Where Wait But Why Gets Its Traffic

In the Dinner Table intro post, I compared content sites to fly paper and people on the internet to flies swarming around that either “stick” to the fly paper or don’t, depending on how much they like, need, or connect with the site.

But the thing about the swarming internet-users is that they’re not just flying around haphazardly—i.e. searching around Google for something to do on the internet—so it’s not as simple as planting your site’s fly paper up on your site’s URL and waiting for new people to hit it.

Instead, today’s internet content world is all about sharing—some of which happens through email, but most of which happens on the major sharing platforms. Sharing platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, etc.—are like large pots of honey in the internet forest that have huge swarms of people buzzing around them at all times. When a person doesn’t have a particular internet destination in mind, she heads to one of the honey pots by default.

But not all honeypots are equal. Looking at every visitor who’s landed on Wait But Why since the day we launched, here’s how they got to us:

WBW Referral Traffic (All) - Engaged

Through the lens of a content site, you can divide the world into three groups:

1) Engaged People. Engaged people like the site enough to remember to come back on their own or subscribe by email.

2) Partially-Engaged People. These have liked the site on Facebook or followed on Twitter or maybe they’ve bookmarked it but don’t often click on that bookmark.

3) Non-Engaged People. Everyone else who either came to the site and forgot about it or haven’t heard of the site at all.

For this discussion, the engaged people are simple. They like you for now, and your job is to keep delighting them so they don’t unstick themselves from the fly paper and leave. On the chart above, they’re represented by two slices: Direct (people who come to the site directly without clicking a link elsewhere to get there) and Email List (email subscribers who come to the site by clicking a link in an email we send). Everyone else in the chart, for the most part, is either partially engaged or non-engaged—let’s take a closer look at the breakdown of those groups by removing the Direct and Email List slices:

WBW Referral Traffic (Referrals)

So it’s not really that there are a bunch of honeypots. For us, at least, there is one grand, 12-foot-high honeypot in the middle of the forest—Facebook—and then a handful of small honey jars scattered around. Facebook is the king of sharing right now.

And as far as we’re concerned, there are only two kinds of people hanging around this grand honeypot: 1) those who have “liked” Wait But Why on Facebook, and 2) those who haven’t. Why is this important? Because liking us on Facebook is a way for someone to tell us “Hey feel free to come say hi to me on my Newsfeed sometime.” Some of those likers are in the “already engaged” group and will come visit us regardless of Facebook, but another group of these likers are in the “partially engaged” category—if we end up on their newsfeeds, they may visit the site, but they probably won’t come to the site on their own otherwise.

When people think about Facebook advertising, they think about companies paying to reach the far vaster group of people who have not liked your page—the hundreds of millions of non-stuck people.

What people might not know is that there’s a second kind of Facebook advertising—paying money to reach the people who have liked your page. No one is more aware of the size and power of Facebook’s honeypot than Facebook, and they’ve created a business preventing sites from reaching, for free, even those who have expressed that they’d like to hear from the site.1

Sites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy with huge advertising budgets can reach millions of newsfeeds of non-engaged people who haven’t liked their page. As a smaller site, our main goal is to end up on as many of our Facebook likers’ newsfeeds as possible with our big weekly post. If we don’t pay anything, Facebook will only put a post of ours on about 5% of our likers’ newsfeeds—to reach more, we need to pay. The amount this costs changes as Facebook continues to tweak their system, but to reach the meat of our Facebook fans, we’d have to pay close to $1,000/post. We can’t do that, but we do spend a significant amount on this. Facebook spending is the single largest expense we have, and it’s where most of our store revenue goes.

And that’s about as sophisticated a marketing strategy as we have currently—we connect to engaged people automatically and for free, we can’t afford to reach non-engaged people (but our readers sharing helps us reach a huge number of them), and what we spend our money on is getting our main front-page post onto as many of the partially-engaged people’s Facebook newsfeeds as possible.

At the moment, the vast majority of our energy and resources goes into what’s actually on the site, but given this week’s Dinner Table topic, it seemed like a good time to shed light on some of the marketing efforts we’re putting in behind the scenes and the immense power of Facebook in today’s world of content.

(If you would like to make sure you hear about our new weekly post, make sure you’re signed up for the email (orange box in the sidebar), and when an email comes in from us, drag it from promotions to the primary tab and tell Gmail to do this in the future for WBW emails.)


