In the Internet Marketing work that I do with RevenFlo, we build and then market a lot of websites. In doing so, it’s tempting to look at traffic to a website. For example, we had 100 people to the site. Or 1,000 people to the site. That’s ten times as many, so it must be way better, right?

We Tend to Think Traffic

It’s tempting to focus on growing the quantity of traffic to a site. And yes, you need people to come to the site or it serves no purpose. But actually, the reality is that if those people are only staying 1 or 2 seconds on the site, and if they are not taking any desirable action like buying something, filling out a form, watching a video, or whatever, then they are useless visitors. Worse than that, they are actually costing money, as someone is paying for the servers and bandwidth and website, yet there is no return on that investment.

But It’s Not About Traffic

So, really, it’s not about quantity of visitors, or traffic. Instead, it’s about time-on-site and engagement. Time-on-site is how long a visitor stays on the website, and engagement is what actions they take. The latter being, of course, the more important. If they call you or buy the widget, who cares how long they spent on the site (except that usually more time on site shows a deepening of the understanding of your offering and therefore a self-qualification process for the customer).

Downtowns Are Like Websites

Downtowns are the same way. There’s a town near me called Lancaster, SC. The downtown of this city is just starting to revitalize. For the most part, it is shut down with empty store fronts. Yet, there are thousands of people downtown per day, but they don’t get out of their cars. Instead, they are zooming through on a four lane main street that runs right through town. Their time-on-site is only a few seconds and their engagement with the downtown is zero. Yet, the city (and other entities) are paying for the infrastructure to support them passing through – with no ROI.

Skinny Streets Are Good

There’s another town near me called Greenville, SC. They’re 20 years into a successful downtown revitalization, and the place is hopping. There are also thousands of people that drive down main street a day. But main street is two skinny lanes with many cross walks and green and parking. You can’t go more than 5 or 10 miles per hour on the road. You just creep along and you have plenty to look at. The stores are all full. The sidewalks are crowded with shoppers. The restaurants and bars are hopping. There’s music and energy everywhere.

Engagement is Success

Think about the percentage of people who drive down the main street in Greenville who get out of their cars and buy something. I would say it’s VERY high. Versus the percentage of people who zoom through Lancaster who stop and get out and buy something. I would say it’s VERY low. Thus, it’s the time-on-site and the engagement level of the visitors that is the critical success formula in terms of what to measure. It’s not necessarily the quantity of visitors (or traffic), because again, Lancaster does not lack the traffic, they lack the time-on-site and engagement from the visitor.

This principle applies to decisions that you make about your downtown – like width of streets, bike paths, walking paths, etc. Walking creates the highest probability of engagement, biking second, buses and trolleys third, and cars last… dead last by a long shot. We need to drive our cars TO a downtown, not IN and AROUND and THROUGH a downtown. When we do drive through a downtown, we should be driving 5 miles per hour (like you have to do on the main street in downtown Greenville).

Supply Creates Demand

Any time the road opens up to four lanes in a downtown is a bad thing. This increases car traffic and drives down time-on-site and ultimately engagement, which is the source of the ROI. You’ll hear people say, but there is a lot of traffic, we need to widen the roads to alleviate the traffic. That’s the wrong approach in downtowns. Think of water running off a mountain. It finds all the creeks and rivers to flow down the mountain. If you widen a creek, then more water will come through it. You increase the supply (the width of the river) and you therefore increase the demand (the amount of water that needs to go somewhere). So, unless you want more water, don’t widen the creek. Let the water self-regulate and find another way down the mountain. The same is true with cars. If you want more and faster cars, and thus less time-on-site, and less engagement, and less ROI, then yes, widen your roads.

Turning lanes are good, of course, to facilitate directional movement, but ANYTHING that increases the amount of car traffic and speeds them up IN AND AROUND the downtown is a bad thing. We want to move cars straight to quality parking, and then facilitate out-of-car movement to wherever they want to go (and encourage meandering) to therefore increase time-on-site and, as a result, engagement. Because engagement, again, is where we get our return on investment.

Focus on Behavior Flow

Another principle in having a successful website is behavior flow. You want your visitors to land on your site, understand what they see, and be compelled to move forward, progressing towards engagement. So, we track the visitors’ flow through the site to see what is compelling them forward. This allows us to make changes that affect visitor behavior, and to ultimately lead visitors to the engagements that we (and they) want to happen.

The Congruency Principle

In terms of a downtown, I call this the congruency principle. The size of your downtown is actually the size of the congruent walkable area. If you are walking in a downtown, and you come to a four lane road of fast moving cars, you will turn around. The downtown ends when the walkability stops. It’s like when someone gets to a web page on a website where they run out of things compelling them forward. They’ve hit a dead end, and they either go back or leave the site all together (thinking it doesn’t have much for them).

Distance is Relative

In a downtown, people will walk as far as the congruency provides. I know my wife and I will walk two miles in downtown Charleston, SC, and not even realize it. Yet, in many downtowns you can only walk four blocks before you hit a four-lane car-focused street that doesn’t feel like you should be walking there. It feels like the only people who walk here are people who don’t have the means to have a car. Not people who are choosing to move themselves around with their own feet because they want to spend time on site and engage with the local commerce and culture.

So, it’s not about distance. It’s about congruency. Your focus when developing your downtown should be on making a walk from any point to any other point easy, safe, and engaging. And meandering is a good thing!

Success Comes from the Flow

So, regardless of whether you are looking for success online or success in downtown revitalization, you want to achieve increased time-on-site and engagement. To do this, focus on behavior flow and congruency.