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There's a lot of info on the web about using Google Analytics to understand what's happening on your website, but I want to focus today on something that's incredibly simple: The difference between TRAFFIC and ENGAGED TRAFFIC, or to put it another way, the difference between VISITORS and COMMUNITY.

It's easy to get simultaneously overwhelmed and mesmerized with traffic analysis. rankings provide insight into how you compare statistically with other sites, but to measure your ACTUAL traffic and how your site is doing historically, you will use Google Analytics. Any webmaster who tries it will be instantly hooked. Sometimes we get so excited by the ups and downs of the the numbers of visitors or page views that we don't really contemplate what these numbers mean FOR A SOCIAL NETWORK.

Types of Visitors and Networks

On a topical social network like those built on Ning we can divide our visitors into 3 main types:

  1. The Content Builders (always members)
  2. The Regulars who are still mostly passive readers (members and soon-to-be-members)
  3. The Window Shoppers (people who followed a link or an ad and will never come back)

Essentially, Type 1 and 2 are Engaged. They are community, not just visitors. Depending on the type of site you run, this distinction is very important.

The way creators use Ning sites can also be roughly divided into 3 types based on how they attract and engage these visitors:

  1. Captive Audience - Family Reunion sites, Class Projects, Work Groups, etc. The members have an existing relationship outside of the network, and use the site as a tool to organize their common efforts.  In this case, you don't really need to measure your traffic. The activity on the site is its own reward. Relax and have a beer Network Creator, you have it easy!
  2. Content Providers - These creators are using Ning more like a social blogging platform. They put up content and hope a lot of people look at it. This type of site has a LOT of Window Shoppers but relatively few Content Builders. A lot of the regulars tend to be people who signed up to leave a comment on a story that caught their interest, then came back. KEYWORDS and SEARCH are very important to these networks. They should probably ALWAYS BE OPEN. A busy content site can use display ads as a revenue model, but only if it is REALLY busy. Otherwise, selling a product that your target audience wants is probably the best revenue model.
  3. Community Providers - These sites are heavy on type 1 and 2 users, compared to the content provider sites. User engagement is high, with people regularly moving from the ranks of Regulars to Builders. These sites will have a lower Alexa ranking than a Content Provider site with the same number of page views because they have fewer unique visitors. The members are creating important bonds with each other, not just the content. Various types of PREMIUM MEMBERSHIPS and potentially selling products are your best revenue models.

How Does this Apply to my Google Analytics?

Understanding which type of network you have and what type of visitors you should be catering to is important to your monetary success. There are a lot of specialists telling you how to make money and analyze your traffic for CONTENT based sites. Probably too many. I'm going to focus on the type of site that is more specific to Ning...  The true COMMUNITY.

If you started your network purely for the love of your subject matter, or because you need friends, just go ahead and skip to the next section. The following paragraphs are just going to seem jaded, and I don't want to be the one to tell you that Santa Clause doesn't exist. For the rest of you that are serious about making money on your network, read on...

For community builders, window shoppers will never generate muchrevenue. You will have to have enormous numbers of uniques to make
money off ads, and you just aren't set up for that. Window
shoppers are a means to an end - they may end up being type 1 and 2
members that would be willing to pay for enhanced content and access
some day. If you aren't thinking about it this way, you need to do the math.

The fact is, 1000 members paying $10 a month is $10,000 a month. That's roughly equal to 50,000 adsense clicks (20 cents a click). Assuming a (typical) click-through rate of .2%, it would take 25 million page views to get this level of income. Yes, there are better paying ad networks, but you get the point.

Only in the DotCom bubble logic of 1998 did this kind of business make sense. Once you have realized that DEPTH OF ENGAGEMENT not number of uniques is the key to your "small-tail" social site, you have to start figuring out how to get that regular money from your passionate users. I can't tell you how to do this, but I can say that the best and most honorable way to approach it is to figure out what they want and need, and give it to them. In other words CREATE REAL VALUE.

So, knowing the above, the questions you need to answer from your analytics are:

  • How successful are your promotions and ads at generating new visitors, AND
  • What percentage of new visitors are becoming RETURNING VISITORS.
  • What affect have changes in your overall strategy and site design had on the rate of conversion and level of engagement.
  • What is your natural attrition or drop-off rate for regulars and content builders, and how much advertising do you need to do just to maintain the level of activity you already have.
  • How can your actions as a community manager affect this drop-off rate.

