Desire Paths, Part 2: Your Website is Telling You a Story

You want your website to tell your organization’s story. To do that, you need to listen to the stories your website is telling you.

I have the opportunity to work with a lot of great nonprofits, including one that supports women with breast cancer. While conducting a site audit, we noticed that they had higher mobile traffic than many of ThinkShout’s clients. It had grown from 5% of the site’s total in 2010 to 30% so far in 2014.

Digging a bit deeper, we found that many of the mobile visitors go directly to a section focusing on breast cancer in young women, including “survivor stories”:

Those numbers tell a story.

The news that you have cancer must come as a shock. Particularly when you’re young, it may seem to come out of the blue. It’s entirely possible that, when you first receive this jolt, you’re alone, having just left your doctor’s office or set down the phone.

The first thing I would want is some reassurance, confirmation at this juncture in my life that I’m going to be okay. Ideally, I’d talk to a loved one, but in the moment, I might turn to my smartphone: it’s immediately available, it’s connected, it could provide some answers.

Our client had created content that could meet that need, opening opportunities not just to reassure a key audience, but to connect them to a broader community of support and thereby further their mission.

By experimenting with layouts and calls to action specifically for mobile visitors – essentially, by doing our job – we have the chance to help people in a very real way.

And that’s why we all do this work, isn’t it?

Taking the time to create data-informed personas can help you hone a strategy for your content that goes beyond assumptions and guesswork.

Once you understand HOW users arrive at your site and examine WHAT they do after they get there, you can begin to parse out WHY they’re interested in your content in the first place – and implement the tactics that will tie their motivations to your organizational goals.

So, what are they doing?

As we’ve suggested before, a good website will nudge a visitor from her desire path – the reason she visited your site to begin with – to the desired path: a series of actions that will serve your organization’s mission.

It pains me to say it, but you need to start with a content audit. If you don’t understand what you have, you can’t understand how it’s being used.

Dozens of articles already cover site audits. Some of them even provide templates.

Don’t use them.

Or rather, use them in a way that serves your mission. Your website likely has hundreds or thousands of “pages” from highly trafficked to, sniffed at, forgotten, and abandoned. Microsoft once found that 30% of its webpages had never been visited. (That number is more impressive in real numbers: 3,000,000. Yes, three million pages essentially served no purpose at all.) More recently, an audit by the World Bank revealed that 31% of its reports had never been downloaded.

There’s always a reason a piece of content was added to your website. Somebody, at some point, thought it would be valuable. They may still have some emotional attachment to it.

Tough. Kill it.

Allyson Kapin recently pointed to a Harvard study that found that “the more complex a website is, the less appealing the website is to visitors.” Microsoft discovered that removing poor quality content improved customer satisfaction. On a more basic level, psychologists have found that providing too many options can stall the decision-making process. When you go to the cereal aisle, do you want to spend time evaluating all of the possible cereal options? No, you just want the Golden Grahams. Everything else is a distraction.

When you put barriers in the way of your users, in the form of content they’re not interested in, they’re less likely to fight through to find the content they want. Yes, even if your organization thinks that content is central to your mission.

John McCrory created this handy dandy template to help you sort out what to keep and what to throw in the hopper:


If you need to run a full inventory, you might want to look into a tool like Screaming Frog or CAT (Content Analysis Tool). Or you can export reports from Google Analytics and combine it with data from social channels.

But you don’t need to care about everything. We suggest you:

1) Focus on your high-traffic content. You’ll need to decide what the cut-off should be, but in general, if a page represents less than .05% of your total pageviews, it’s probably not worth the time it takes to care about it. Your threshold may very well be higher than that.

You’ll want to analyze performance as well. Just because a page is heavily visited doesn’t mean it’s working the way you’d hoped. You may need to rewrite and reformat a lot of it. But there’s probably a reason people arrive there, and you should spend the time to figure out why.

On ThinkShout’s own site, for example, we know that there are a handful of older blog posts, mostly on technical subjects, that account for a high percentage of our site traffic. We’re not actively engaged in driving visitors to them, but they do present opportunities to encourage visitors to learn more about the work we do. For us, they’re old news. For our visitors, they may contain valuable information, and that’s a motivation we can tap.

