Your Traffic Sources Have a Half-Life

Photo by ToastyKen

“Marketing sources have a half-life.”

I read this quote a few weeks ago. I don’t recall where it’s from, but it put into words a concept I’ve had in my head for ages but haven’t been able to communicate.

The concept centers around the idea that traffic sources decay over time. Some decay faster than others, but they all die out eventually if you don’t invest time to maintain them.

To understand the idea of traffic half-life, look at this Google Analytics screen shot from 6 weeks ago for traffic coming from Hacker News:

Notice the spike and the decay. Very rapid. I’ll also mention that even where it appears to have flatlined, around December 13th there are still around 65 visits per day, and by the 20th it’s down to about 16 per day.

Here’s a recent spike from Twitter:

You’ll notice the scale of the Y-axis is 4000 visits (versus 7000 above) so this would appear to provide fewer visitors. But in this case the decay of traffic by the 13th was only down to around 250, and it was still at 298 by December 20th.

And finally, here’s my organic search traffic during this same time period:

No spikes. No decay. Aside from the weekly trough on Saturday there is very little fluctuation month to month (what can I say, I guess reading Software by Rob is not everyone’s favorite Saturday night activity).

The Interesting Part
If the above three graphs were all plotted with the same scale on the Y-axis, the organic search traffic would barely peak out above the apparent “flatline” traffic you see in the Twitter graph.

So while at first glance it would appear the social media sources brought in way more traffic than organic search due to the mountainous peaks of their curves, the compounding nature of the consistent organic traffic actually brought in around 70% of each of the other two peaks.

Due to its tortoise-like consistency, organic search is always one of the strongest sources of traffic for this blog, even though the one-day totals of the social media spikes are 10-30x higher in any given month.

The other interesting thing to think about: If I stopped maintaining this blog today, the organic search traffic would literally take years (by my estimates) to drop to 50% of its current value (that’s the definition of a half-life).

For the Twitter and Hacker News traffic, their half-life is about 12 hours.

Traffic Half-lifes
Using this observation we can classify traffic sources into one of three groups:

  • Zero Half-life - Any kind of advertising
  • Short Half-life - StumbleUpon, Twitter, Hacker News, Digg, a direct mailing, most referral links
  • Long Half-life – SEO, email subscribers, RSS subscribers, Facebook fans (in some instances)

Given the above we can gather some interesting realizations:

Realization #1: If you’re bootstrapping, don’t plan to advertise
Advertising doesn’t build traffic “equity.” It doesn’t sustain at all. Once you stop paying you stop receiving clicks.

This is not to say you can’t try advertising, but don’t count on it as a viable source of leads unless you have a chunk of change stashed away for this purpose. A very small percentage of startups have any hope of achieving a positive ROI with advertising (which you need if you’re bootstrapping).

Realization #2: Short half-life sources are the “sexy” ones
These are the ones batted around in the media. They’re “new,” “revolutionary” and “viral.” There are absolutely benefits to using them for certain events like a product launch or a big announcement.

But if your business relies on these sources to sustain itself you had better be an insanely talented buzz builder

I’m talking on the order of Peldi or Matthew Inman. 1 in 100,000 at least.

And realize that these viral sources require a large amount of ongoing time and passion that most people cannot maintain in the long run. So instead of relying on them to drive sales directly, take advantage of your fleeting viral traffic by remembering the #1 goal of your website, and figuring out a way to turn short half-life traffic into long half-life traffic.

Realization #3: Long half-life sources are the holy grail of a long-term business
I’ve owned well over 30 software products and websites that have used every approach mentioned above (including advertising) as their marketing lifeblood. And one thing I can say unequivocally:

If you want to build a business that does not require a heavy, ongoing, constant investment in finding new customers…focus on long half-life traffic sources

This means learning SEO, and building email and RSS (and potentially Facebook) subscriber lists. This is where you build the equity that keeps your business around for years. Without it you are perpetually chasing your next prospect, which is an expensive proposition.

What’s interesting is that some companies appear to build their business around viral traffic sources (which have a short half-life), but they are, almost without us noticing, converting them into long half-life sources.

Large firms that come to mind are Groupon and Facebook. A smaller one many of us are familiar with is AppSumo.

What you’ll notice is these companies are using short half-life sources to drive traffic, but converting it into a source with a long half-life (an email list). This allows them to build a sustainable business over the long-term.

Facebook and Groupon, two of the most talked-about companies of the past year, are actually highly-optimized email marketing firms masquerading as viral marketing firms

As you market your startup you will be well served to do the same.

Start Small, Get Big
The Newsletter for Self-Funded Startups. It'll Change Your Life.
What you get for signing up:
  • A 170-page ebook collecting my best startup articles from the past 5 years
  • Previously unpublished startup-related screencasts
  • Exclusive revenue-growing techniques I don't publish on this blog
"The ideas and information Rob provides should be required reading for anyone that wants to create a successful business on the web." ~ Jeff Lewis
Startups for the Rest of Us...
If you're trying to grow your startup you've come to the right place. I'm a serial web entrepreneur here to share what I've learned in my 11 years as a self-funded startup founder. Luckily several thousand people have decided to stick around and join the conversation.

For more on why you should read this blog, go here.


#1 Marcin on 02.02.11 at 8:15 am

Maybe it’s the engineering metaphor that helped get it through, but finally I get it! Converting short (or zero) half-life traffic into longer half-life traffic is the goal, but figuring out how that should work for your product is the tricky part. Certainly food for thought and experimentation. Cheers.

#2 Tweets that mention Your Traffic Sources Have a Half-Life | Software by Rob -- on 02.02.11 at 12:46 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Deric Loh, Francisco Sáez, João Bernardino, Sergio Bogazzi, and others. said: Read: Your Traffic Sources Have a Half-Life #micropreneurship #startups [...]

#3 Mark on 02.02.11 at 10:33 pm

Thought you’d like to know that I found your blog through Hacker News and was successfully converted by this Short Half Life source of traffic into a loyal RSS subscriber :)

Rob Reply:

Haha, very nice :-) Then my marketing was successful…

#4 Franck on 02.04.11 at 7:38 am

Very interesting! I widely share your view

2 small comments

SEO traffic: very few keywords are actually interesting. If the goal is convert to newsletter, you should focus on the 10% of keywords that are actually converting far above the site’s average

Advertising: you’re right, it shouldn’t be used for branding, but if the goal is to send traffic into a squeeze page, capture an email and run a X days autoresponder series (short funnel), you can create customer retention (if you are offering value), and even think about presenting a paid offer on Day X+1. Once again as for SEO, very few PPC keywords do convert, most other don’t

And that’s a great news. If you monitor your site the right way, you know where to focus your efforts, so that you don’t waste much of your time on these activities and better use your time for developping more products/services/revenues

Great read! Thanks