Get More Returning Visitors: A Data-Driven Approach

Get more return visitors

So far, in learning how to analyze our AARRR customer funnel, we’ve covered how to use Google Analytics to:

  1. Get more people to our site (Acquisition)
  2. Increase engagement on our site (Activation).

In this post, we cover retention, or how to get more returning visitors after we’ve acquired and activated them.

Anyone running a business, online or offline, knows it’s both cheaper and more profitable to retain users than it is to find new ones. Those same people will also tell you it’s easier said than done.

What is it that keeps people coming back to your site, if at all? What channels are ripe with returning visitors and how can you maximize your efforts with those channels? Which ones show the greatest opportunity? What kind of content has a good chance of bringing people back? What kind of marketing and products do your returning visitors respond to best?

Luckily, we can answer all of these questions with data.

So let’s do it.

Segmenting by Returning Visitors

To get started, we are going to segment all of our reports by “Returning Users.” In order to do this click the red “+ New Segment” button then select “Returning Users.” Now, all of your information will show the numbers of all users and returning users.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors Segment

Tip: You could also add a “New Users” segment and remove the “All Traffic” segment to directly compare new and returning users.

Tracking Retention: Are People Coming Back to Your Site?

First, before you do anything else, you need to establish that a healthy number of visitors are indeed coming back to your site. If you find that you’re not retaining your audience well, you need to go back and optimize strategies for the engagement level of your funnel.

When looking at Audience > Overview, you will likely see that there are significant differences between All Users and Returning Users in most categories.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors

It is normal for the top three numbers to be much lower for Returning Users than All Users in most cases. However, you want to be sure that you are retaining users. This particular site has around a 35% return rate which is relatively good, but it’s different for everyone. What you don’t want to see is that number to be as low as 5% when you have a multi-goal conversion funnel, which most of us do. This would indicate that users are not coming back to your site and, therefore, aren’t progressing down your funnel.

This report also gives us our first clues about our returning audience’s behavior. For a content-focused site, all of the major markers for engagement should be higher for returning users compared to new users as well. That is, you should see higher Pages / Sessions, longer Average Session Durations, and lower Bounce Rates for returning users than for new users.

It should be obvious that these people have already shown a higher level of engagement simply by virtue of the fact that they came back to your site. They already know who you are and what you do (at least somewhat). Don’t waste this opportunity. You have a captive audience with these people and it’s important to know what you can do to maximize engagement and conversion of this very important subset of your traffic.

And that’s what we’ll get into now.

Returning Visitors: Acquisition, Behavior, and Outcomes

Never, ever look at a metric in isolation. You need to see both the forest and the trees.

When you analyze your data in order to make more informed decisions about your strategies, you always, always need to keep the following three steps in mind:

Acquisition > Behavior > Outcomes

  1. Acquisition: How did someone get to your site?
  2. Behavior: What did they do while they were on your site?
  3. Outcomes: What was the end result of their visit?

When looking at returning user traffic, this means you need to know where/how your audience is coming back to your site (acquisition), what those returning visitors are doing when they’re on your site (behavior via engagement), and if/how you’re converting them (outcomes via goals).

We’ll cover how you can measure and analyze each these steps along with a few strategies to improve each for your returning users.

Acquisition: How do Returning Visitors Come Back to Your Site?

Looking at Acquisition > Overview (keeping the “Returning Users” segment on), we get a clearer idea of where returning users come from. The image above below shows the second panel in this report (scroll down to see it in your dashboard).

Google Analytics Returning Visitors

Here, you can see a direct comparison of performance between your returning users and your overall traffic. For now, just focus on the first column of bar data for Acquisition.

In this example, I can see that returning users come from search, direct, and referral channels the most. Social traffic for return visitors, however, is pretty low. To me, this indicates an opportunity I should focus on: whatever I’m doing on social media isn’t working really well. I should rethink my strategy there and try to engage more people that I can then funnel to my site via my social media networks.

Again, though, we can’t just look at these metrics in isolation. We need to think about the Acquisition > Behavior > Outcomes steps as a whole. So let’s move on to analyzing how your returning traffic behaves while they’re on your site.

Behavior: How Are Returning Visitors Interacting with Your Site?

We touched on some major engagement metrics above when looking at the Audience > Overview report for returning users. Those same metrics—Bounce Rate, Pages / Session, Average Session Duration—are also listed the report above, but now they’re broken down by channel, giving us another layer of insight. That is, now we can see how people interact with a site based on where they came from, all in this one table.

Looking at the bounce rate by channel, we can see that our returning visitors have slightly lower bounce rates across our top channels compared to overall traffic. We can also see that referral traffic has the lowest bounce rate of all channels, indicating that this is a high-quality channel and that we should keep in mind when creating campaigns.

Social, on the other hand, has the highest bounce rate of all channels for both return visitors and overall traffic.

So, if I am going to focus on social as an acquisition channel for returning visitors, I need to keep in mind that this traffic is fickle. That means the content I create to attract social media traffic needs to do more than just get people to the site. It needs to offer greater value for greater engagement.

If your social traffic remains fickle, you might decide that social media isn’t a channel that you should be pouring a lot of resources into.

You can (and should) do a similar analysis with the other behavior metrics, Pages / Session, and Average Session Duration, looking at how each differs across channels and how that might affect your strategy for return users.

Let’s add another layer of analysis and look at how returning visitors are interacting with specific content.

In Google Analytics, if we look at Behavior > Site Content > Pages, we can see how returning traffic interacts with individual pages.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors Site Content

How many returning visitors enter the site on a given page? How many exit on that page? What’s the bounce rate compared to overall traffic for a given page?

Use this information to find pages that can be used to specifically target returning visitors and/or to come up with ideas for new content that keeps people coming back to your site.

Outcomes: Using Goal Completions to Retain Users

Now we’ll look at some outcomes by going to Conversions > Goals > Overview in Google Analytics.

To get a good picture of how New Users vs. Returning Users convert, we segmented the data by New Users and delete the All Users segment. [Top of the report, click the ‘+’ button under the date range, type “New Users” in the search box, click on the checkbox for New Users, click “Apply”, then remove the Returning Users segment.]

The first panel of the report gives us some overall conversion numbers for new and returning users. These are composite measures for all goals.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors

While new users completed more goals than returning users, you’ll notice that returning users convert at more than twice the rate compared to new users (37% vs 15%, respectively). This is precisely the reason returning visitors are so valuable. You don’t have to work as hard to convince them to take action, whether it’s signing up for free download, consuming more content, or purchasing something from you.

So, how do you get these return users to convert more goals?

One way we can use our data to help us answer that question is by scrolling down to the next panel in the report and clicking on Source / Medium on the left-hand side.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors

We see here that a healthy number of goal conversions for returning users came from email. One strategy you could use after noting this is to identify an email blast that did particularly well and then incorporate it into an autoresponder in an effort to boost goal conversions for future returning visitors.

Putting It All Together

If you found this post useful, you can get all of these data in one spot in your Google Analytics account with a custom User Retention dashboard I’ve built.

Google Analytics Returning Visitors Dashboard

To set up your dashboard:

  1. Click the button above; you will be taken to your Google Analytics account (sign in if you are prompted to do so).
  2. Select the view of your Google Analytics account that you would like your dashboard to be in. You can see more about setting up Three Essential Google Analytics Views if you haven’t done so already.
  3. The dashboard is named “03. Audience Retention” — you can change it if you like or keep it.
  4. Click “Create” — and you’re done.

Now you have a go-to dashboard to go along with this guide so you can make data-driven decisions that increase the number of returning visitors to your site.