Desire Paths, Part 1: Retracing Your Audience's Steps

Why do people visit your organization’s website?

It’s such a basic question, I’d hesitate to posit it – if it weren’t so fundamental to the work of making the world, and the Web, a better place.

If your first thought was something along the lines of “To support our work, of course”, note that the question is not “Why should people visit” but “Why do they”.

Nonprofit organizations often approach communications and outreach assuming that everyone should just get it. Because you spend so much time organizing around complex issues, you may assume a shared vocabulary with the broader world when that vocabulary really only resonates within your organization.

This is further complicated because nonprofit departments often have competing priorities: Development wants donors, Program wants event participants, Communications wants names for the email marketing list.

I can pretty much guarantee that very few people arrive at your website thinking, “You know what would be great? Giving you my email address.”

The truth is, the motivations of your visitors are often very different from your organizational goals. This is further complicated because, to paraphrase Jeanne Bliss from Chief Customer Officer, “The nonprofit often does not live in rapport with its constituents because they don’t experience the nonprofit through its departments. The constituent experiences a nonprofit horizontally, across its departmental silos.”

To improve the efficacy of your website by making your users happy, you must resolve the dichotomy between “Desire Paths” and “the desired path.”

“Desire path” is a term of art in the urban planning world describing the shortest path between an origin and a destination, particularly those that weren’t planned. You’ve seen them: a dirt trail between two sidewalks, a cut corner, a hole in the fence. Desire paths exist in defiance of all the thought that goes into a made environment, the creation of what planners consider the right way to move through a space. An architect might think, “The staircase will give this hill some gravitas.” The college students may think, “Ehn, I’d rather just walk up the hill,” the resulting path eroding that gravitas.

You can see the parallels to your website, I’m sure. We spend hours thinking about the information architecture most likely to move visitors into a funnel that will lead them to donate or volunteer – only for them to pop up on that blog post mentioning Channing Tatum, liking it, and closing the tab.

If Channing Tatum resonates with a core audience segment, you need to find a way to tap into that. The magic of the Internet, the work of the user experience engineer, is to find the intersection of the desire path – the motivation driving someone to visit your site – with the desired path, or any of the potential actions you hope a visitor will take to support your organizational goals.

To begin, understanding how they arrive at your website will give you clues about what motivated them to check you out.

There’s no greater shortcut to your content than the Google. In the 7 years since analytics guru Avinash Kaushik pronounced “Home pages are dead,” we’ve seen search become ever more important.

As much as we may complain about web search being the ultimate conversation killer, these people are coming to your site driven by the desire to know something. Is your website prepared not only to answer the question, but to redirect that motivation into greater engagement?

In a recent audit of some of ThinkShout’s great clients – with monthly traffic ranging from a couple of thousand visits on up to hundreds of thousands – we found:

I do need to toot a little horn for the team here at ThinkShout, because for the 4 sites we can compare year over year, we’ve seen improvements of between 6% and 20% in the bounce rate for search traffic post-redesign. That’s because, as part of our discovery process, we put user motivations first – and you can, too.

Tip: Know Your “Search Terms”

Search traffic is probably the easiest to get real, actionable data for, even if all you have is Google Analytics.

This is advice that has been repeated almost endlessly, but Google made it more complicated a few years ago by filtering out search results for anybody logged in to one of their products. (You know, almost everybody.) Fortunately, there’s an easy way to approximate that data.

  1. Go to the organic search terms report at “Acquisition” -> “Keywords” -> “Organic.” You’ll see most of the terms are “not provided.”

  2. Set the “Secondary Dimension” to “Behavior” -> “Landing Page.” This will show you where that “not provided” traffic is going, which can give you a clue as to the search terms.

  3. Click the “advanced” link next to the search box and change it to “Include” “Landing Page” “Containing” and the URL of one of your landing pages, then click “Apply.” This will align the “not provided” landing page with all of the returned search terms for that page. Extrapolate from there for each of your highest traffic landing pages to build your list of important search terms.

Social Media

Social media traffic is generally some of the worst quality, in terms of meeting your organizational goals.

