Optimize Your Referral Traffic

Between SEO, social media, email marketing, blogger outreach and paid media, getting people to your site isn’t just a balancing act — it’s a lesson in time management and attention to detail.

But spreading yourself — and your budget — thin on platforms that aren’t actually converting is a waste of time. You need to know where your best customers are coming from and then spend dollars to earn more eyeballs on these sites where you know you already have fans.

Analyzing and optimizing your referral traffic is how you’ll squeeze the most out of your marketing strategy and ad dollars, build a dedicated fan base and find partners that will help develop your audience. We spoke with a handful of marketers who’ve mastered referral optimization to boost their bottom line; below, they let you in on how it was done.

1. Understand the Different Kinds of Referrers

There are two types of referrals in a referrals report — referring domains and individual referrals — and both are important. You’ll want to analyze both metrics to get a complete understanding of your referral sources.

Referring domains focus on which websites in aggregate are sending you visitors, and is useful for informing things like paid advertising efforts,” says Christopher Penn, vice president of marketing technology at SHIFT Communications. “If you see, for example, Mashable.com sending lots of traffic to you already, you may want to take out a campaign to advertise onMashable to take advantage of an audience that is already interested in you.” On the flipside, individual referrers point out what specific pages are driving traffic. “It’s a useful way of measuring things like public relations efforts to see if an article that references your brand is bringing you a new audience,” says Penn.

Referral reports are “the first place we look when we encounter unexpected spikes in traffic, as they allows us to quickly identify the source and the context for the spike,” says Cathy Gribble, associate director of digital strategy at Team One. With that knowledge in hand, you can optimize traffic and continue to grow that audience.

2. Track Everything

Measuring your referrals isn’t just about setting up campaigns, watching the numbers roll in, then deciding where to spend money to gain a bigger audience. You need to do some grunt work, or else your data might be vague and you won’t know where to invest for your next campaign.

“There is often a measurement ‘blind spot’ when tracing the saliency of your digital paid media and your website,” says Tony Clement, strategy director and head of data and analytics at Big Spaceship. Whether there’s a lack of measurement planning or the tracking tags are stripped from the assets, there are several causes for cloudy referral information. “Not being able to identify which paid digital executions are working hardest from click-to-site conversion (vs. click-thru only) is potential revenue gone astray. Making sure that tracking codes are in place, and are firing under live testing is not a glamorous task, but well worth it.”

3. Optimize for Social

The numbers are out and, unfortunately for most online retailers, social media isn’t a huge driver of sales. But while social media isn’t likely to convert customers, it still offers great value for brands.

Social media is an excellent way to increase quality visits, develop brand affinity and stay top of mind, which can eventually lead to conversion. That might seem like a lot of work and delayed gratification to get that one user to your end goal, but the payoff is well worth it. And in the meantime, you can optimize the channels that are most effective.

“With social media budgets increasing and more pressure to increase ‘earned’ value, understanding what type of social activity is acting as a traffic source can [help you] find opportunities for innovation,” says Clement. “And through re-allocating small amounts of budget from your least effective source, you can enrich the social content that intentionally delivers quality visits.”

“We pay close attention to referring domains. Like many women’s lifestyle publishers, Pinterest has vaulted in the last two years from a top-20 traffic source to a top-5 traffic source. But, unlike some other lifestyle publishers, PureWow sees incredible visitor quality from Pinterest, in terms of depth of visit, engagement and consistently low bounce rates,” says Alexis Anderson, PureWow’s director of marketing and partnerships. To cater to the Pinterest audience, PureWow has redesigned image specs to be more Pinterest-friendly (“balanced, squarish images over very tall and narrow”) and placed “Pin It” buttons on every image or idea that might be shared.

4. Discover Partner Opportunities

Tracking your referrals doesn’t just provide insight to your core audience and valuable ad spending channels, it can also help to discover potential partners who are aligned with your mission and overall goals.

“Cross-checking site referrals can be a worthwhile exercise, especially during campaign periods. You may be surprised by not only the type of sites that are referring traffic, but also the page context in which your site is referenced,” says Clement. “This data can be useful to management, especially if you are looking for prospects for potential partnerships for media placements, sponsorships, events or even SEO authority.”

Over time, as new platforms emerge, your referrals are bound to change. Monitoring these new referrers and amplifying them on your own channels can help your site traffic, brand awareness and conversion rates stay strong.

“We look at changes in referrers as we watch for new sources of traffic that we may want to leverage, such as an increase in referrers from a blog that has a positive posting about our products,” says Gribble. “We would want to help boost that blog to amplify the positive references.”

In all, keeping tabs on your referrals, both big and small, will point you in the right direction when it comes to efficient ad spend and time management as you cultivate an engaged digital audience and convert them into customers.

How does your company use referral metrics? Tell us in the comments.