Beyond Traffic: How to Measure What Really Matters

  • January 8, 2013 by Corbett Barr
  • 30 Comments

Traffic is fun to measure, but it probably isn’t what really matters to you or your business.

It’s easy to get caught up trying to attract more and more visitors, more social shares and more subscribers, but how do you know if those things are helping you accomplish what you really care about?

What if all the things you’ve been measuring turn out to be worthless? What if none of those visitors or subscribers become customers?

How do you know if you’re measuring what really matters?

Beyond Traffic

I’m obviously a huge fan of measuring website traffic and working to increase it. We’ve reported on our traffic statistics almost every month since starting this blog.

But I’ll be the first to tell you that traffic on it’s own is a meaningless metric. Traffic is just one part of a bigger equation.

You probably want to measure traffic, especially in the beginning, but you should also be measuring other important things.

Let’s figure out what you should be measuring for your site, and how to do it.

What to Measure?

Measuring traffic or subscribers without knowing why they’re important is backwards. Sure, you might want to measure those things, but do you really know why? Do you know what overall goal they relate to? Your goal isn’t just to attract a lot of traffic, is it?

Think about your own goals for your site for just a minute. What are the top three things you’d like your site to achieve?

I’d like you to jot these things down.

If your site is part of a bigger business, you probably want it to earn a certain level of income. That’s a no-brainer.

Jot that down first: revenue. (Revenue is just the word for how much money you earned before expenses. You could call it income or profits if you like; you’ll end up measuring both.)

Without revenue your business isn’t really a business. It can’t continue forever unless you earn enough to sustain. You need to measure revenue (if you have none measure it anyway, as a reminder that you need to start earning some).

Now, for your other goals. I can’t tell you what these should be, but I’ll tell you what ours are at Think Traffic.

First, we’ve agreed that we only want to do this business if we feel like we’re having fun and doing something meaningful. These are subjective measurements instead of objective (like revenue), but that’s OK because this is important to us. We’ll get into how to measure this in a little bit.

Are there parameters for how you want your business to exist, or what you want it to provide, beyond revenue? Maybe you’re looking to have a social impact of some sort.

Next, think about your customers (or potential customers). Without customers you have nothing. Your business or project exists to serve people. One of your primary goals should address your customers specifically.

For us, we want our customers to a) be satisfied with what we provide, and b) achieve results by using our solutions. Note that those two aren’t necessarily the same thing.

We figure that if our customers are satisfied and achieving results, our solutions will be worth sharing. Businesses with high customer referral rates are shown to be more sustainable and profitable. Businesses with unhappy customers don’t last very long.

In fact, if you’re going to measure just one thing, some would argue that should be simply whether customers would recommend your product or service to someone else.

So here’s our list of high-level goals for Think Traffic and the business behind it:

  1. Earn enough income to support everyone who works for the business comfortably (we have specific numbers behind this, and you should too).
  2. Have fun and do meaningful work.
  3. Satisfy our customers and help them accomplish results using our solutions.

Pretty simple, right? Your goals may differ, and you can change the order if you want. In our list, the customer-focused goal actually comes first because revenue and fun tend to follow when your customers are taken care of.

Notice that traffic wasn’t in the list above. Traffic isn’t a top-level goal, it’s a sub-goal, which we’ll get to in just a second.

How to Measure Your Top Priorities

The list of priorities above aren’t all you need to measure. Some aren’t directly measurable, and others have important sub-metrics that will tell you if you’re headed in the right direction or not.

Your next step is to break down each top-level goal into components to measure.

For example, revenue is a factor of how many products you have for sale, how many people are on your email lists, how many people are visiting your sales pages, the conversion rate of your sales pages, etc.

Take each top-level goal and think about which factors will help you measure your progress toward that goal.

Beware vanity metrics. For example, does the number of Twitter followers you have really matter? Can you tie that number directly to one of your top level goals? Probably not. Vanity metrics are more dangerous than a waste of time, because they can make you feel good even when the ship is sinking.