The metrics for bounce rate, visit duration, and pages per session were significantly worse for social referrals compared to the site as a whole for 6 of the 9 organizations we reviewed. (Interestingly, the redesigned ThinkShout.com showed significant improvement across the board.) For the most part, they come, they spend a moment, they go back to Facebook.

Social traffic can be driven by all sorts of user motivations, from links posted in your own social channels – “I want to keep up with the latest news from one of my favorite organizations” – to something posted on your Wall by your mom – “I’d better know what that is so I can talk about it at our next dinner.” You’re not likely to meet all of them, so your analysis should focus on the highest value interactions. What are the outliers? If you have a few pages that outperform the majority, try to figure out what’s unique about them.

Again, pay special attention to landing pages. High bounce rates from a news article about your latest initiative probably won’t be of much concern. Bounces from your donation page should be: what drove traffic there in the first place, if it wasn’t you? Find those influencers!

Tip: Set up a special Analytics dashboard for social media.

Even if you can’t afford something like Radian6, you can use Google Analytics to do some pretty good analysis of traffic being driven to you by social channels. I find that the default reports provided are actually harder to use than they used to be, but you can aggregate the information most important to your team on a custom dashboard.

  1. Start with a premade dashboard. Go to “Dashboards” -> “New Dashboard” and click “Import from Gallery.”

  2. Justin Cutroni’s “Social Media Dashboard” is a great starting point. Click “Import”.

  3. “Social Media Dashboard” will now be listed as an option under your Dashboards. Modify it to meet your needs!

Other Referrals

If somebody likes your content enough to post it on their own website, you need to be aware of that, not just because you may have found a new partner, but because analyzing the pages sending traffic to you can tell you more about your own (potential) audience.

One of ThinkShout’s clients got significant traffic – roughly 3% of the site total in the first quarter of this year – from a regional magazine, mostly from a single article in which they were mentioned only tangentially; 90% of the visits are new to them. Knowing this opens the opportunity to think about user motivations from several angles:

Tip: Look at the actual sites and pages that are referring traffic your way.


You’re probably running campaigns to drive your current supporters to your website through email, social channels, and web advertising – maybe even billboard, radio, and TV, if you’re blessed with a large advertising budget.

If you’re not already using tracking codes to better quantify the success of your campaigns, you should be. The desire paths here will be much more evident – and likely in line with your organizational goals: you send out a Call to Action (CTA), they respond. The key thing to watch for here is when the CTA doesn’t lead them to take desired action.

Tip: Track your non-digital campaigns.

Just because you’re not sending a URL to your supporters directly doesn’t mean you can’t put some basic campaign tracking in place.

  1. First, set up the campaign URL, complete with codes.

  2. Then, redirect to that URL, which Google will pick up. * For print, you can embed the long campaign URL in a QR code. * If you don’t expect your users to have a QR reader, create a simple landing page with a redirect to the tracked URL: your.org/campaignname is reasonable for somebody to type into a browser, so hit it with a 301.

    • Or, use an URL shortener like bit.ly to create the redirect to the campaign URL for you.

Direct Traffic

Uh-oh, I was afraid you were going to stick around this long. There’s not much to say about “Direct” traffic, in terms of quantifiable user motivations. Maybe they typed your URL directly into their browser. Maybe somebody chatted the URL to them (the so-called “dark social” network). Maybe your mom’s proud of your work and mentioned it to a friend. Maybe they’ve bookmarked your site. Maybe you sent out an email campaign without a tracking code. Maybe… well, you get the picture.

Direct traffic does not have a lot of data attached to it that will enable you to figure out why a user arrived at your site beyond examining their landing pages.

This is, however, very important traffic: for some reason, almost unbidden, they showed up at your site. We can still apply the concept of desire paths to this segment, we just need to do it a bit differently: by taking a look at how they move through your site itself.

Determining “how” users arrive at your site is just the beginning of understanding the “why.” The next question to answer is “what”, as in “What are they doing on our site now?” By combining “how” with “what”, we can build models of behavior that will help us understand what motivates our audiences to seek us out online.

And once we get to the “why”, we be able to create structures that tap into the identified desire paths and subtly redirect them in ways that will help you meet your organizational goals.

So, if you’re so motivated, add to ThinkShout’s “direct traffic” report by bookmarking this page and we’ll point you to the next part when it’s available.

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