The secret to a successful online guerrilla marketing campaign?

So what’s the secret to building huge traffic for your news and information website, without having to pay for a huge promotion staff and advertising budget?

Obviously, you need a guerrilla marketing campaign, one that encourages people to spread the word about your site, making it a viral sensation. But how can you motivate people to do that promotional work for you?

I’ll share the secret to successful guerrilla marketing online in a moment. But first, I want to assure you that journalists can make money online by running their own websites. Reporters such as Rafat Ali and Josh Marshall have gotten plenty of notice for their successes, but I’ve also found many other publishers, through forums such WebmasterWorld, who are making a more modest, but still comfortable, living from their own websites.

Journalists looking to the Web as an option for extending their careers following a newsroom layoff won’t get by on their reporting skills alone. Quality of content, unfortunately, does not determine who makes an adequate income online. Traffic does. And you need a lot of traffic to build a commercially successful website.

How much? That’s going to depend on the topic(s) your website covers. Cover a beat that attracts big-money advertisers and you will need relatively fewer readers — maybe even just a few hundred a day. Cover a a topic that appeals to businesses selling two-buck ringtones and, well, you’ll need many, many more — hundreds of thousands, most likely.

As Geneva Overholser alluded to in her post yesterday, most journalists aren’t used to worrying about building readership. They work for a newspaper, magazine or station that employs a promotion staff and maybe a circulation department. Folks on the “other side of the Wall” handle that stuff. But when you are publishing on your own (or when your site’s promotion staff has been laid off), you need to take the initiative in building your readership.

Here’s the bad news: No one is going to promote your website for free. If you are expecting people to spread the word about your site just because it has, in your opinion, “THE MOST AMAZING WEB CONTENT EVAH,” you’ll soon join the crowd of frustrated would-be online journalists, waving their $8.37 monthly AdSense checks, moaning about how “nobody can make money online.”

Here, then, is the secret to successful guerrilla marketing online: You have to give people something in return for their effort in promoting your site.

Fortunately for your checkbook, it doesn’t have to be cash. But it does have to be real.

Paul Bradshaw this week pointed to an excellent analysis of the social bookmaking website Digg, which mentioned that successful Diggers built traffic to their websites by friending other Diggers, Digging their stories and getting reciprocal Diggs in return.

The same concept applies to Twitter, and other such services. Sure, you can post your links and updates (as OJR does), but if you really want to build traffic through these communities, you need to participate in both directions, by posting and following those who follow you. (Which, I’ll admit, OJR’s Twitter account has done a lousy job of doing. Our bad.)

Put your favorite websites in your website’s blogroll, then access them by clicking from that blogroll, so your site will show up in their referrer logs. Don’t simply use YouTube as a free video hosting service. Take advantage of its community architecture, and subscribe to others’ channels.

I’ve lamented that a generation of newspaper monopolies has robbed the industry of its competitive spirit. (Heck, that’s half my archive, it seems.) But competition online requires a strong element of cooperation, as well. You need to link to others’ sites to encourage them to link and reward them for linking to you.

Don’t go overboard. Search engines will punish your websites if they suspect that you’re engaged in massive, random link trading. Start with your offline friends and colleagues, then extend your online network to include other writers and publishers whom you respect. Then include fans and other readers of your work.

Even then, social networking only gets you part of the way there. Don’t overlook the power of the traditional media that you might have left behind. Newspaper and cable TV stories can provide one-time bursts of traffic that, if you provide enough “sticky” content and functionality on your site, can help build long-term traffic growth.

Now that you are growing into a publisher, however, don’t forget your reporting skills. Few journalists are going to bother writing about your opinion or rehash of their reporting. You need original content to elicit a news report about your work. Put yourself back in those reporters’ or producers’ place. What angle or information can you offer them that would make them want to write or broadcast a story about your site?

I’ve gotten hundreds of stories over the years about my theme park website through an annual “best of” awards that I release each year on the Fourth of July. This angle works for other news organizations because it gives them fresh content about a popular topic during a slow news period. Lots of papers and TV stations send reporters to the local amusement park on the U.S. Independence Day. My awards provide them a fresh news angle for that story, so many run with it. That’s led to an annual spike of tens of thousands of additional readers for my site over the holiday period each year. And many of those readers stick around, returning to my site multiple times over the remainder of the season.

Again, in each of these cases, you need to provide some value to a reader, a writer or a publisher for taking the time to spread the word about your work. Take the initiative. Send the press release. Link to a fellow blogger. Friend a reader on Digg or Facebook. Follow them on Twitter and YouTube.

Abandon the idea that you are talking, one-way, to an obedient readership and embrace a more reciprocal relationship. Forget about your readership and start thinking about your community.

Then, you will find your guerrilla marketing campaign already underway.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Nice post Robert, it would be nice if you write one for small to medium size websites, and how they could promote their websites. Personally as a web developer with a medium size website I see banner exchange solutions such as as my best available option. I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts.

  2. Well, what would you consider “small to medium sized”? A one-person Web staff easily can handle these type of promotions.

    I’d stay away from link trading, and especially link buying, due to the search engine penalties that such activity can incur. Being active in discussion forums, in social networks and in correspondence with other writers pays off better in the long run.

    Of course, the long run is, well, long. 😉 No one should expect these unpaid, grassroots marketing efforts to result in massive traffic within days, or even weeks. It can take a couple years to build a truly grassroots site to the level where it is attracting profitable traffic levels. That’s why it’s important for journalists to start their websites early – while they are in school or otherwise employed – to allow them time to mature economically by the time they are needed.

    And in traditional news organizations, management needs to be patient with Web projects that they are promoting in this manner. To reference a cliche: Fast, inexpensive, effective – pick two. If you pick the last two, you don’t get the first.

  3. thanks for sharing this with us

  4. Nice Article!

  5. Great article, Robert.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. says:

    We have been doing everything you mention and then some for over a year and I can attest to the fact that it works. However it is a slow process of gradual increase in visitor numbers. Pairing the viral marketing approach with mainstream advertising ideas might lead to a faster payoff and visible results. It’s just a question of how much competition for your audience is already out there or joining the playing field on a weekly and monthly basis.
    There is no one-size fits all approach that would work for any site and any topic.
    The road signs all point towards convergence.

  7. Kostas Panopoulos says:

    I read your analysis and I found it quite interesting given the increased online population. But contrary to other businesses, a news organization that aspires to go online can add their print version to its marketing tools list. I believe that interaction between the paper and the web site can bring on people to both ends. It won’t harm the readership and if used properly it’ll boost visits online. But of course, that’s only feasible if you strategically believe that your paper by itself can’t compete in a perplexed environment.

  8. Thanks for sharing this post.

    Though the massive increase of Web 2.0 sites that create viral traffic are really helping internet marketers to promote their websites, it is still writing original, solid, good contents that really make a difference one way or another.

    Blog posting, creating articles, and essay writing may be an old trick but it’s still very useful especially if you are trying to create an authority out of a specific niche.