ICT-KM of the CGIAR

Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Watching blog traffic: the top 5 lessons so far

© 2003 - Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Pixar Animation Studios
Source: IMDb - © 2003 - Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Pixar Animation Studios

When I started drafting this post about our traffic trends for the first two quarters of 2009, I thought I’d call it: Six months of social media and how are we doing? But, as I was writing it, I realized that the story I wanted to tell was more about what we’ve learned so far from blogging and increasing the visibility of the ICT-KM Program on the Web than just measuring the impact of social media per se. Of course, the use of social media is part of the bigger picture, but what I had to say had more to do with an organic approach to the monitoring and evaluation of our Web publishing work.

Traffic monitoring and analysis play a big role in gathering insights into what we’re doing on the Web and how we’re doing it. In a previous post about including social media appropriately in a communications plan and measuring its effectiveness, the core message was ‘measure as you go and abandon that which doesn’t work‘. Well, here I attempt to explain what we’re learning from the main ways in which we measure traffic (blog page views and referrers, the two core stats provided by hosted blogs at WordPress.com) and what we’ve learned so far about blogging.

In January 2009, around the time the ShareFair was taking place, more of us at ICT-KM Program started getting serious about blogging and social media (Simone Staiger-Rivas and Nadia Manning-Thomas had been doing it systematically since 2007). We used different channels to create a buzz about the ShareFair, and then we organized the first Social Media Workshop. By that time, more of us had started blogging, and not only about the Program’s activities. Then we got hooked on Twitter, social bookmarking, pushing stuff out on different networks… and watching the blog statistics as if they were rare fish in a tank!

Seriously, when we started, we aimed to walk the talk, share lessons learned, and increase the reach of our information. To monitor and assess the value of putting so much out there, we began looking systematically at the blog traffic statistics as the key indicators of the increasing visibility of our Program-related activities and several CGIAR initiatives (CGIAR Strategic Communications workshop, CSI 2009 meeting, to name a few).

So, how are we doing at the end of the second quarter of 2009?

Pretty well, thank you!

ICT-KM blog traffic trends since January 2009
ICT-KM blog traffic trends since June 2007

Here are some facts and observations based on the traffic statistics of this blog  (our main method of promotion and channel for increased reach):

1. Between January and June 2009, blog traffic was almost double that of the whole of 2008.

2. The top 30 posts (10% of the top post list) cover 54% of the total views. We, too, have a long tail (more on this in the section about search engines below).

3. The referrers (sites or systems from whence traffic comes) tell interesting stories. In general, referrers are a key source of information about what works on a Web site. This is where you should look for the numbers that support a social media strategy, since most social networking or bookmarking sites show up in the referrers.

Our top sources of traffic are the ICT-KM Program site, the WordPress.com tags and friends’ sites (sites linking to us and our Knowledge Sharing sites: KS Toolkit and ks-cgiar.org).

A special word about WordPress.com tags. Tags and categories work in a peculiar way on WordPress.com: they are detected as referrers because WordPress.com works like a giant, unique platform for all hosted blogs. However, if we look at the actual tags, we will see that these are our own specific tags, such as cgsocialmedia and social media tools. This allows users to discover other content that might be of interest to them. As such, the most clicked tags on our blog are related to internal navigation.

The top groups of referrers indicate that:

  • tags are great for the discovery of information (as if we needed this, but it’s always good to see the numbers);
  • our plan to bring together the ICT-KM Program site and blog under the same domain, where the tag cloud can become a fixed feature of site navigation, will consolidate traffic and give visitors the option of discovering more interesting information and possibly encourage them to become loyal blog readers/participants;
  • creating cross-linkages across the sites in which we participate creates a virtuous circle that benefits all parties (not only do we gain from referrals, but visitors can also discover relevant information in their areas of interest).

4. On the social media front proper, Twitter is doing a good job: page views from the microblogging service went up from 30 in the 1st quarter, when we had been using it for only two weeks, to 109 at the end of the 2nd quarter. And this only takes into consideration the detectable Web-based views: those coming from Twitter in a browser, not the different readers and widgets people use to follow Twitter subscriptions. Hence the requirement for the same URL shortening service to track clicks to specific pages (more below!).

