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6 Ways to Use Referral Data to Get More Out of Your Content

Tom Demers

Creating good/great content is usually expensive and hard.

As someone who works on a lot of content projects for my clients and my own sites, I like to find tactics that have:

  • Limited downside risk
  • A lot of potential upside
  • Points of leverage where I can make the work that I / my clients have already done provide even greater yield

Analyzing referral data (your own sites’ and your competitors’) can help you check all three of those boxes.

In this post I’ll show you how to mine your own analytics as well as competitive referral data, and you’ll learn how that referral data can be used to:

  • Squeeze even more value out of your most profitable content
  • Determine which content you should create next (based on what’s worked in the past, to help “fail proof” your content efforts)
  • Show you the best opportunities to buy ads to help amplify your content
  • Show the best places to contribute content (that you know will send high quality visitors)

And more. Let’s dive in.

Collecting Your Own Referral Data

To have any insights about referral data, the first thing I need is – you guessed it – some actual referral data! I’ll start by looking at my own analytics. To be able to start to get some actionable insights here I’ll create two custom reports.

The first custom report will look at users and goal completions as metrics, and source as the dimension. I typically call that report “Users & Goals by Source”:

users and goals by source

As an example for this post I’ll use a site I run in the home / family safety niche as an example. This site is a pretty simple one from a monetization standpoint where the site’s primary KPIs are traffic and a single conversion action (configured as the only goal), so I can create a simple report to look at users and goal completions. If I had different average values for sales or other important KPIs I might try to fold those in by selecting specific goals (eg a sale) or value if I had that set up in analytics — whatever you focus on, the main thing here is to include your most important revenue, profit and business driving metrics.

The other custom report I’ll set up looks at users and goal completions as a metric and landing page as a dimension, which I’ll call: “Users & Goals by Landing Page” (I know, catchy right?):

Users & Goals by Landing Page

For both reports, once I’ve set them up I’ll click into the report (which I can navigate back to under the “Customization” tab) and segment by “referral traffic” before diving in:

referral traffic advanced segment

Now I can use my Users & Goals by Source report to take a closer look at the specific sites that are referring traffic and goal completions (or whatever’s most valuable to my business). I’ll look at these reports for my home / family safety site:

referral traffic by source

And I can use my Users & Goals by Landing Page report (again: important that it’s been filtered to look just at referral traffic) to see the specific pages that are getting the most traffic from referral data.

top pages referral traffic

An important note here too: I can also dig even deeper into this report by looking at the referrals for a specific page:

sort referral traffic by source for page

Which will show me all of the top referrers for a specific piece of content:

referring sites by page

Now I know the referring sites that send the most valuable traffic to my site, as well as the individual pages on my site that have received the most valuable referral traffic.

Collecting Referral Data from Other Key Sites in Your Niche

Next, I’ll pull together relevant referral information about my competitors and relevant sites in my niche by using SEMrush’s display advertising reports.

Obviously I can’t typically look at my competitors’ analytics accounts (unless they’re remarkably transparent) but I can dig into a display advertising report for sites in my niche to see who is sending them traffic.

Continuing with the example of my home and family safety site, I can take a look at a direct competitor, or I can look at a big publishing site like Better Homes and Gardens (this can be a useful tip because often if you have smaller competitor sites they may not be advertising or there just may not be much data on them available):

semrush display traffic report

From there I can drill down and get more information about specific advertisers who are either advertising on Better Homes and Gardens and/or who Better Homes and Gardens is advertising with, and look at frequent advertisers or publishers who could have relevant audiences for my site as well:

semrush pubisher referral information

And then look at those sites’ advertisers and/or the places they’re advertising.

Acting On Your Referral Data

Now I have a trove of data about the folks who send relevant, valuable traffic to my site, which pages attract the most of that traffic, and I also know who is sending competitors and relevant sites in my niche the traffic that they’re willing to pay for.

So what can I actually do with all of this great data? And how specifically can this help my content creation and promotion efforts?

