through simple Google searching. In addition, ahrefs comes with excellent tools to help you find related sites and even sites with broken links that you could offer to replace with your content.
Here's a popular twist on outreach: instead of asking for a link or a share, ask for an opinion. You can easily create a piece of content by compiling opinions or recommendations from experts in your niche. An example of such an expert roundup is this post about getting your first 1,000 visitors.
Not only do you get "free" content by following this strategy, it also creates an opportunity to reach out to experts in your niche and gives them a reason to share or link to your content (because they're part of it).
Ideally, you get to feature the top experts in your niche on your website, you cast them in a positive light and some of them will share the post you create or even link to it. This leads to some direct traffic and backlinks. It can also be a foot in the door for further collaborations with those experts.
The basics of this strategy are the same as in the two previous examples using outreach, you're just coming to the people you reach out to with a different ask.
Make sure to keep it as low friction as possible for experts you reach out to. For example, send them your question on Twitter and invite them to respond directly in the form of a tweet. This way, they don't have to take any extra steps, read any emails or anything like that. They can respond on the spot. The lower the friction, the more likely you are to get a response.
If you want to make this a regular part of your content and traffic strategy, I recommend cultivating connections with important experts in your niche. The ConversionXL blog is a great example of how this can result in a value add in many content pieces, on a regular basis.
Influencer marketing works like this: you find someone with a large audience in your niche and you sponsor them. Usually, this means that you pay them and in exchange, they will use your product, talk about your product or downright promote your product for a certain period of time.
As you can tell, this is a form of paid advertising. It can be effective, but for this list, we're looking at free traffic strategies. That's where the twist comes in, in 2 points:
The goal is to get in front of someone else's audience. In addition, the goal with this specific tactic is to build connections to people who are up-and-coming and may be big influencers in the future. If you can support them early on and help them grow, they could become extremely valuable partners in the future.
To implement this strategy, focus on research and outreach (starting to see a pattern, here?). To help with the research phase, use tools like SocialBlade and Stargazer, which can help you find popular and growing influencers in your niche, specifically on social platforms like YouTube and Instagram.
It's an old adage that business is all about who you know. Whatever market you are in, if you know the right people, if you can get advice and support from and collaborate with leading figures in your space, it can skyrocket the success of your business.
Here's the important thing, though: the end result may be a huge increase in exposure and traffic for you, but if you focus too much on that end result, you set yourself up to fail. The best way to go about this is to get in touch with people without holding out a begging hand right away. Connect with people for the sake of connecting with them. Help out where you can, instead of asking for favors right away.
Surround yourself with the right people and it will make all the difference to your success. Don't aim too hard at a specific goal. Instead, be helpful and connect on a human level first. Opportunities for promotions, collaborations and all kinds of other things will emerge naturally.
Maybe you're thinking: "I know where this is going: do research to find experts in your niche and use outreach tools, right?"
But hold your horses: an overly mechanical approach will simply not work. If you approach a bunch of experts because they were on the list in your research tool, your chances of making a connection with them are minuscule.
Because you don't actually know them, don't know what they do and don't care about them.
Instead, immerse yourself in your niche and find people you actually admire and look up to. Then, think of what unique value you could bring to them or what you have in common with them to connect and geek out over.
Go to conferences and meetups and try to meet people face-to-face, primarily. This forms a much more powerful connection than exchanging emails or tweets.
In every market and niche, there are various groups and communities where people gather, gossip and share. Such communities take the form of Facebook groups, Quora topics, Subreddits and forums.
In some niches, getting exposure in such communities can lead to huge amounts of traffic. Case in point: the "hug of death" effect when a site gets upvoted heavily on Reddit and the server can't handle the resulting deluge of traffic.
Of course, popular communities must guard against spammy promotions, so it's not as easy as just sharing a link to your site. Instead, it's a form of online networking, where you need to get in with the right crowd. You can become recognized as a valued member of an online community, you can know people who will share your content for you and so on.
The goal is to get to a point where your content and your product is shared among members of highly active communities in your niche. If you can make yourself a recognizable character in the community and/or make your brand a known mainstay in a community, it can result in a steady stream of highly valuable traffic.
Finding the relevant and active communities in your market is easy. Just search Reddit, Quora, Facebook and so on and see where the action is. Getting in - to the degree where your stuff is being shared and discussed in the group - is the hard part.