Here’s roughly how our list of priorities might break down (along with where you might get the data for each):

Revenue

  • Total email subscribers (from email provider)
  • Total site visitors (from analytics)
  • Sales page visits (from analytics)
  • Sales page conversion rate (from analytics)
  • Total revenue (from payment provider)
  • Revenue per customer (revenue divided by customers)

Customer satisfaction + results

  • Average customer satisfaction rating (from survey)
  • Average customer-reported results index (from survey)
  • Customer exit satisfaction rating (from survey)
  • Customer churn rates (for monthly subscriptions, from payment provider)
  • Product refund rates (from payment provider)

Team fun + impact

  • Team fun assessment (survey quarterly)
  • Team impact assessment (survey quarterly/annually)

This is just a sampling. Your top-level goals might have other important drivers.

Bonus Points for Automated/Visual Data

The simplest way to measure this data is to keep a set of spreadsheets that you update weekly or monthly. Manually updating data isn’t a terrible idea, because it forces you to also review the data on a regular basis.

However, much of this kind of data can be automatically calculated and presented visually for trend-spotting and correlation watching. Some things can only be spotted when data is presented visually. It’s also nice to be able to change time periods (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly) with the touch of a button.

We’ve been using Geckoboard internally recently and we’re loving it. Geckoboard gives you the ability to pull from various common third-party applications, or you can create your own custom data feeds to present any kind of metric in multiple visual formats.

Here’s a generic view of what Geckoboard can look like:

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 7.04.47 PM

Our dashboard looks somewhat similar. It’s doing a great job helping us stay focused on our top three goals, and the underlying drivers of each. We still use spreadsheets and other tools, but we’re working to put everything that matters into a single dashboard that instantly shows us the health of the business.

Changes to the Think Traffic Monthly Reports

Every month since starting this blog we’ve reported our traffic statistics. We’ve shown exactly how many visitors stop by each month, where they come from, and which content attracts them. We’ve done this because we believe our transparency can help you learn how to grow your own site.

But you may have noticed something about these reports: not much changes in our strategy from month-to-month.

Our basic recipe for growing traffic is simple: create content that solves problems for readers, connect with other bloggers and online entrepreneurs, show up, work hard, challenge yourself.

This simple formula has consistently produced record setting months, month after month for nearly three years. Here’s our traffic growth since this blog started in March, 2010:

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 6.56.02 PM

November and December were record months, with nearly 200k visitors each. You can read everything we’ve done to grow this blog over the years in our monthly reports.

It’s great to set traffic records, but what’s the bigger picture? Are we meeting our primary goals as well?

This is the trouble with just measuring traffic, it doesn’t really tell you much on it’s own. In our case, we aren’t setting records in terms of revenue, so it’s time to make some changes and focus on measuring what really matters.

This is a long winded way of telling you that we won’t be doing these monthly reports in exactly the same way. We plan to do more occasional business updates, and to focus on helping you measure and improve what really matters to your business, not just traffic.

Stay tuned for more details about what we’ll be reporting in the future.

For now, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

Coming Next Week: Fizzle in Prime Time

Our biggest and most ambitious business project ever is almost ready for prime time. We’ve been working with nearly 400 beta testers over the past four months to polish and tweak and prep Fizzle for a bigger audience.

If you haven’t heard about Fizzle yet, it’s a comprehensive learning platform and incredibly supportive community for online business builders.

We’ll be opening the doors to the public next Wednesday, January 16th. I’ll have more details here later this week, along with a very special giveaway and launch day discount.

Mark your calendars and sign up to be notified if you want to hear more.

Now it’s your turn. What do you measure in your business in addition to traffic stats? How do you measure what really matters?

Tell us in the comments!

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Sarah Russell January 8, 2013 at 6:14 am

One metric I’m toying with right now is one that can’t be measured by analytics. I’m calling it the “wow” metric and it’s the number of site visitors who are so helped by my site’s content that they take the time to send me a private message – whether via email, contact form or social media direct message.

