When driving traffic, think quality as well as quantity.

Paul Boag

(S01:E06) As website owners how do we drive high quality traffic to our websites that will generate the return on investment we need?

In my book ‘The Website Owner’s Manual’ I begin the chapter on driving traffic by referring to the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. In that movie Kevin Costner hears a voice that tells him, “if you build it, they will come.” I suggested that many website owners had this mentality believing that users would just turn up at their site once it had been launched.

I think things have moved on since I wrote those words. Generally speaking, I believe most website owners now realise that their website needs promotion. However, I believe there is still a lot of confusion about how best to drive traffic to a website.

In this post I examine the most cost-effective ways of driving quality visitors to your site. In particular I look at search engine optimisation and social media. I want to ask whether these two massively hyped approaches provide the return on investment that most website owners require.

Before I can do this I think it is important to stress that every website owner has different requirements and that will affect which marketing approach works best.

Identifying your requirements

When we talk about driving traffic to our websites it is important to realise this is not a black or white discussion. Different websites require different things from their online marketing strategy.

For example, start-up websites often have to focus on brand building and gaining market share. A mature website may be more interested in increasing the quality of visitor and the number who go on to convert.

The type of target audience also makes a difference to the most effective form of marketing. Some audiences are more likely to come to your site via a search engine while others will be more open to recommendations from friends (social media).

The sector you work is also a consideration. Some sectors are very competitive and so paying for advertising will probably be expensive.

With this in mind it is important for you to have a clear understanding of what requirements you have from online marketing campaigns. Without understanding who you wish to reach and what you want them to do, it is going to be impossible to track the quality of return you get from your investment. I recommend asking the following questions:

  • Who are your target audience and how do they go about finding products and services online?
  • What do you wish to achieve from your marketing campaign? Are you trying to build brand awareness, increase dwell time, or convert users?
  • How competitive is your marketplace?
  • Are your competitors already paying for advertising either on search engines or websites your customers might be reading?
  • How much can you afford to spend on promoting your website?

Admittedly this last one is a difficult question to answer especially when you have no frame of reference about how much online marketing costs.

Look at it another way. Ask yourself how much each new user to your website is worth to you? If you run an e-commerce site this should be relatively easy to calculate. It is simply a matter of calculating the average profit made on each user who buys divided by the ratio of users who actually convert. It is obvious, though, that not all websites are pure e-commerce sites.

Illustration demonstrating how to calculate cost per user

If your website is designed to generate leads, things are slightly more tricky. However, if you followed my advice in episode 2 (Measuring your successes) it should still be possible to work out the ratio of users who convert and the average profit made from each user.

For purely informational sites, it is still important to establish how much you are willing to pay for each user. This figure should include the cost of maintaining the website as well as the cost of attracting the user in the first place. Without knowing how much your website is costing per user it is easy for costs to spiral out of control. Recently in the UK this has become a particularly hot topic with the government closing a number of websites based on the exorbitant costs incurred to cater for each individual user.

Once you know how much you are willing to pay per user and understand the other requirements surrounding your marketing strategy it is possible to start experimenting with a number of different marketing tools. In order to identify the most cost-effective tool you need the ability to be able to track the successes or otherwise of each individual tool.

Tracking quality and quantity

In episode 2 (Measuring successes), I focused primarily on measuring the success or otherwise of your website but it is not enough to just track how effective your website is. You also need to know whether the marketing methods you’re using to drive traffic to your site are working.

To ascertain the most successful marketing technique for your particular website you need to look at both the quantity of visitors being generated and also the quality of those users in terms of conversion.

Unfortunately, too many website owners focus exclusively on quantity rather than the quality of visitor to their website. The problem with focusing on quantity is that although it is relatively easy to drive large amounts of traffic to your website, it is much harder to get them to stay and eventually convert.

Take for example the “Digg effect”. This phenomenon is associated with the social news website Digg.com. Many website owners work hard to produce content that gets promoted to the home page of Digg.com. This is because appearing on the homepage of Digg will drive huge amounts of traffic to your website.

Unfortunately, there is a problem associated with Digg.com referrals. The users coming from Digg are only interested in the immediate piece of content promoted on the Digg.com homepage. They will read that single piece of content and then leave. Essentially those users belong to Digg.com and not to you.

Illustration demonstrating that quality is more important than quantity

Although it is obviously possible to encourage some of these users to stay the ratio that actually do so will be low. Worse still, the sudden arrival of such large amounts of traffic can actually be detrimental to the experience of your existing users. For example it is not unusual for the Digg effect to cause entire websites to collapse under the weight of traffic.

Of course this problem is not just limited to Digg.com. There are a number of other similar sites that many website owners aspire to appear on. This focus on quantity at the expense of quality is rarely an advisable approach. How then can you be sure that the marketing approaches you are using encourage quality traffic rather than just quantity?

In order to minimise the amount of guesswork, I want to look at two areas that seemed to be surrounded by a lot of misunderstanding. These are search engine optimisation and the use of social media.

Let’s begin by looking at the subject of search engine optimisation.

Does SEO really pay?

There are no shortage of companies promising to improve your search engine rankings and even provide the number one spot on Google. But can they really deliver what they offer? And even if they can will the cost of getting there generate a reasonable return on investment.

To answer this question it is important to understand one important aspect of search engines. They are only interested in one thing: providing relevant results to their users. If your content is not relevant, no amount of clever search engine optimisation will get you to number one.

There are ways to trick Google into ranking your site better, but these break Google’s guidelines. Some search engine optimisation companies use these techniques to improve rankings. However in almost all cases, the benefit is temporary, because Google works to close such loopholes. What is more, Google comes down hard on sites that disregard the guidelines.

