What Subscription Site Audience Development Pros Can Learn From AOL’s Traffic-Source Plan

According to the leaked documents from AOL’s plans posted at Business Insider this morning, AOL’s audience development team expect their basic traffic to come from 5 major sources, listed here in order of anticipated size:

1. SEO =40%

2. Direct clicks from bookmarks, etc = 30%

3. External “partners” (presumably incl. affiliates) = 15%

4. Social media = 10%

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5. Email newsletters = 5%


Total = 100%

In addition the team plans to gain 5-10% more traffic from PPC, paid search, and other paid ads.  Lastly, they expect another 50% bump from internal AOL site links and promos.

My analysis of these numbers based on the audience development efforts of the hundreds of other subscription and content sites our research team tracks: First of all I applaud the fact that there’s a mix at all. Far too many online media publishers rely heavily on just one or two methods of traffic, often SEO plus whatever other sole tactic they happen to have a in-house facility with, often email or PPC.  As was discussed during our recent company valuations webinar (on-demand version here), relying too heavily on SEO for audience development is considered a dangerous weakness by investors.

Secondly, the percent of traffic AOL chose for referring partners looks dead on compared to other publishers I know of. (However, we’ve just published a new Case Study of a b2c subscription site that gets nearly all its traffic via referrals which is well worth a peek.) And the social media data looks roughly about right. Our own sites tend to get double that — 22% or more — from social mentions, but our content is extremely B2B niche and unusual in its niches… which is not something that can be said of AOL’s broader brands.

I am highly skeptical of two numbers on this plan though. Firstly, at 5% the number for email newsletters is massively low. Pitiful in fact.It tells me that AOL either is not seeking a steady stream of new opt-ins from its visitors and/or its email content strategy is antiquated in the extreme — such as irrelevant, general broadcast blasts. Email is a tactic that costs very little per piece, and that there’s a huge amount of benchmark data and case study examples surrounding. Basic segmentation and relevancy plus aggressive list growth could sold those problems easily.

Secondly, I know of zero audience development specialists who’d consider a paid ad budget of just 5-10% of traffic anything other than anemic. That’s saying “we don’t believe enough in the revenue-generating potential of our traffic to be able to invest in it… therefore we won’t generate the traffic our content deserves.”It’s living on a diet of lettuce and water instead of 3 solid balanced meals per day. At 5-10% of traffic, the search PPC budget alone is not remotely aggressive enough to get appropriate traffic. And then you need to consider Facebook and LinkedIn ad campaigns — the new, highly-targeted, powerful – and often cheaper per click – competitors to AdWords, AdCentral, et al. I guess you could make jokes about AOL getting super-model thin….