Is there such a thing as “free” traffic?

Is there such a thing as “free” traffic?

There are only two ways to generate traffic to your website, and neither of them are actually free. Think about it – obviously paid traffic incurs a cost, but the competitiveness and dedication required for organic traffic is so time consuming, that it is costly.

The danger here is that business owners / marketing professionals don’t see this as a monetary outlay, yet I’d want to challenge the model. I’d want to ask “should you be dedicating 20 hours per week to writing your blog, or sourcing imagery just to generate traffic?”

In my experience Mr (or Mrs) Business owner should be spending the majority of their time working on their business (not in it), and the marketing managers / executives they employ should be focusing on creatively linking the overall marketing strategy to the tactical delivery of campaigns, etc, and constantly improving the client experience within the company – something that an external agency wouldn’t be able to control.

Yet the desire for “free traffic” is seducing business owners / marketing executives with visions making sales / leads / conversions with no financial risk up front. It’s an attractive idea, but so misleading. And here’s why:

Compared to the sound of “free traffic”, paid traffic sounds like suicide. The reality, however, is that for most growing businesses, paid traffic is a goldmine under their feet.

The Misconception of Free Traffic

Whether traffic is generated by SEO, social media, your blog or features from online PR, there are no channels that don’t come without at least some form of cost. Typically, this is in the form of a writer’s writing time (if it’s the business owner doing the writing this could be the most expensive time of all), time spent building contacts with bloggers and journalists or the time and effort required to build a social media profile.

All of these activities produce what is thought of as “free traffic”, but in reality the visitors generated from each have been paid for with time, writing and energy. And more to the point, this cost is never really calculated, so a return on investment (ROI) is never calculated, leading to the further misconception that any leads / sales generated are actually more profitable to the business than they really are.

Content Marketing

The latest bandwagon of free traffic is ‘Content Marketing’.

As Forbes defines it:

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

As you can see, it is not just the creation of the content that is a time consuming concern, but also the distribution onto various platforms, social media, authority websites etc… The result is an increase in rankings and some qualified traffic, but still – if it takes experienced Pro’s a reasonable amount time to undertake these tasks, imagine how long it could take you to get your first article up and distributed.

Paying vs Earning

A much better term than ‘free traffic’ is earned traffic. You’ve earned the traffic through the work put in, and this phrase indicates (accurately) that this sort of promotion requires a trade: you trade your expertise and writing for exposure on the host site.

The same goes for social media. By investing daily/hourly in building your audience and providing interesting and useful posts, you eventually earn the resulting traffic. But again, this is a much longer process, and one that some business owners aren’t convinced of yet, hence they don’t see the time investment as worthwhile.

Paid Traffic – the elephant in the room

On the other hand, paid traffic is like a switch. Simply get your credit card at the ready and you can make most of the pain go away. Whether it’s Adwords, Remarketing, Facebook ads, display ads, blog ads or tradeshow website directories (the list goes on…) the beauty of paid traffic is fast scalability and the data you receive back in return.

If you’ve got an offer that’s converting, a hot product in your shop, a deadline by which you need applications submitting, or you’re running a timely promotion and you need traffic asap, these channels all allow you to scale at the click of a button.

The other benefit of paid traffic is the diversity of your marketing channels.

A key piece of business advice I was given was “never to rely on anything that equals 1” – this is true in business just as it is true in marketing. The danger of having just one marketing channel, just as with one of anything, is that it can easily turn into a zero – especially when dealing with third party platforms where you are not in control.

But having a regular stable flow of traffic from different paid sources that you can track, measure and scale, insulates you from any one particular channel’s fluctuations. Google throws a curveball that penalises all links and deindexes (removes) mobile friendly sites for being manipulative? Who cares! We still have Adwords! Adwords dies? Not to worry! Our Facebook ads are kicking it!

Paid vs “Free”

I have worked with numerous businesses around the world who have sat on both sides of the fence, and it’s not the position of a blog post to tell you how to run your business or manage your marketing budget (I have my opinions, but feel free to contact me if you want to discuss further!).

However, what I can say is this… Today’s world is geared up for results, and results through “free” traffic sources are both (a) hard to come by, and (b) inconsistent. As an external supplier working with business on their external marketing, unless the boundaries and understanding are set firmly from the outset, and the client has already “bought in” to the concept of content marketing, it can lead to awkward conversations 2 to 3 months in…

These conversations normally revolved around “we’re not happy with the results we’re seeing, they’re not indicative of the budget we’re spending and we think it’s time to pull the plug”. Interesting enough, these conversations almost NEVER happen with clients running paid traffic sources…

View the full series of the #12BlogsOfChristmas.