It's important to note here that none of these questions can be answered by Analytics alone. You will always be creating a STORY to understand the numbers that matches your experience tending to and interacting with your community.

When I'm in Analytics, Where Do I Start?

Below is a 6-month weekly graph for my Ning online dating site. A dating site is a perfect example of a community as opposed to a content network. On my site, only the front page is open to window shoppers.

As the Network Creator, this view helps me focus on long term growth, strategy and goals. I'm certainly not saying its the only view I use, but it's one that has a particular relevance as a starting point. So many factors affect the day to day traffic, it's easy to get distracted on the default 1-month daily view. Start thinking like a general not a seargent.

Notice there are 2 lines on this graph, blue and orange:

Analytics always defaults to only the "All Visits" blue line mode. But on community sites, ask yourself "Is it better to focus on TRAFFIC or ENGAGED TRAFFIC?" In a way, it's the orange RETURNING VISITORS segment that shows the real success of a community -  the type 1 and 2 users. (turn on the orange line by clicking "segments" right above where you choose the date range.)

These returning visitors ARE the community. They will bring you free traffic through referrals. They will build content FOR you. They will be dedicated and engaged enough to see value in services or products you offer. Simply put, no matter where the blue line goes, if the orange line is going up, your community is thriving. If it's not, you need to change something.

The margin between the blue and the orange lines shows the NEW VISITOR traffic we are getting from ads, search, and outside links. You can, and at some point SHOULD also turn these on as their own segments and examine them, but this is a simplest meaningful view. If a visitor isn't a returning visitor, by definition they are a new visitor.

Delving Deeper

Drilling down beyond this first page, there is a tremendous wealth of information, but its much more complicated to interpret, and the distractions are everywhere. I would encourage you to use the 2 segment graph and retain your focus on RETURNING VISITS no matter how you slice and dice your data.

Given an unlimited supply of money, you can make the NEW TRAFFIC go up very easily by running AdWords ads that link to the site. This is more visible in the one or two-month daily graphs, and that is the proper place to to understand advertising results. You are now thinking at the level of a lieutenant. You have to react quickly to changes in the tactical situation to fine-tune your ads and avoid blowing a lot of money.

Some people run ads in bursts, others run a sustained trickle. I prefer to run them in bursts both to cause a flash of activity that makes it fun for the users, but also so I can:

  • Isolate the pre-adburst condition as a "control"
  • See the immediate effect of the ads during the 1 or 2 day burst, and track signups to see what kind of results this configuration yielded versus the control period. This, along with information in AdWords also lets me see what percentage of ads roughly are turning into new members
  • Analyze the effect of the adburst on the days just following, especially on the returning visitors. Remember the blue line tells you how many people clicked your ads, the orange line tells you roughly how engaged they are.

It is much harder to make the RETURNING VISITOR line go up consistently and stay up. You cant just throw money at it. you have to give people a reason to return. This is really outside the scope of this article, but one thing is clear: Not running ads, sending site emails, and posting new content is a sure way to make the returning visitors line go DOWN. Attrition saps away your best users, and there needs to be a constant stream of new people to replace them.

My challenge to you

Go to google analytics and take a screenshot of your 6-month weekly graph with RETURNING VISITS turned on. Paste it in the comments here with a paragraph or 2 telling us what you learned. I really look forward to seeing what people have to say, and I will integrate your experiences up here in the main post.

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  • Thanks, this is a great summary of how to interpret the users of a site and of the Google Analytics statistics.
  • NC for Hire
    Thank you, J. Wings. This is very useful.
  • Hey guys, I hate to make a "bump" comment, but I've actually finished the article now, so you might want to see the rest of the content.
  • J.

    I'd concur with your conclusions here, to the letter.
    The repeats stats are the most important. However, I will note that "repeats" and "active users" are not alway the same thing.

    Months ago, I wrote something along similar lines... perhaps it adds to an aid in plotting these stats for others.

    found at -- moved here from original blopspot post. - about 6 months old I think.

