How to Increase Site Traffic Without Buying Advertising

May 16, 2010
Category: Uncategorized
In the competition for page views, some news sites use paid advertising to attract traffic. There are a few reasons paying for traffic is often a losing game for news, and I’ll get to them in a moment. But first, where can you spend your money to get traffic to your site?

Your content is the big attraction

It’s been proven time and again that giving users what they want, consistently over time, and getting links to it will be effective in building traffic. You want to fire on all cylinders — great editorial, smart marketing that includes social media, and when it works, smartly optimized ad placements — but if you can do only one thing, the most cost-effective thing to do is create great content and let the world know about it through every cost-effective tactic, from social networks like Facebook and Twitter (see below) to e-mails and search engine optimization.

Partnerships and mentions pay, too
Getting deals with other sites to cross-link (I’m talking about legitimate partnerships here, not the spammy link farms that don’t deserve a thought and can hurt your search rankings), and getting mentions and links from other sites can be gold — for both immediate traffic and longer term. If you can get a link on a big, well-visited, authoritative site like Wikipedia, that becomes a traffic annuity. Every month, you’ll see referrals. Often those kinds of links will help your search engine rankings, as well.

Social media is powerful and cost-effective

If you gave me $10,000 to promote a local news or niche content website, I’d probably spend that money to construct and push a social media campaign rather than spend it on paid digital media.

For the amount it would take to have people refine and re-do our paid media, swap and change ad versions, test, reconfigure and refine, I can instead have someone who’s probably less expensive and is tweeting and conversing on Facebook, and getting hundreds or thousands of views to the site. Plus, those viewers may turn out to be more loyal followers, and in many cases the social media trail that’s left will help search engine rankings, lead to more traffic, and provide useful feedback and info from your social media community.

There are some reasons to advertise
A few atypical news sites attract higher-end advertising or have other ways of making money — e-commerce, events, etc. — and can get enough value from visitors that it’s worth it to pay for them. The editor of one major financial news website told me of paying to attract traffic to an area of his site that he’d sold to a luxury advertiser at a very high fee. He paid a lot for traffic in order to make even more.

A caution: “unpaid” media Is not “free”
Even placements you don’t pay for are not free of cost. The time spent on the above contains the opportunity cost of keeping you from doing something else to improve the site and its performance. There may be some hard costs associated, too, however minimal.

I do believe, though, that for digital media properties targeted to specific groups defined by geography, subject or other niches, being part of the “conversation” online is the best way to attract community cost-effectively, and to make sure that community stays engaged over time.

Doing all this should drive interested people to your compelling content. But if you need an extra push, why is paid advertising often a poor choice?
Display advertising and text ads are not cost-effective if you pay more to attract visitors than they are worth to you. Here’s an explanation.
News doesn’t bring big bucks per page (or per visitor)
Most news websites are primarily advertising-supported, and those ads don’t generally pay very high rates. You may have revenue per thousand pages of a few dollars, meaning each page view is worth a few pennies, or even fractions of pennies. Average users may come to the site once every few days or weeks and view a couple of pages while there. If you’ve paid more than a few pennies to attract them, you’re probably playing a losing game. Even the lifetime value of users who come more than once may not make up for the amount you pay to get that first visit from a wider swath who seldom or never come again.

You’re not selling something directly
Why do you see ads for Netflix or American Express all over the Web? Because every customer they get has a lifetime value that is at least in the tens, maybe even hundreds or thousands of dollars. Once a customer signs up, he or she is likely to keep paying, month after month, year after year. Even if the cost to acquire a new customer is pretty high, over time there’s a profit.

Visitors to a news site, on the other hand, don’t generally make purchases directly from the site and, as noted above, are worth only pennies per visit — and perhaps little more than that during the course of their entire “lifetime” of visits.

It’s hard to track accurately
For a content site, figuring out the lifetime value of your users can be a costly and time-consuming chore. A fraction of the people you pay to attract may come again, but it’s difficult to segment and track them without the kinds of personal registration and purchase data that an e-commerce site has.

You may have a loyal follower who doesn’t look like it in your Web analytics data (because, for example, she deletes her browser cookies or uses different computers to reach you at different times), or you may have someone you think is a loyal user but is really three different people using the same computer.

When someone buys something from Amazon, by contrast, Amazon has a pretty good idea who that person is and what he’s bought, and the company can figure out how much he’s worth over time.

You may not even be able to spend the money on paid media
If you have a site with a specified niche or geography, it may be hard to buy ads elsewhere that can effectively reach that specific group of users.

As an example, we recently budgeted a couple thousand dollars to see what kind of traffic we could attract from people searching in specified ZIP codes and towns to Web sites such as and, hyperlocal news sites of our client, Main Street Connect.

Working with Pali Media’s Charles Baker, an expert in the field, we tried dozens and dozens of keyword and location combinations on Google, MSN and another paid search service called eZanga for weeks, limiting our targeting by IP address to geographies within specific radii of our sites’ intended communities. We got barely a click.

Even after expanding to national footprints, while keeping the geographically specific terms, we literally couldn’t spend more than a small fraction of our test budget. There just weren’t enough people searching terms in our specific geographies and then clicking on our ads. One executive quipped that trying to market a niche website this way can be like “trying to market through a straw.”

To try to reach hyperlocal audiences through advertising, I also went to a couple of major national ad networks that pride themselves on their ability to target niche audiences. But a friend at one of them told me he wouldn’t take my money because they couldn’t target their ads to as limited a geographic area as I was asking. There just isn’t enough traffic when you try to place ads on a national network targeted to a tightly defined geographic area.

On Facebook, too, we got barely a trickle of users at the cost we were willing to pay per clickthrough, after trying multiple wordings, images and the like. I’ve had the same experience with other sites, too. Facebook does provide the ability to target very finely by geography and by such demographic traits as age, income and education. But, again, once you’ve gotten that specific, you may not be able to get a wide enough audience to deliver meaningful levels of traffic.

I’ve found that for sites with niche content, rather than a niche geography, it can be even harder because there may not be enough people in groups or who’ve specified an affinity for the kind of content you have.

If you’re trying to attract people to your niche news site, your resources are probably best spent on social media and partnerships rather than paid advertising. They will get you more than traffic; they’ll get you the loyal and lasting following you’ll want over time.