My site’s still young, so the content isn’t yet where it needs to be for this to happen, but I’m hoping that keeping it as a goal in the back of my mind will help drive me to do my best work possible.

Corbett Barr January 8, 2013 at 7:27 am

Thanks for sharing Sarah. I’ve paid attention to the “wow” metric before myself, although never formally. Do you think it can be measured formally from week to week to tell you if your content is accomplishing what you want it to? It’s definitely a measure of reader satisfaction.

Sarah Russell January 10, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I guess I’m thinking more month-to-month. Basically, take the number of personal messages I receive from readers compared to the total monthly unique visitors to the site. If it goes up, I’m doing something right :)

Not super sophisticated, but it should help me to gauge whether or not I’m track.

igbalaye Olayemi January 15, 2013 at 4:47 pm

The fact remain that commenting is very effective only if you know how to use it to your advantage because am using it on my blog and is doing wonder. the other thing to know is that to help the site doing will and moving forward you have to get how to earn for such site. making money with your site is not bad as people use to say just that don’t focus to much on making money but instead focus more on how to transform the site and your hardwork will surely earn you.

Justin Westbrooks January 8, 2013 at 6:53 am

Great post! I loved the priority breakdown example from ThinkTraffic you listed there – it’s nice to have a visual for what we could shoot for. Vanity metrics has definitely been a conversation among my team, especially as we’re in the process of building our first product. It’s tempting to want to play the “Twitter fishing game” to build followers in hopes of having them click on links, but I loved how you boil down the focus to valuable content + networking + hustle. Thanks for this – I’ll share with my team!

Corbett Barr January 8, 2013 at 7:29 am

Thanks Justin! You’re at an exciting stage – have fun with it :)

Darnell Jackson January 8, 2013 at 7:08 am

Excellent post to start the new year with Corbett,

I can’t agree with you more. Social media accomplishments are a good way to fool yourself into thinking you are doing something.

You’re like “Yippeee, they just retweeted me”

Meanwhile your business cannot thrive without fundamentals in place.

The question remains how many new leads came in today, how many are qualified, how many ads/sales pieces/etc went out?

Yassin Madwin January 8, 2013 at 7:16 am

Not only i like to solve problems, I like to make a difference in the web, empowering People to have more for less if you do that money shall come , Traffic should build authority, presence and trust those are the three things i look up for

Adrijus G. January 8, 2013 at 7:56 am

True, much harder to measure those though. Bit scary haha

Need to learn Google Analytics well for that (if you use those). But if you nail those, get to know your stats and then work to improve them then you could be killin’ it. Hopefully I can get there and become good at it in 2013.

Another tool similar to Geckboards is http://www.inform.ly btw.

Rodrigo Flamenco January 8, 2013 at 8:04 am

Thanks Corbett, Vanity metrics are truly dangerous, I learned that the last year when doing my blog.

Every time I posted a blog post I saw the metrics go up, so I started posting even 3 times a day to ramp it up and trying to get more visitors, but as you said, traffic itself is not that great. Did the same for Facebook Likes, and it’s horrible.

In my case is better to find people who could need my help and actually do something for them :)

Matt Giovanisci January 8, 2013 at 8:13 am

My site only generates revenue if there’s traffic. It has to be the right kind of traffic, but the more traffic, the more money.

Because of the nature of my site, I have to rely on Google and other search engines to bring me traffic. My site is not one you would subscribe to, unless you’re obsessed with learning how to take care of your pool. The problem with relying solely on Google is it’s unpredictable. One week I’ll be up and the next I’ll be down. This all affects my revenue.

In fact, I noticed that I use to rank well for this one keyword. I created an infographic about it and everyone in my industry linked it to with the appropriate anchor text and it was perfect. It backfired because now everyone else ranks for that keyword because of MY INFOGRAPHIC. Boy do I have egg on my face.