  1. This isn’t just Facebook being greedy (but it’s that too)—Facebook knows it’ll be an unpleasant place for people to visit if their whole newsfeed is plastered with page promotions, so this policy helps prevent that from being the case.

  • Greeny

    It’s funny that I don’t even use Facebook and I found the site through the video that you did with Kurzgesagt.

    • M.B.

      Looks like Kurzgesagt makes some really interesting video’s.. thanks for the reference 🙂

    • Tim Urban

      Kurzgesagt is an amazing YouTube channel. Everyone who likes WBW should check it out.

  • Erin M.

    N of 1 here, but I tend not to bookmark the sites I use most (though I did use google reader back in the day for tracking them) because my bookmarks so quickly devolve into a terrifying morass in which nothing useful can be found. So much easier to type “wait but why” into the URL bar and visit via google. And I’m definitely a stuck fly. Doesn’t change your broader points about Facebook of course.

    • DeeDee Massey

      Sites like WBW are in an Interest list in my FB, which makes it easy to get to if I’m hanging out there already. If not, I do have it bookmarked, but I’ve also fallen into the URL search habit for most sites. It’s even easier when it’s cached and you only have to type “Wa” and there it is.

      • marisheba

        Exactly! Way easier to bookmark it in my brain than my browser.

    • elyag1961

      I create folders in my browser favorites (right click in favorites bar, select “create new folder.”) When I add a bookmark I just create the bookmark in the correct folder (Favorites->Add to Favorites->Create In). I have folders like Comics, Cooking, Finances, etc. I also have folders inside folders. You can also create a new folder from the “Add to Favorites” dialog box. If you make a folder in the wrong place, just expand in the favorites bar, select and drag the new folder to the level you want it.
      Some sites I do just type in the address bar, but folders are the way to go to keep hundreds of bookmarks organized. BTW, from work, I use a bookmark on my computer (can’t have cell phone in office). I am also subscribed to the email list, so from phone I click the link in the email, but also have WBW bookmarked on the phone.

  • John

    I found one of your procrastination images on Google Images and decided to check the site out.. and I have never regretted it 😀

  • DeeDee Massey

    I’d guess the best free way on Facebook to reach new people is via sharing. That is how I came across the site in my feed – a friend shared it; it didn’t show up in any “recommendation” type sections. And I shared it with two friends. And they told two friends. And they told two friends….

    Anyway, does Facebook give you sharing stats?

    • Atman Gotango

      they do. i have a product page and there are tools available for tracking traffic at least to your page….

  • Rodrigo Gomes

    I want to see everything from WBW. Who are they to decide this for me?
    Is there a “superlike” button, to tell you absolutely like that page and don’t want to be part of the random selection?

    • Jennifer Tislerics

      Yes, you can select (on the WBW Facebook Page) to receive “notifications” each time they post. Click on the “Liked” button and it’ll create a small drop-down. “Notifications” is the first option you can select.

      • Rodrigo Gomes

        Thanks for the tip. I just did this, now lets wait until they post something to see it working 🙂

  • For more clarification on Facebook’s selective filtering of likes, and how it generates tons of revenue for them, check out this awesome video from Veritasium (that dude is awesome): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVfHeWTKjag

  • DeeDee Massey

    After spending more time than I should have reading stuff online, I just remembered what happens to “flies” caught in the “web.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzTGSKNjrp4

  • William

    I often have a hard time sharing your work to the public. I would LOVE to spread your site around like wildfire! It’s fun, it’s “immature” (as you said), and incredibly thought provoking. It’s quite literally the only blog I consistently come back to (except for my own, which yours has been a very big influence on). Unfortunately, your language keeps me from sharing. So many of your topics could have a very broad audience, but I feel you pigeonhole yourself through cursing. I’m involved with youth ministry, and so I have to remember that anything I share I’m sharing with young people, and I feel it’s not appropriate for them.

    I understand that might not be your demographic, but some of your topics are so interesting that anyone could enjoy them! Your post on your time in North Korea was riveting, and I wanted to be able to show EVERYONE. But I couldn’t, because of it’s frequent use of profanity.

    Again, it’s your site and I think that’s what makes it so great. Like many have said before, I feel like I “know” you, and even with this “complaint,” I’d love to get a chance to meet ya! There’s definitely not too many people on the internet I feel that way about. But I think you’d really up your readership if you took the above into consideration.

