Seasonal Web Traffic: The Proverbial Coal in Your Stocking

December 2009, I looked back through the analytics of several busy content sites I help manage and saw a serious traffic drop-off. It’s no fun being the bearer of bad news and the news was pretty bad. Most sites were seeing close to a 40% decrease in overall traffic starting on the first week of December. It was ugly.

A little internet research, typically the cure for any random issue you can’t seem to explain on your own, did not do much to allay our fears that something – something terrible – was happening. There were a few anecdotal reports of traffic drops but I could not find anything that allayed our fear. We crossed our fingers, took some time off, and hoped for the best.

Turns out that the significant down-turn cleared itself up by the first non-holiday week in January. Here are the visitor graphs to illustrate:

As you can see, the sites saw a big dip in traffic that came on slowly and recouped immediately after the last holiday weekend. We were quite relieved.

But, still, there was the question of how to potentially prevent this problem in the future. I wanted to figure out if there was some kind of obvious pattern that this dip was following so I looked at the traffic sources for one of the sites (the last graph above). It confirmed my suspicion that we were just seeing an overall decrease in web use:

Visitors from direct trafficVisitors from referring sitesVisitors from search enginesThe fact that the drop was across all three (actually four; our campaigns showed a similar pattern) was bittersweet. Sure, we weren’t doing anything wrong or suffering some sort of Google penalty but there also wasn’t any obvious recourse. We were prepared for next year with an explanation but not a way out.

I read a Chris Brogan article (or was it a video? I’d link to it if I could find it again) that made me feel bad (which is rare) but I got his point. He said that everyone slows down around the holidays so that’s the best time to kick ass and take names. While everyone drinks and eats and gets their merry on, he’s making videos, writing blog posts, and generally crushing it. I felt bad because I think I watched/read on vacation.

Point being, we slow down during the holidays and we should slow down if we need to. Incoming content slows down, traffic decreases, people spend time away from the glowing screen. This is a good thing from a human standpoint but is there a way to mitigate it? I see a few options:

  • If possible, start tuning your content towards the people that are active on the web at this time: shoppers and the researchers/media that follows them. I see so many “what I’m thankful for posts” and that’s cute but I’m not motivated to read that at all. What I do want to know is where the good deals are. For a blog about business finance or social CRM, this just doesn’t make sense. But what about retail spending analysis? Improving online sales? Bumping up customer service during these months? The people that are producing are dying for timely content and the holiday season makes it too easy.
  • Another option is a holiday-specific event like a webinar or conference. The problem here is that your general attendance might be low so the return on the time invested may not be worth it. If it’s vital to keep those numbers up, it needs to be done.
  • The last option is to accept the hit and concentrate on other things. Let go of a few things and concentrate on cleaning up broken links, old site sections, social networks you’re not using. Change the pace and the focus to switch things up and give yourself a break from the usual. Catch up on your RSS feed and leave several comments across the ‘sphere.

In the end, if you’re starving for work, you can find it. Just make sure you understand the limitations of the season and set your expectations accordingly.

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