    In our case, not a large site, just a single antiques store... our attition rate is rather low.
    In fact, I would say our members get active only MONTHS after joining. For most, that would be a problem, for us, it is not. Our level "interaction" is very low, though, as the "store" is not designed to be a meeting social place, but rather a "customer service" portal. Notwithstanding the diffs, the results concur with yours here. and, btw, we have never run ads, or paid ads of any sort. It just kind of grows organically. The purchase of antiques is not a daily need :-(
    As per your descripton, we are a leve 2 Content Provider. Our gain is from direct sales, not ads. Let's say we use the social tools to our advantage, without the site being a standard "social site" per se.

    Your post is brilliant in that it isolates the ONE factor which differentiates the social site from a standard brochure or website. And it can be applied to other types of venues, not just dating or social groups. Keep up the thinking.

    and congrats a 32% bounce rate and 50% returning visitors is awsome.
    (to compare, we're at about 55% bounce, and 32% returns).
  • Thanks for the interesting post. You make a great point, there are a few different business models out there. I agree that engaged/returning traffic is the most valuable, especially for subscription type social networks.

    On our site, we really try to engage our readers. That being said, most of our traffic comes from referral sources.

    If you asked me a year ago if I thought that was a bad thing, I would have told you it was a risky way to go. Thing is, if you can consistently get a high amount of volume of new traffic every month, and you get a high CPM, there is a possibility you can generate some good revenue. This isn't very easy though and takes a lot of hard work. What motivates me is that I think we still have lots of room to grow.
    • Thanks for the comment. You know, I specifically had MMM in mind when I described "Content Providers" as more like a social blogging platform.

      As I was developing how to express my thinking on this subject, MyModernMet.Com and my site, were prime examples that I tested my thoughts against. (I also drew on my experiences on my own content based site.)

      I believe If you compared our weekly 6-month analytics with returning visits turned on, or did a side-by-side on alexa, you would see what I mean. The patterns couldn't be more different.

      You model is risky (to use your words) in that as the #2 network on ning, we might assume that only very small number of content provider networks would be able to commercialize as well as you have.

      But then again, the quality of your content and your dedication to providing great stories that are targeted to high traffic search keywords make you a classic example of what pretty much every white-hat SEO guru says people should do, whether its for blogs or any other type of site. Ning is just the platform. Its no more or less risky to be on ning than wordpress, and it has the ability to let some people gravitate up into type 1 and 2 users to give you a "Social Boost"
      • I just checked our 6 month returning traffic graph on google analytics and the rising trend is actually quite similar to yours. Just because most of our traffic comes from new visitors via referral sources, doesn't mean we retain less returning visitors. On the contrary, I would actually say that because we get these new viewers, it helps build our returning visitor base.
        • I cant see your stats, so I am admitedly hypothesizing, but I find that very interesting, and would love to integrate more empirical data into what I wrote.

          I based what i said on alexa graphs, which show your site having a HUGE lead over mine in REACH, but a much smaller lead in PAGEVIEWS. Anyone interested in recreating this can click here to go to alexa's page for your site, then type "" in one of the compare boxes and hit GO. Just for good measure our readers might want to put their own sites in the second box. Once you have a graph, click the reach and pageviews buttons. You will see what I mean.

          Obviously Alexa is flawed, and I dont take seriously the notion that my pageviews are close to yours, based on your partner's previous post in the forum here. Side by side analytics ACTUALS would tell the real story...

          So would it be accurate to say that 2/3 of your page views and visits come from returning visitors? If so that would put a dent in my classification scheme, but it wouldn't really invalidate the core message of my post, which is that RETURNING visits are more important than raw visits to a COMMUMITY.

          If the orange line is going down, you have trouble
          • Let me start off by saying your site looks great. I specifically like the video chat option and the suggested donation section.

            I was just looking at Alexa's pageview data, and the way it's set up, I'm not exactly sure how to measure it or how accurate it is. I will say that your pageview/per person, bounce rate, and time on site data is impressive.

            To answer your question, less than 2/3 of our pageviews come from returning visitors. That's not to say though, that the number of returning visitors is low, it just means that the percentage of new visitors is high.

            I think you made a great point in your article though. You don't necessarily need major pageview impressions to make money. You could have really high quality content that people will pay for, subscribe to.
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