Careful creating awesome content that people can add to their own sites – they might outrank you.

I wish I could turn my site into something else that is easier to measure, but it’s just not gonna happen. People just don’t care about their pools the way I do. I, however, started another site where I can measure traffic, subscriptions, comments, and it’s going really well so far – I just started it about a week ago.

Corbett, keep the good content coming. I would like to see some more actionable posts rather than “pump you up” posts, that would be my only criticism. I would love to see more posts about link building and SEO.

Thanks!

Thomas @ Mobile App Tycoon January 8, 2013 at 8:19 am

Definitely agree it’s important to look beyond traditional statistics. People can boost their ego with FB Likes, Twitter followers, subscribers, etc. but definitely quality over quantity is the most important thing but unfortunately one of the hardest to track.

Thomas

Tommy Walker January 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

Awesome stuff Corbett and thanks for keeping it focused. I think as web business (and things like social media) starts to mature, it’s good to keep the real business goals in mind, and starting with top level goals like *revenue* is critical, because so many of us get into this as more of a vanity and fame game.

One metric that I’ve been starting to really consider is the “strategic partner” metric. you mentioned it briefly when you said “connect with other bloggers and entrepreneurs.” but really the importance of this metric can’t be stated enough, especially if you’re trying to funnel traffic into sales.

The question I’ve been asking myself lately is, “how can you use content on yours and other people’s website to create an ‘amplification network’ and do it in a way that is mutually beneficial to everyone involved.”

I’m finding that the more connections that are made, the less likely you are to burn everyone out, and the more people you can help along the way.

No one person got to that next level completely on their own, so this is a metric I’m feeling is really necessary to pay attention to, because it allows you to develop those long term partnerships that are so very very important.

Linda Esposito January 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

Hey Corbett–

I measure the level of engagement, including social media shares, responses to surveys, and comment counts. Since my biz is still a side hustle, I’m focused on building slowly and meaningfully. Also, since my biz is not a traditionally-based venture aimed at helping people make money online, I need to hone in on less obvious pain points. That said, my traffic has definitely increased in the past two months, and this is good news since product revenue is tied to the number of eye balls visiting your site.

Lately, I’ve been hyper-focused on a tip you mentioned in the Fizzle interview with Chase–for starters–concentrate more on building your email list, rather than on creating viral content. Sure, the epic post will spread your industry’s good word, but if there’s no other ROI you just may be spinning your wheels…

Impressive stats, as always!

Tony Nguyen January 8, 2013 at 9:13 am

That’s right! Revenue is the center of most websites on the internet. You should always track your revenue on top of your traffic and subscribers. High volume of traffic is useless if you do not know how to convert them into sales. Good post Corbett! :)

Orrin January 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

Really nice thoughts. I’m still in the early days though, so my focus will definitely be on traffic. Once I build traffic I’ll have enough wiggle room to start sussing out the best ways to monetise it.

I really like what Tommy had to say about strategic partners because I think an additional benefit of having a site with high traffic is it helps you with networking with others, opening more opportunities for revenue

Deacon Bradley January 8, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Love that you’re starting to think about vanity metrics vs actionable metrics Corbet. I’ve been exploring this too, but have found the tools out there are pretty scarce to get at the real meat.

At the heart of actionable metrics is the ability to make an informed decision based on the numbers. Take your revenue example. Of course it’s crucial to measure revenue for a business, but to make it actionable you should tweak the perspective a bit.

For example: Total lifetime value of a customer, which takes the total revenue (vanity), and assigns it to an individual (actionable). Tracking this over the course of a year might be completely flat, in which case you’ve made little progress (so to speak). BUT, if you can increase that total lifetime value by adding NEW courses or more specialized offerings, then you can start to move the needle of the lifetime value of the customer UP. And keep in mind, as the needle moves, it moves for every-single-person in your funnel, so that’s a lot of cash added up!