Some of the other strategies on this list can help: if you guest post for someone, appear on their podcast or invite them to appear on yours and otherwise reach out and network, you're going to have an easier time finding integration and acceptance in a community.
As an alternative (or addition) to community syndication, you can set out to create your own community. This can be a community specifically around your brand or simply a discussion group in your market or niche. As the founder of a community, you gain authority and if your community is well run, you also gain respect and exposure.
Create a community hub in your market, where people in your target market gather and exchange. The community itself can draw in new members and provide you with a traffic source for your own site and brand.
I'm highly underqualified to give advice on how to do this. The only experiment I ever did on building a community was a rapid and definitive failure.
Having said that, I would venture to guess that A) finding a "gap" in your market that isn't already being serviced by an active community and B) creating a clear, unique message about what differentiates you, can't hurt.
Public speaking is a classic way to gain exposure and build authority. Authors and experts are the typical candidates for using public speaking to advance their business, but it can be just as useful for other kinds of businesses. Speaking is essentially a type of content marketing, the content is just presented through different media.
The goal of public speaking is to present yourself as an expert and teach something valuable, creating exposure and a positive association for your product or brand. At some events, you can also directly sell your product or service to the audience, so it becomes a direct marketing/sales opportunity.
You don't have to start with a TED talk. It's much easier to start with public speaking than most people think. Seek out local community venues related to your market and start there. For example: co-working spaces for anything related to business and entrepreneurship, yoga studios for anything related to health and spirituality etc. The barrier of entry in small venues with small crowds is usually very low.
From there, speaking begets more speaking. When you approach a larger venue or conference, you'll already have experience under your belt.
Make sure to get recordings of your presentations whenever possible, since those can double as further material for content marketing and traffic generation.
I have to mention this one, even though it is indirect. Creating a product isn't itself a traffic generation method, but my experience was that once I had my own product, everything about getting traffic got much easier.
I've described this in more detail in this post about 15 reasons why you should create and sell your own product as well as this older post about how I got my first, serious traffic boost. In fact, look at this list of traffic generation strategies and you'll see that most of them only make sense if you do have your own product and brand to send traffic to. Having your own product gives you leverage in many areas, including traffic generation.
The main goal of creating your own product is to have something you can sell directly. This is the foundation of a value based business and it usually ends up being a much easier way to make money than more "passive" approaches like building sites and monetizing them with ads or reselling mass manufactured goods on Amazon.
In addition, having your own product and selling it on your own website gives you all kinds of leverage for generating more traffic, establishing your own brand, increasing your earnings through A/B testing and other conversion optimization strategies, using follow-up marketing and deepening your funnel with revenue engines.
The tools for creating and selling your own product like an ebook or online course can be plentiful and overwhelming. My advice is to keep things simple, when you start out. Use a service like SendOwl or Gumroad to sell your first product. These tools take care of all the technical stuff for you, so you can focus on what matters most: creating your product.
Also, both of these services have an integrated affiliate program, so you can make use of traffic strategy #04 once your product is done.
As for the "how to", listen to our podcast series on the Customer First Approach to creating a product to learn the fastest and most effective way I know of, to create your own product.
You may have noticed that there's no entry for search engine optimization on this list. SEO is usually the first thing people mention on the topic of free traffic, so why the omission?
Search engine optimization isn't really a single traffic generation strategy. Instead of listing it as a single entry, you'll find specific strategies in the list above, that can be part of a larger SEO strategy (for example: outreach, guest posting, expert roundups).
We will go into more detail on SEO related strategies in future episodes in our traffic series.
That concludes our overview of "free" traffic generation strategies. Remember that the point is not to pursue each and every one of them. This would mean spreading yourself too thinly and not getting results on any front.
Instead, look through this list and look for the strategies that:
If you're a prolific writer in a highly technical niche, then content marketing and guest posting might be the best match for you. If you're a fast-talking people person in a highly shareable niche, then guest podcasting, video content creation and a viral marketing strategy is a much better match.
You'll get the best results by focusing on just one or two of these strategies and doing them consistently.
In the next weeks, we will be publishing further podcast episodes, taking a deep dive into some of these traffic generation strategies.
Leave a comment with your questions on the topic of free traffic generation, so we can make the following episodes more relevant to your needs. You can also leave a voice message, right here:
I'm looking forward to hearing your questions and feedback!
I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.
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