Views generated by the RSS feed, like those generated by Twitter, include only the Web-based readers detectable via the browser. However, the number of RSS views are, for sure, much higher, and WordPress.com stats distinguish between on-site and syndicated views, a more reliable indicator. In order to collect more information on how many views are generated via the feed, our feed is now available via Feedburner, which allows us to better track the number of future subscribers, at least.

Facebook is not well represented, but we’re not doing much on this network yet.

These numbers are based on the page views of the individual posts, and therefore exclude the views of the home page, where the full posts are featured.

5. In general, the biggest generator of traffic is still email. This is not always easy to see in the referrers (in fact, email-related referrers are only ranked number 8), but the traffic peaks we have had after sending out the email newsletter or ad-hoc announcements are the measure that supports this statement. For example, we broke the page view record on 29th July when the 11th installment in the Social Media Tools Series (Social Media: The Next Revolution) was announced via email. The previous record was set by the ICT-KM newsletter for 3rd quarter 2009 on 6th July. So, yes, email is still the most effective way to deliver information. But to make sure it is not trashed, be careful about the frequency and relevance (see Meena Arivananthan’s post about newsletters as a dying breed and how to save them from ineffectiveness or outright extinction).

What we can’t see from the WordPress.com stats but would like to see

1. The total number of syndicated views (the posts viewed in newsfeeds readers) versus the on-site views for all the blog posts.

2. The traffic generated by the search engines. It would be nice to know how well the long tail (the broad variety of topics covered by 90% of the top posts for the 2nd quarter, each with a small representation in terms of content produced, that help ensure a long shelf-life for our content), high keyword density and link popularity serve us versus the direct promotion and presence on friends’ sites. We will have this information when we move the blog and site to one platform, on which we’ll unleash Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools.

3. Any ratio between new and returning visitors. Visitor types, as calculated by most traffic analysis packages, are not available in WordPress.com. While not as an exact measure as page views,  this indicator could still help us understand those channels that are preferred by loyal visitors and where we should focus our efforts to ensure that people keep coming back (more on traffic quality from Blog Tips).

How to measure traffic from sites and networks not detected in the referrers

Some of our social-media-related work targets Twitter, Yammer, status updates on messengers, and social bookmarks. These systems offer users a range of tools to access and participate, like browser plugins (in the case of del.icio.us), and desktop clients (standalone programs installed on a computer, like in the case of Twitter, Yammer, and instant messengers). These alternative tools are not detected in referrers, even if they do generate traffic. So how can we measure this traffic? Not directly, but via a workaround: using a URL shortener that offers a click counter. That’s the reason why we prefer to use bit.ly to shorten URLs from the blog before promoting them. Bit.ly maintains a count of clicks on the URLs we shorten via our common account on the site. Not sure if it’s totally reliable, but it’s a start.

The 5 lessons learned so far

1. More content, more traffic. Remember the 1990’s mantra of web-savvy people: Content is king? Well, nothing much has changed. Except that visitors have perhaps become even more demanding. Our blog traffic started to increase when both the quantity and the quality of our content went up a few notches. More of us are now blogging, hence more content is available more frequently. The top posts show that our blog visitors prefer ‘original’ content, like the interviews, the Social Media Tools Blog Series, the hands-on practice pieces, and anything related to Google. So, the commitment we have made to write more blog posts is paying off. As the Boagworld post on the harsh truths of corporate blogging says (Truth #2):

‘Building a readership is a long term commitment. It can take months for users to recognise your blog as a consistent source of useful information. Only then will they start visiting it regularly and recommending it to others.

Are we getting there?

2. Create a virtuous circle with friends’ sites. Your partners, whether colleagues or organizations involved in the projects in which you participate, are likely to generate information that is appealing to like-minded people. Start linking to them, add them to your blogroll, mention and review what they’re doing, aggregate their feeds into your public aggregator (if you have one).

3. Promote your content via social media. At the very least, you could consider using social media to increase the visibility and reach of your information. There’s more to social media than just exposure, but it’s definitely the easiest step to take for a start. Consolidate social media practices: open group accounts on Twitter, del.icio.us,  consider a page on Facebook, bookmark your stuff all over the place (to optimize bookmarking, consider an account on ping.fm).

4. Tags work wonders. They provide visual cues on what’s relevant to your visitors, navigation for discovery, description of resources (and outright browsing fun for those who don’t want to think…)

5. Promote email subscriptions. Be it for a newsletter, a special announcement, or RSS feed in an email notification, factor email into your practice. And use it smartly or you’ll be trashed!