Traffic Versus Conversions: Finding Peace and ROI in an Embattled Online World

As with most conflicts, both sides have something to offer. In the case of traffic versus conversions, the answer isn’t one or the other...

Aaron Orendorff
July 11 2019

It’s an argument as old as the internet.

In one corner stands traffic. In the other, conversions. Advocates for the first have built vast online empires by delivering — or at least promising to deliver — a single payoff: more. Those aligned with the second are equally zealous: more traffic doesn’t matter; it’s what you get that traffic to do.

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Unfortunately for businesses on the front lines, the argument often produces confusion, tension, and indecision. To sort through the haze, let’s take a look at the case for each and how to find long-term ROI.

The Case for Traffic

It’s simple. If there’s no traffic, there are no conversions. No conversions, no sales. It all starts at the top of the funnel. There are two overarching ways to get traffic to your website: paid advertising, and organic methods such as content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). Content marketing and SEO are no doubt a hefty initial investment for driving organic traffic, but done well, they become the gifts that keep on giving.

Business2Community recently reported that despite Google Ads’ continued growth, 80% of people ignore them. What’s more, “81% of online consumers trust information found on blogs. In fact, 61% of US online consumers have made a purchase based on recommendations from a blog.”

But this doesn’t mean paid advertising is losing its edge — far from it. What this tells us is that there is an opportunity for paid advertising to level up content marketing efforts. Paid advertising gives you direct and immediate control over your spend and how that translates into traffic. Even if a website converts at eCommerce’s current global average of 2.42%, 100,000 visitors are far more valuable than 10,000 visitors even at double the rate.

While for many, conversion rate optimization seems like hard technical work, generating traffic is often as simple as: more content -> more ads -> more spend. Conversion rates as static metrics are far less reliable for profitability than price and average order size. As Shopify Plus pointed out: “A 2% conversion rate is terrible if your average order is $15. A 2% conversion rate is extremely high if your average order value is $995. Context matters.”

But conversion and traffic numbers should not be treated as mutually exclusive. Traffic doesn’t guarantee purchases.

The Case for Conversion

Building traffic is one thing, but if you don’t convert your traffic, what’s the point?

According to eMarketer, total digital ad spend in the US will grow 19% to $129.34 billion in 2019. The lion’s share belongs to two players: Google and Facebook. For the first time, however, their combined share will drop even as revenue grows.

Sadly, organic visitors aren’t free either. The time spent creating content that (1) ranks in search and (2) builds a profitable social media following is costly.

All traffic — whether organic or paid — is bought. Settling for the above mentioned 2.42% average can result in massive waste. Worse, new prospects typically convert at a rate five times lower than returning customers and require up to nine separate sessions before taking the plunge.  According to ProfitWell, overall customer acquisition costs have been steadily rising for B2B and B2C companies over the last five years by almost 50%.

Nima Yassini, CEO and founder of New Republique, said that most marketers spend more to acquire new customers, but not everyone needs to: “I would suggest if you have low traffic on your site (under 20K visitors per month) or are an emerging brand that is not yet well known in the market, focus your budget on acquisition.”

“However, once you have the traffic numbers up and steady, you’ll probably notice that no matter what numbers the site is doing, it hits a wall: you can’t turn more than a low percentage of them into leads or customers. That’s when you need to work on the other side: conversion.”

So, where to focus your attention?

The Way of Peace… and ROI

Both cases are strong. As you may have suspected, they’re both equally right and equally wrong. Unfortunately, equal is the last word that describes how most businesses prioritize their approach. Cumulative data reveals that for every $92 spent gaining traffic and acquiring customers, only $1 is spent converting them.

It’s a phenomenon referred to as the ‘myopic funnel’; time, attention, and resources are poured almost exclusively into the top of the funnel (i.e., acquiring traffic).

This lopsided investment is a direct result of traffic’s self-evident logic — not to mention the seductiveness of big numbers at meetings, in reports, and on social media.

The first step toward peace is finding balance. Creating a culture of conversion within your organization isn’t easy, but it’s crucial to lowering acquisition costs and improving both ROI and ROAS.

However, balance isn’t enough.

Though a good start, dividing your budget equitably still treats traffic and conversions as separate approaches. The real breakthrough comes when you merge the two into a single approach built around the people entering your funnel.


First, start by connecting your offsite acquisition with your onsite experience. Put more simply: the source of your traffic should determine what visitors see when they arrive. This is especially critical for paid advertisements.

Rather than direct visitors to your home or product page, make the experience as one-for-one as possible. Single-keyword ad groups and product listing ads on the acquisition side met by pages dynamically tailored to meet those exact needs onsite.

Second, focus your initial conversion not on selling, but on collecting your visitor’s email address. Today, even this is no small feat. Overcoming the nine-session average depends almost entirely on relevancy: the right offer at the right time.

If a visitor came for a specific product, offer a coupon for that product. If what they want is out of stock, ask if they’d like to be notified when it arrives. Or, if they click through a series of related pages, serve up an overlay tied directly to the items they’ve just shown interest in.

Third, these same people-based principles apply once they leave your site as well. Instead of peppering your lost visitors with one-size-fits-all retargeting ads and email campaigns, continue to customize your approach by integrating their onsite activity and offsite engagement. If a visitor ignores an ad, automate the process of delivering something new. If they click through an email, ensure that the page they arrive at aligns perfectly with the offer you’ve sent.

Continuing this process and enabling real-time customization lies at the heart of not only persuading visitors to come back, but converting them once they do. A single view of your customer means tracking and treating them like the real, individual people they are.

Bringing Traffic and Conversions Together

As with most conflicts, both sides have something to offer. In the case of traffic versus conversions, the answer isn’t one or the other, nor is it even ‘both/and.’

The real key isn’t to balance your approach — but rather, to integrate it. Only then can you find yourself in a happy relationship where traffic turns into leads and leads turn into sales — a harmony that even the most stubborn advocate can’t deny.

Aaron Orendorff

Previous the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is now the founder of iconiContent, where he’s busy “saving the world from bad content.” He’s also a regular contributor at Mashable, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider, Content Marketing Institute, and more. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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