2) Include any page in your site navigation, down two or three levels. Presumably, this content was once important to some stakeholder, somewhere. You may still cut it – hopefully, that stakeholder has already left your organization – but if it was important enough to include in your site architecture the last time around, you should try to understand why it’s there, even if it’s failing. This will help you not simply develop a strong argument to convince, say, your development director that her pet page is just getting in the way, but identify the pages that DO work and use them as exemplars to rewrite content deemed vital to the organization that may not be connecting with end users… yet.

3) Aggregate data for your primary content types. Task number one will catch that one event you did with Pharrell Williams in 2011 that still drives a lot of traffic to your site, but you probably have a certain number of content types – you can think of these as page “templates” – that handle the bulk of your content. You may have a blog, you may run events. If you’re already good at the structured content thing, you may have broken videos or media mentions into their own content types.

Kivi Leroux Miller talks about differentiating between your evergreen content (your main site pages, likely contained in your navigation structure) from your perennial and annual color (those blog posts and tweets). A lot of your content has a shelf life, so you need to make sure the wrapper keeps it as fresh as possible. Part of your content audit should examine how well the standard structure around your more temporal content is performing.

If you find that your audit still runs into hundreds of pages, Facebook’s Jonathon Colman has some great tips on how to use conditional formatting in Excel to highlight the areas that need the most attention. (Start on slide 131.)

Who’s doing it?

Now it’s time to tie content back to your users. You have a good idea how they arrived. By segmenting your traffic, you can study what they do next, all the way down to a page-by-page basis, if you’re feeling frisky.

A good place to start is the Google Analytics “Navigation Summary.” This hidden gem of a report can be found under Behavior -> Site Content -> All Pages. In the upper left corner of the content, there are a series of tabs for “Explorer,” “Navigation Summary,” and “In-Page.” You want the middle one.

This report will tell you four things about any page on your site:

  1. How many users landed on this page (“Entrances”)

  2. If it’s not a landing page, what their previous page was (“Previous Page Path”)

  3. How many users exited from this page (“Exits”)

  4. If they didn’t exit, the page they go to next (“Next Page Path”)


Magic! But wait, there’s more. You can – and should! – use this page in conjunction with segmentation.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Google’s Advanced Segments here. If you decide you want to take this on yourself, KISSMetrics has a good overview. Google itself made a slightly less helpful video.

When we begin a new project, we like to create segments that relate to the ways people arrive at a client’s site, in particular, engaged users.

You can define engagement in a number of ways: non-bounce visits, repeat visits, time on site – pretty much anything Google Analytics provides a metric for. If you have enough traffic, you can combine more than one of them to segment out a group of the highly engaged.

Combine engagement with mode and place of entry, and you’ll begin to flesh out your personas – and your content audit, if you set it up to track key audience segments for each top-level page. You might also consider using the information you generate in Page Tables for your evergreen content.

This sort of analysis sets the stage for much of the work we do here at ThinkShout. Getting back to the breast cancer organization, we created an advanced segment that looked only at mobile traffic, specifically mobile traffic that didn’t bounce (ie, they viewed more than one page).

Here’s what the segmentation looks like on the “Navigation Summary” report in the context of ThinkShout’s “Work” page:


We did this to answer two questions:

  1. If a visitor navigates on a mobile device to a particular page (or group of pages), and doesn’t bounce, what do they do next?

  2. How can we take advantage of that knowledge to try to capture the attention of more visitors?

By examining how the actions of engaged users differ from those you don’t capture, you can start to develop ideas about the calls to action, related content blocks, or other improvements to your information architecture that might make a particular group of users more likely to interact with your website – and your organization.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how you can make real improvements to your website based on the information you glean from your audience’s desire paths.

In the meantime, you can import three of ThinkShout’s commonly-used analytics segments:

You’ll likely need to edit these, based on your own URL structures, but they should be enough to get you started.

Get In Touch

Questions? Comments? We want to know! Drop us a line and let’s start talking.

Learn More
Get In Touch