Had an email this week from Kalena Jordan asking me for an update on the Bento Yum "blocking Google" series I started earlier this year. I'd launched the project back in May as a new series about a building a business without the benefit of search traffic. The goal of the series was to rely on word of mouth, blogging and social media to build a successful web site. While the project had serious potential, I only managed to get five or six articles out of it before I had to call it quits. That doesn't mean there weren't valuable lessons learned though.
The first lessons?...the perils of a good idea and a lack of time.
I launched the first article for Bento Yum back in May and managed to churn out several articles about how we were leveraging social media to help build the site. I hit a huge stumbling block when the community I'd joined discovered I was a marketer and assumed I was only there to game the system, but I managed to recover when many of them realized I'd been there before the series and pointed out that while I was a marketer, I was also adding value to the community.
Unfortunately, I picked a bad time to launch the series. We did booming business for the first several months after the site was launched. In fact, Abigail was barely able to keep sets in stock. Now it might be easy to say the site did so well because I was writing about it here, but the reality was sales were coming from our social media marketing efforts. I was tracking our traffic and sales using ClickTracks and it was easy to see my series was sending traffic, but the sales were coming from the bento communities on Live Journal, Flickr and other blogs. Even without the aid of search engine traffic, we were seeing excellent growth in blog traffic and a steady stream of sales and links.
Then summer hit and I had back to back to back trips for speaking gigs. All that traveling left me struggling to keep up with my "real" job here at Search Engine Guide which meant Bento Yum had to go to the sidelines. I was still making bentos at a pretty good clip, but couldn't find the time to post them. Abigail, who had a toddler of her own landed a part-time freelance job at about this time and also found herself with little time to spare.
While Abigail continued to post her bentos to the Bento Yum Blog, she wasn't able to find the time to join the communities and post as an active member. When I stopped posting to them, traffic and sales went down. Soon it was fall and I found myself with a child who went from having four teeth to having a full mouth of teeth in a single month. (Translation: zero sleep for either of us.) That was followed by a horrific ear infection that led us through another month of no sleep. Getting work done was nearly impossible. Getting non-essential work done wasn't even an option.
Around that time, Abigail and I pow wowed via email and made the decision to go ahead and allow the spiders into the site. Since neither of us knew when we'd have time to devote to the social media marketing again and since I'd had to suspend the series here at Search Engine Guide, it didn't make sense to continue to cripple the site. I uploaded the new robots.txt file on December 2nd and the engines came crawling the next day. In fact, the site ranks #5 for the phrase "bento" on Google now. Not bad considering the site isn't at all optimized.
Ultimately, this experience proved the points I was trying to make fairly well.
Point #1: You CAN Build a Site Without Google
When we put Bento Yum online and blocked the search engines from indexing it, people thought we were a little nuts. What I wanted to prove was that you can build a web site, even a successful web site without search traffic. Based on the traffic numbers, the sales and the continued growth of the site, I'm confident in saying I was right. There's no doubt things grew more slowly than they would have with the benefit of search traffic, but the site DID grow and the site DID make sales.
Point #2: The Best Way to Build a Business Online in 2007 is to Go Niche
The bento community is a small, but passionate one. It's growing quickly online, but ultimately, there were very few quality sites out there offering up information on bentos. There were even less sites selling bento kits at affordable prices. Finding a need in a niche and filling it was one of the biggest keys to our success. It's a lesson I learned back when I launched The Lactivist and launching Bento Yum cemented it.
Yes, you can launch another widget factory, but the fastest and easiest way to build a lucrative business online today is to find a niche. The Internet reaches the entire world. That means the business that never could have made it a ten or fifteen years ago now has the chance to attract small pockets of people from around the world. Those small pockets can add up to big success.
Point #3: People Respond to Passion
While the Internet has done a great job of bringing small pockets of people together from around the world, it's also done a great job of giving us an infinite number of places to spend our time. There's always another new and exciting site just around the corner. Always another innovative product to tempt you into buying. Catching someone's attention and holding it in this type of environment can be tough. That's where passion comes in.
If you're in business ONLY to make money, you're going to need to put a lot of time and energy into marketing and advertising. If you're building a business around something you love, the passion you hold for your product will spill out into your content. That enthusiasm will not only help draw your visitors deeper into the site, it will give them the motivation to help you spread the word through links and conversations.
Point #4: Social Media Marketing is Not a One Time Endeavor
The biggest take away here is the need to approach social media marketing as an ongoing thing. Social media marketing happens when you join the conversation. If you leave the conversation, social media usually stops working. As part of my social media marketing plan for Bento Yum, I had joined six communities at Flickr, joined one community at Live Journal and was regularly reading about a dozen blogs. All total, I was putting about an hour a day into the social media marketing for Bento Yum. That's not an outlandish amount of time (especially for the pay-off we were seeing) but it is a significant amount of time.
When I stopped posting, we saw drops in traffic and even steeper drops in sales. At first I wondered why the sales drop was steeper, but I quickly realized the communities I had joined were seeing a constant influx of new members. The LiveJournal site had multiple posts each day from members who had just heard about bento and just joined. The constant posting I'd made as a member of the community made us a first stop for many of these new bento addicts. When I vanished from the communities, the lingering memory and traffic from those who'd already found us wasn't enough to keep up a steady stream of sales.
That puts social media marketing into the same category as paid search. While it can be used for short term boosts in traffic, branding and sales, you only reap the full benefit if you budget and plan for ongoing efforts. Turn off the campaign and while you'll still see residual benefits from the traffic you've already built, you'll significantly reduce the flow of new customers.
Overall, while the project didn't go where I wanted it to, it was a valuable learning experience. I was able to reinforce some of the ideas and thoughts about social media I already had, and I was able to learn some painful, but important lessons about how marketers can be received in the social media environment. Abigail plans to continue running the site and I'm holding out hope things will calm down eventually so I can rejoin the community and continue to share the fun that is bento making.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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