In short, making things actionable will help you continually make better decisions to improve your business. Thanks for bringing this concept up! Very awesome!

Ram Shengale January 8, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Hey Corbett great post. I’m looking forward to Fizzle.

Ram

Dan Norris January 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Hi Corbett nice post. A few things I wanted to offer here.

Vanity vs actionable

First off I think the concept of vanity metrics is a bit misunderstood. I like to think about vanity metrics as being the opposite of ‘actionable’ metrics. And whether they are actionable depends on the context.

Yes Twitter followers is often a vanity metric because what action do you take when it goes up or down? But what if you are testing out 10 ways of boosting your Twitter followers and comparing them against each other to decide on which strategy to pursue? Then this metric is pretty actionable because based on the results you’ll pursue certain courses of action over others.

A lot of the other metrics you mention in this post are also often vanity metrics. For example email subscribers, traffic volume and even revenue. If your revenue is up this month what do you do? It’s nice to see but what do you do as a result? Probably not a lot.

A more actionable metric might be something like ‘Average revenue per customer’ in the context of you running a structured effort to increase the average spend of customers. Say you try 5 different strategies and have 5 different groups (cohorts) of customers you then look at the average revenue per customer of each group this metrics becomes extremely actionable.

Your stage in business

I think the stage you are at in your business has a huge impact on what metrics should be measured. For example in my Startup Informly (which is loosely related to Geckoboard) I am right at the start, searching for a scalable business model. None of the metrics in this post are actionable for me.

Traffic, revenue, customer satisfaction, churn, refunds, fun none of it really matters right now. What I need to know is ‘How much a customer is worth to me’ and ‘How cheaply and quickly can I acquire customers and through what sources’. The main issue being ‘can I acquire them for less than they are worth to me?’

If I had an established business and all I wanted to do was grow it I would definitely be interested in the product metrics / revenue metrics etc mentioned here and they would be actionable because I could invest time / money in different strategies depending on how they impact the satisfaction of users and how much they spend etc.

There isn’t a fixed set of metrics that people should measure

Posts like this seem to indicate that there is a fixed set of metrics that all companies should measure but in reality it depends a lot on the type of business, the stage they are at and what is actionable to them.

I still think it’s important to measure a lot of the stuff in this article for motivational reasons or to share your success with others (investors, customers etc) but in terms of measuring truly actionable stuff this will be different for every business and will change as the business changes.

I hope that’s useful, thanks for the post.

Wade Harman January 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Traffic is nothing unless you can convert that traffic once they get to your site. That is where site design strategy and great content comes into play. However, that’s not all either!

You must build trust with your reader base as well. Creating relationships with your readers is one great way to do this.

John Banks January 12, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Thanks for an informative post. I am a bit addicted when I comes to traffic – (who isn’t?). But as you mention its no good if its just numbers. My biggest pleasure with traffic comes from where I get it from and where it converts from.

This is then my focus channel and I tend to try and put all my efforts into these main outlets. I have found some great apps that I can use on my smartphone which allow me to track such things on the go.

Also with various plugins now with WP – its great to track which specific posts generate the most subscriptions etc….

I particularly liked Sarah’s comment at the top of the comments thread about the “wow” metric!

Thanks for a useful post.

Website Buddha > David January 12, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Damn I love that traffic graph. Slow and steady all the way, then you literally double your monthly audience, but if revenue is not trending the same way then that is a sign of some fundamental weakness somewhere. I had the same issue as well with one of my websites a few years ago but the causes were two fold. First it started to rank for a high traffic word that sent un-targeted traffic and the next was good old stumble-upon.

Gary Lee January 17, 2013 at 9:26 am

I’m going to forward this blog post to some people I know. I work with some guys who are starting out on their AF careers, and they keep blowing stacks of money on getting a million hits from India. Their faces always seem to glaze over when I ask them what they can actually DO with that fake traffic.

Siegfried February 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

i dont have any business yet, but i like spending time digging in the wordpress, this is what i like :)

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