Who Instead Of How: Why You Are More Than A Traffic Source

March 25, 2014

Direct traffic can be dangerous

Move over social media and search engines. Direct traffic is the next big thing.

Can’t you imagine it already? Direct Traffic Evangelist job titles and Direct Visits marketing plans will force you to revise your resume and attend new conferences.

Dibs on Direct Traffic Online Marketing Conference in 2015!

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Maybe the industry is not ready for a conference next spring. But a recent Mashable article got me thinking after it devalued Facebook (and search) traffic due to less average time on site than direct visits.

In the article, which cited Pew data, “Social media is great for finding unique content from sources you might not otherwise visit — but loyalty still matters… Readers who [directly] visit a publication’s homepage spend nearly three times as long on the site as those who visit via Facebook or a web search.”

If direct visitors spend more time on the site, and engagement goals are key, what should we do with the current social media team? How can we divert funds to invest heavily in direct traffic in 2014?

The article and data are focused on news publications so I asked a newsperson to weigh in. Kim Lyons, digital news editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, favors the research, but questions the premise. In her opinion, it’s not about choosing one group over another or reducing customer loyalty to time on site.

“A smart news organization knows it has to go where its readers are already (Facebook, etc.) when a big news event happens,” Lyons said, “and expects to have to go back there again and again to steer people back to the site. It’s a constant process, not a one-time, cross-your-fingers deal.”

Seeing Facebook as an audience instead of a communication tool is part of the problem. Talking about visitors in terms of a single traffic source is too static.

Should we be speaking so rigidly about channels and devises? That’s why marketers love tools like Google Analytics, where multichannel funnels demystify relationships and users can transcend their devise.

Who Is My Direct Traffic and How Are They Unique?

If I worked at a news site and was faced with similar curiosities, this is how I would go about answering them. It would start with these questions.

How much do you really know about each traffic source?

Are they different audiences or a similar audience with a different intentions?

What a time to plug Direct Monster, which solves that riddle. But it’s also the kind of question about which the Audience Report in Google Analytics dreams, begging to add demographic clarity to confusion.

gender charts in google analytics

Demographics Reports provide insight on age and gender. The above charts offer an overview of the sex of direct traffic and Facebook referrals to a sample site using Advanced Segments.

Interests Reports have Affinity Segments that might reveal that one audience is made up of primarily Technophiles while the other is mostly News Junkies & Avid Readers. Just be sure to remember that they are digital cohorts, not actual interests.

Location Reports might suggest that Facebook referrals tend to be from major cities while direct traffic to the home page is local or, even more interestingly, from a surprising locale. This post uncovered some amazing conversion rates that were once hidden in Small Town, America.

Behavior Flow (in the Behavior section) tracks how different audiences move throughout the site. Toggling between segments, say Facebook referrals and direct traffic, shows similarities and differences.

Add Content Drilldown and Exit Pages (also in the Behavior section) and the picture becomes even clearer.

multichannel funnels help solve direct traffic questions

Assisted Conversions, Top Conversion Paths and everything in the Conversion section illustrate how visitors reach desired outcomes. This is for a news publication so it’s a bit more complicated than buying widgets, but goal completions can be tailored accordingly.

The point here is not to say that, “Nuh uh, Facebook traffic is way more valuable” or even that the Pew research is flawed. It’s only to remind of the value of taking a moment to understand the person behind the click before discrediting a traffic source based on a single metric.

Every analyst has favorite tools and I didn’t come close to covering all of them. How would you approach this question and what tactics would you use?