Practical Ecommerce

Building traffic the right (aka hard) way

Building an online business starts with traffic. Without traffic, you have no purpose. So, how does one do this? It will take a long time, a lot of hard work, and probably a bit of luck. But you can do it.

My website currently receives nearly 50% of its visitors via direct traffic. This is the holy grail of an online existence. Having an intermediary (such as Google) between you and your customers is a recipe for disaster. Just ask any SEO “specialist”. They have countless “war” stories of how they got slammed by some update or another. Their experiences simply underscore that they’re on the wrong path because their initial thinking on how to gain traffic began with the wrong premise.

Traffic is not free. Once you believe this truism, you’ll be much more comfortable. The false allure of SEO is that you can somehow funnel “free” traffic from Google to your website. I’ve gone into detail in the past as to why this thinking is flawed. I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll recount a bit of how my company has built its traffic sources.

In the early days of our website, I paid for traffic. We would bid like crazy on PPC. We simply wanted to get our name out there. We knew that getting natural links would take a long time and we didn’t want to wait that long. Plus, I strongly believe in the power of word-of-mouth. Well, unless you have some customers, you’ll never get that ball rolling.

For at least a year, 50% or more of our traffic came from PPC sources. I’d say that another 30-40% came from other forms of advertising. We ran display ads. It was NEVER profitable from a direct response standpoint. We also ran television spots. They were also unsuccessful from a pure ROI perspective. But, we felt we had to get our name out there and expose our website to customers. The rest of our traffic came from other paid sources that required a bit more work to secure. We would contact individual websites and blogs and ask them to review the products we were selling.

Eventually, we earned some customers and we began to earn a bit of a following. Eventually, the “direct” traffic source became a blip on our analytics software. Eventually, we could begin to wean ourselves from the heavy advertising. We started to cut back on the PPC so that it became profitable. We eventually got rid of all of the display advertising. That has since been replaced with retargeting. The TV ads are long gone. However, we still solicit reviews from 3rd party sources.

Side note: Affiliate marketing has never been a huge source of traffic for us. Frankly, it’s really no good for a small site looking to increase traffic. Essentially, affiliates are looking to make big money on the traffic they’ve worked so hard to get and who can blame them?. They do not want to send their traffic to an unknown / unproven entity. That being said, you’ll have zero problem getting hundreds (if not thousands) of affiliates. However, only a handful will send you converting traffic (if at all). At last count, I think we had 1,300 affiliates. There’s probably only a dozen or so that send us sales on a consistent basis. Unless you’re with a huge affiliate network, you won’t get big time traffic from affiliates. And you won’t be able to sign with a large affiliate network unless you have a lot of traffic. In my opinion, therefore, don’t lose any sleep over affiliates as you build your traffic.

I realize that not everyone can afford to do it how we did it. I had an existing business (on a steep decline) that I was able to use to fund this new endeavor. Not everyone is so lucky and you’ll have to figure out what works for you. It’ll probably require more hustling. Even if you have the funds, it will not be easy to stay the course. Spending $40 to get a sale that costs you $20 is hard to swallow. But, if you believe that you’re doing something different and something better than your competitors, it’s worth it to earn the customer.

So, how do you ensure that these (very expensive) early visitors will spread the word about your site? Easy. Give them something to talk about!

What is the main differentiator between your website and your competitors? If you can’t answer that question succinctly and clearly, stop everything and figure it out. You then must determine how to communicate this difference to your customers simply and effectively. Think beyond free shipping, free returns, and low prices. Those are already “taken” by Amazon, Zappos, and WalMart.

On my website, I’d like to think that we do a lot of things really well (from customer service to fulfillment to inventory management), but what do customers recognize? They remember that we make funny videos for nearly every product we sell. That’s how we’re different and that’s how we keep customers coming back and talking about us.

Bottom line: Determine your differentiator, promote it until you’re blue in the face, and trust that success will follow. Thrust all of your energy into what is best for the customer. Forget about the SEO dance – there’s no future there. The only future is in building your brand.


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Comments ( 3 )

  1. Pawel Grabowski November 16, 2012 Reply

    Jamie, I couldn’t agree more. Direct traffic (maybe coupled with branded searches) is by far the best source of traffic for an eCommerce site. And, as you say, this is something you have to earn. Can’t get it in any other way.

    Good post!

  2. Shiran December 4, 2012 Reply

    Great post, Thanks for sharing Jamie.
    Using your current traffic (word of mouth marketing) is one of the most important things to scure and grow an ecommerce site.
    Creating a unique and enjoyable experience as part of the shopping funnel (Funny videos sound like an amazing idea) is the right formula.

  3. miglenan December 13, 2012 Reply

    A lot of the things I read here belie more of the marketing articles. I’m inclined to think that there is more sense to follow these tips than just dull theoretical hypotheses. The reason is because someone’s rich experience and hard work inspired this post, not the big dusty books. The remarks about Google free traffic and affiliate marketing made me re-consider what I know about getting useful links and the ways to do it. These two were my first marketing approach for my site $earch, actually. The last words impressed me most: " Forget about the SEO dance – there’s no future there. The only future is in building your brand."

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