I’ve been driven crazy.

I’ve been driven to distraction.

I’ve been driven round the bend.

And I’ve been driven up the wall.

But I have never, never ever, been driven to a website.

Nor have you. Nobody has.

And yet we talk about driving traffic all the time. We treat the driving of traffic as a keystone of every digital marketing strategy. We enshrine this fallacy in strategy documents.

Driving traffic is a convenient, reassuring fiction. It is an exercise in wishful thinking. And it is a shit marketing metaphor.

It’s a metaphor that treats people like one of those sardine bait balls, corralled into a dense, unthinking sphere and pushed to the surface where dolphins, sharks and gannets can gorge on the helpless bounty.

If only digital marketing were as easy as that. If only our media spend worked to corral and push a human bait ball to the top of our conversion funnels.

People are not bait balls. They are not flocks nor involuntary herds.

You can drive a team of horses.

You can drive cattle.

As a freeman of the City Of London you can drive sheep over London Bridge.

But you can’t drive human traffic to a website. Human trafficking is illegal for lots of good reasons.

This funny post, called the About Us Page Of Every Digital Media Agency, is a list of the ridiculous, self-aggrandising terms that agencies use to describe the ways in which they add value. Its humour derives from the fact that the terms are only mildly hyperbolic. In amongst such gems as “buzz mothers” and “pivot coxswains”, are the terms “audience catalysers” and “audience cattle-isers”.

How apposite. When we do our jobs properly we do sort of catalyse audiences. We generate positive reactions that result in people wanting to take things further. But, even if we talk like we do, we don’t herd people like cattle. We don’t cattle-ise. Sadly, our shit marketing metaphor makes no distinction between the two.

Paid search doesn’t drive traffic. It directs traffic that was already actively looking for something similar to what you have to offer. (Catalyse not cattle-ise.)

Emails and tweets don’t drive clicks. They sell the idea of clicking, they sell your link or your button, to an audience that has already signaled a degree of interest by opting in to receive said emails or by following your account. (Catalyse not cattle-ise.)

Display ads and promoted social media posts also sell your link, your page, your content, your site, but to a cooler set of prospects. (Catalyse not cattle-ise.)

Does this distinction matter? We spend the digital media money and the traffic arrives at our digital destination. Google Analytics confirms both the correlation and the causation. Therefore, we drove traffic did we not? QED - Quad Erat Driven.

Yes, the distinction does matter. Digital media spend does not drive traffic. It puts marketing content in front of a relevant, hopefully receptive, audience. I worry that our shit metaphor plays down the role of the content versus the media spend. It prioritises the eyeballs over the eye candy. It commoditises creativity.

Digital advertising is broken in several ways – its distribution, its measurement, its user experience. And poorly chosen, imprecise, misleading, wishful language like “driving traffic” can only serve to compound the problems.

You lead the horse to water, you don’t drive it to drink.

Phil Adams

Planning Director

Phil is Signal's Strategy Director. He ensures that the right people are working to the best plan, guided by a precise definition of commercial purpose.