The BBC report on Google's decision to block BMW

That said there are legitimate techniques available that will improve your search engine rankings. These focus on removing obstacles that can hinder search engines from indexing the content of your site. Before you hire a search engine optimisation specialist be sure they are using legitimate techniques (something I cover in more depth in the Website Owners Manual) and ensure you have a way of monitoring how much additional traffic your specialist is actually providing.

In my opinion if you have hired a good web design agency you shouldn’t need the services of an SEO specialist. That is because your web designer should have already removed any barriers that prevent a search engine from indexing your website.

In my experience, many SEO specialists spend a lot of time implementing detailed changes that fail to provide massive returns. As a result SEO companies do not generally generate enough additional income to justify their fees. However there are one or two exceptions to this rule. These are:

  • Websites that generate a large amount of traffic.
    In these situations a small percentage increase in users from an SEO improvement will generate significant returns.
  • Websites that sell high-value products or services. Improvements in search engine placement may only generate one or two additional leads but because of the high profit margin on the sales the return on investment makes it worthwhile.
  • Websites with a high conversion rate. If your website converts a significant number of users who arrive from search engines then the return on investment from employing an SEO specialist may be worthwhile.
  • Websites that have been badly implemented by web design teams who have ignored the basic rules provided by Google for optimising websites.

However, if your website does not fall into the above categories I believe you are much better off hiring a web designer who has a good understanding of building websites with search engines in mind than employing a specialist in SEO.

In short, there are a lot of people working in the SEO field who are making promises and offering services which are just not right for the majority of website owners. However, this is not just an issue in SEO. It also applies to social media.

Social media

It is hard to turn around on Twitter these days without running into a social media guru. It would seem that anybody who knows how to set up a Twitter account or Facebook page can now call themselves an expert in social media.

Google search for social media expert. 56 million results returned

There is no doubt that social media is massively overhyped at the moment.

A consequence of this glut of so-called experts is that many are making unrealistic promises about what social media can do.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that online communities and word-of-mouth recommendation can be some of the most powerful forms of marketing available to us. I also recognise that it does not always generate the kind of return on investment many promise. Neither is it the quick win that it is often portrayed as.

So what are the supposed benefits of social media?

The benefits of social media

It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that social media has no value. My own reputation and the new business generated for my web design company Headscape, comes almost exclusively through the use of social media. Every day I use twitter, Facebook, podcasting and blogging as a way of reaching potential customers. The fact that you are reading this post is a testament to the fact that social media works.

Social media is not just a way of directly reaching customers. In episode 3 (Becoming user focused), I demonstrated that building an active community using social media tools can create advocates who go out and promote your products and services on your behalf. Any marketeer will tell you that this kind of word-of-mouth recommendation is invaluable.

A screenshot of my twitter page highlighting my followers

Although I am the first to champion social media as a marketing tool and as a way of engaging with your customers, it is not without its limitations.

So what’s the problem with social media?

I do believe that social media should be part of every organisation’s attempt to drive more traffic to their website and convert more users. However the main thrust of this season is about return on investment. Although I do believe social media provides a good return on investment is not something that happens overnight.

Social media has been so overhyped and little has been written about the huge time and resource commitment it requires. Unless you choose to hire a social media expert it won’t necessarily cost you a lot of money. However, it does require an ongoing commitment.

The key to a successful social media strategy is two fold. First get exposure and then build relationships.

Before you can expect user to start promoting your products and services, they first need to have heard of them. This is where exposure comes in. In the early days of using social media you need to be everywhere. You need to be participating in forums, posting on twitter, writing blog posts and engaging on Facebook. Before a user is going to be curious about what you have to offer, they need to see your name pop up again and again. This requires a lot of hard work and continual commitment. It is not something that will happen overnight.

Once potential customers have started to show an interest by visiting your website, subscribing to your blog or following you on Facebook or Twitter, the next step is to build relationship with them.

Unless a user likes you and feels you are sincerely interested in hearing what they have to say, they will not become an evangelist for your product or service. This means that you have to invest time in building the relationship to a point where they consider your website as important to them as it is to you. Only then will they start promoting it on your behalf.

The lesson to be learned here is that although social media can be incredibly powerful it can also be expensive (if you use an outside expert) or time-consuming (if you do it yourself). Worse still, if you do not commit to it for the long term it is easy to stop before you reap the returns on investment it can provide.

I would encourage you to include some element of social media in your marketing strategy. However, be aware that this is probably going to require a couple of hours per day of somebody’s time for several months before you begin seeing return on investment.

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

Having a strategy for driving traffic to your website is fundamental to your site success. It is also incredibly important to ensure that the marketing methods you choose generate the best return on investment possible. That is why the following actions are important:

Action 1: Decide on budget and resources

Sit down as soon as possible and decide who is responsible for the marketing of your website. Make sure this is an official part of their job and that they have time to do it. Also ensure that they have a budget to do the job properly.

Action 2: Identify & target your audience

Make sure you have a clear understanding of who your target audiences is and identify the various sites and online communities they regularly participate in.

Action 3: Enable campaign tracking

Whether you use social media, paid advertising or guest writing you need a mechanism by which you can track the success or failure of these approaches. Ensure you generate unique URLs for each campaign you run.

And so we come to the end of this season, but you have only just begun the journey of ensuring that your website is not a drain on resources but a source of income.

If you take away just a single thought it should be that in order to maximise the performance of your website you need to continually test and refine it.

So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and start transforming your website into a money making machine.

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