Let’s start by assuming that the post highlighted above on “The Top Travel Safety Products for Families” drove lots of profitable referral traffic from the sources spelled out above, and that I want to leverage the referral data from my niche to help amplify my content. Here are six specific things I can do next:

1. Share some Link Love with Your Top Referrers & Popular Pages

Now that I know that my Top Travel Safety Products post is driving profitable traffic via referrals, I can work on making that asset work even harder by applying a bit of link love to my biggest referral winners by:

  • Building “second tier links” into the popular referrers pushing great traffic to my site, to get those referring posts to rank better in search. This might not work particularly well for a site like Facebook, but the examples above of specific blogs driving traffic could be great candidates to push some link equity at (via opportunities I have on other sites, on my own “press page,” etc.).
  • Linking more aggressively to my popular referral content internally – by adding this high converting content to areas of my site like top / referred pages and within the body copy of different pages of the site I can push more of my own traffic to a profitable and popular page, and I’m also giving that page a chance to rank better in search results.
  • Doing additional outreach to similar sites to my top referrers can also net me more of this great referral traffic as well as more links to a page I know converts well, giving it an even better chance to rank better In search engines.

If you’re not sure about how to prospect and conduct outreach for link building, you can check out any of these excellent guides:

2. Push Paid Social Traffic to Popular Referrers

Advertising isn’t just for your hard-sell landing pages. You can leverage high converting, valuable content (even if those conversions are for “softer offers”) by sending paid social traffic to these pages as well. It’s important to note here that you should have a strong handle on your budget and what you can pay per lead / sale.

You can leverage sponsored content opportunities on a number of social platforms (Reddit, Stumble Upon, Twitter, Facebook, and now even Pinterest), but one of the best parts about this tactic is that you now know exactly which social network you should be buying ads on, because you can see which specific referrer sends you the best traffic (and how it converts!).

Based on the screenshots above, we can determine that we’ll want to carve out some budget for Facebook ads.

3. Buy Ads to Your Content on Relevant Sites

The same way I’d use competitor advertising data to create a great display campaign, I can also buy actual ads and/or do sponsorships for my best content on sites that I know are sending me valuable referral traffic, and on the sites that my competitors and larger sites within my niche are advertising on frequently via AdSense, Outbrain, or similar.

4. Develop Contributor Relationships with Top Referrers

Any site that sent lots of relevant traffic to my Top Travel Safety Products has valuable audience overlap with my site (I know this because they sent lots of valuable traffic). A site that links to a specific product that sent lots of great referral traffic is in the same boat.

As a content marketer, I can reach out to those folks and work with them to set up regular content contributions to their blog. Again: this one’s not applicable to referrers like Facebook, but can be a great way to tap a major vein of relevant traffic to get to more of the same types of prospects I got a taste of in my referral report.

5. Schedule Social Shares for Successful Posts (On & Off Your Site)

If I look in my referral data and see a guest post I wrote or a review of my product sending tons of great traffic, I’ll add that to a social sharing schedule to recirculate it to my social audiences.

Similarly, I can queue up periodic social shares of the individual content assets that perform the best on the networks they’ve gotten the most traction. Based on the data above, I know that my Travel Safety Products post did very well on Facebook, so in addition to buying ads there, I can also schedule that post to be shared on Facebook periodically as well.

6. Create New, Targeted Content Based on What Works

Finally, one of the most powerful things I can do with all of this referral data is use it to inform future campaigns. I’ll use all of this data to:

  • Determine the types of content I should be spending time on (based on my landing page report showing me what drives the most valuable referral traffic)
  • Determine the places I should promote that new content (based on the best referrals from similar, individual pieces of content)
  • Find new places to promote this new content (based on what’s working for competitors)

As you might imagine this deep-dive look into referral opportunities and performance can be extremely valuable if you’re working with a new client or performing an in-depth content audit for the first time, but even if you’re someone who has been working on a site for years, I’d be shocked if you didn’t unearth some interesting data points you weren’t aware of, and as you can see: once you do, there’s plenty you can do with the data, so start digging!

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Tom Demers is a co-founder and managing partner with Cornerstone Content and Measured SEM. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TomDemers, reach him via Email at tom at cornerstonecontent.com, and for more tips on getting more value out of your content marketing efforts you can also download this free guide from Cornerstone Content.
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