Come back! Photo by Omar Bárcena on Flickr.

by • 23 Aug, 2011 • TechnologyComments (6)3593

What makes visitors come (back)?

Here’s the textbook example of the development of something online AD 2011. It’s a post on this blog, but in my experience represents most of our online work. In this example, exactly seven days separate launch and oblivion.

Return visits... what's that?

Fortunately, the fate of one post does not represent the fate of this blog (or you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?). I write another post, and another, and tweet, and write another post, and tweet. As long as I keep pushing out new content (and preferably a lot) I will not be forgotten.

Having people return to our websites has been one of the things we’ve done some work on at the Museum of National History. Our online KPIs put quite some significance on return rates, loyalty, brand awareness, successful registrations, etc.

The dynamics of returning visitors are completely different from those of new visitors. On in Q2, return visitors visited 35% more pages, spent 74% more time and were roughly 26% more likely to visit content pages (rather than ‘corporate’ pages). Other data shows there’s a correlation between return rates and participation with content.

Correlation does not mean causation and it might very well be that visitors who spent more time on the website, visit content pages, etc. are more likely to return.

So, what makes visitors return to a website? And more importantly: what makes visitors come back to old content, rather than continuously having to add new content?

First, and foremost: excellent content. On our website, parts with excellent content (the content I’m really proud of, full of images, links, media, etc.) have in the range of 25-50% more return visits than the average. Good content (still OK, but, you know, just not great) has no such consistent difference with the average.

Secondly, related content and internal links. Our website is rich in opportunities for discovery (“you might also like…”), yet there’s some editorial effort needed to get best results in related content. Similarly, it takes some time to add internal in-text links to articles. As a result, a massive natural experiment happened in which some articles have a lot of relevant related content and internal links, and others don’t. The former generate some 24% more return visits.

Thirdly, timeless content. With that I mean, content of which the date it is first put online is not overly evident. We ran an experiment with articles (timeless) versus blog posts (time-specific) and although blog posts usually have a better start, within days to a couple of weeks articles outperform them in number of visits per day. If blogs in your institution are written to be (more or less) timeless, make sure the way in which you communicate the date reflects this.

Fourthly, an explicit call for interaction really adds to the number of people that come back. In my experience, merely offering the option to interact (comment form, etc.) is not enough to do the trick. It should be clear to (certain) people that they are welcome to interact. (See last week’s post on relevance for more on this topic.)

And, to conclude this short list, I’d make a strong case for simplicity. When I compare key indicators for return visits from our old simple weblog with those of our full-blown website, they’ve fallen by about two-thirds (even though visit numbers easily increased tenfold). Nearly all our sub websites outperform their big sister in return visits. Surprisingly, this only seems to apply by comparison, because other websites I monitor have completely unrelated total visits-return visits rates.

Now, here’s a (maybe not) textbook example of the development of something in which I included quite some of the above lessons. You can clearly see the soft launch, the hard launch and a third peak when the thing got some free publicity. There’re still peaks, there’s still a launch, but even months later (not in the graph) there’s no oblivion.

Also, return visits are up 22% up from average in this example. Visit depth, 146% up, time spent, 205% up; well worth the effort.

There are the return visits. Welcome back!

There lot of other factors involving return visits, such as usability and design. Darren Rowse wrote a good piece about return visits way back in 2008, which – I think – is timeless and might be your next step now you’ve finished reading this article.

Header photo by Omar Bárcena on Flickr.

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