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Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to have some great conversations with companies, individuals, and groups looking for my help growing their businesses (as I’ll be leaving Edvisors at the end of the month). There’s been a common question among all of them:

How do we get more traffic to X?

This is the wrong question to be asking, folks. Yes, absolutely, more feet in the door is critical to long term growth, but you don’t start fixing or improving your business at the top of the funnel.

You start at the bottom.

Which would you rather have? A web site with 1 million visitors a year that converts 0.5% of them, or a web site with 20,000 visitors a year that converts 30% of them? Everyone clamoring for more traffic says “I want the million visitors!” but the answer is the latter, in case you’re mathematically disinclined.

Fix your funnel from the bottom up. Why? Two reasons – you make the conversion engine more efficient, so when it’s time to build traffic, you can make use of it, and the further down the funnel you go, the more control over its outcome you have.

If you don’t know what your funnel is, now’s a good time to map it out. I suggest this order:

  • Awareness
  • Traffic
  • Leads
  • Customers
  • Evangelists

Start at the bottom, which is evangelists, the people who love you so much that they spread your message for free on your behalf. If your product or service sucks, you won’t have evangelists. If your customer service sucks, you won’t have evangelists. Put time and energy into making a killer product and helping people make use of it, and every referral you get from your evangelists will bring gold to your doorstep.

Making customers is a function of sales. If sales can’t take a qualified lead and turn it into a customer most of the time, your sales process is broken or your sales team sucks. Ask your leads why they didn’t become customers, and fix that. Sales force automation tools can give you more insights into aggregate info about who tends to convert or doesn’t convert, but nothing beats asking the folks who didn’t buy.

Making traffic into leads is a function of marketing. You want as many qualified leads as possible – so if you’re not turning your traffic into leads, chances are marketing’s not doing its job demonstrating the value of what you have for sale, or the mechanism for conversion to a lead is broken. Are your web site forms working at all? Have you tested using things like Google Optimizer? If your lead quality is poor, are you asking the right questions and filtering out the garbage before your sales force has to handle it?

Building awareness and getting traffic is what you handle last – as said earlier, the higher up the funnel, the less you have control over the outcome. This is where stuff like search engine optimization, social media, and the variety of traffic building mechanisms come into play, and this is where most folks think you should start, but it’s where you finish.

Make sure the engine is working before you start blinging the shell of your car. More traffic without a conversion engine is just wasting your bandwidth, your resources, and your time.

Photo credit: Chris Brogan

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