    • v43

      PLEASE Tim ignore this ^

    • Tim Urban

      This is a perfectly valid point.

      The thing is, it’s important that I write in my most genuine voice, and that voice definitely curses. But I do think it would be great to have a Rated G version of posts available for people who want them (on top of readers who prefer not to read cursing, many teachers have emailed us asking for Rated G versions). We’re going to look into some way to offer this to people who want it. (If any readers are tech savvy and know of a good way to do this, let us know – contact@waitbutwhy.com.)

      And people who prefer to hear me talk like your drunk grandfather, have no worries—I will continue to.

      • Kelly Benson

        I think writing the way you speak is important and also takes some skill to do properly – keep up the naughty words when required 🙂

      • Hi super Tim,
        It would be easy to create a program that parses through your posts and removes bad words. I’m assuming you are using WordPress so you can hire a developer to create a Wp plugin that would for instance remove all the bad words if people added a code like “&clean” to the end of the url of an article. Then people like William could share the post with his community by just sharing the “clean” url.
        What would be really funny would be if the bad words got replaced with random made up curse words.. like “frack”, “shoot”, “kakitas”.. etc 🙂

        • Rodrigo Gomes

          I like this approach, however… what about those cases where it is impossible to guess the correct meaning of the bad words? For example: go to the post about cool bars and try to come up with a word that would replace “little bitch”, without changing the deep and very precise meaning that this expression has on the text.

  • Bill Warren

    How I get to WBW: Open Chrome, clicky address bar, push W key, hit enter. Of course I spend most Tues/Wed repeating this 10-15 times. I’m on the mailing list…but it takes too long for the e-mail to come in as the post has already been there for a few hours. Should get around to adding it to my Old Reader RSS feeds…

  • Jaimi

    kind of a funny way to end up here, but I was doing research for my lectures on Intercultural management. I wanted to highlight a few key subcultures and was particularly interested in age subcultures. MNCs have as many as 5 unique age subcultures working in them now, which is quite a challenge! so I ended up on the Gen Y post – loved it, shared it, liked WBW. And shortly thereafter came the procrastination post which was like reading a story about myself. Very sticky, WBW… And speaking of the IGM, I should be finishing up my lecture prep for tomorrow…. 🙂

  • Gambit

    I haven’t liked you on Facebook, bookmarked your site or signed up for your e-mail blast and I come back every week to see the new article. Ya know why? Because you’re good… And your “Fermi Paradox” post is absolutely brilliant. I’ve shared that at least a dozen times. There might be a mammoth in the room, but there are probably a couple unicorns also. Keep up the good work!

    • geolocke

      Here, Here (Beer, Beer) on the Fermi Paradox! Absolutely Stunning in its complex simplicity!

    • jaime_arg

      I’ve shared the article on procrastination about 10 times, mostly while procrastinating. And I’ve procrastinated by re-reading it as well.

  • Marek Voegeli

    Hi Tim! I don’t even know how I found your site, I guess through facebook, but I’ve read and keep reading all of your posts ever since. WBW is awesome and I’m waiting for the next post like a child who waits for christmas; so I have essentially christmas at least once a week 🙂

    Now I don’t want to spam you, but I wonder if you have heard of Tsū? A new social network wich has been growing very fast since it started four weeks ago. It could be very interesting for you as well as for anyone else. Their idea is simple: Unlike facebook Tsū pays 90% of the generated revenue back to their users, because it’s our content and we generate the traffic. Been there for three weeks and I like it pretty much. On Fox News they talked about it, you’ll find it on youTube. If you want to check it out you can use this invitation:

    http://www.tsu.co/trilusion

    Have a nice day, looking forward for your future posts on WBW. Keep up this awesome work. Thank you!

  • Sven’s Zen Den

    What I’m taking from this post is that rss is dead.

    Which is a pitty. I use feedly to keep up to date with your awesome posts, and it works like a charm.

    I don’t even find myself in your pie chart. I guess I’m “anything else”, but on the other hand I would call myself “engaged”.

    • jaime_arg

      RSS is just so low profile that it doesn’t have a name for itself. I don’t think any of my friends know what it is, and I kind of know what it is but I have only used it once for NPR’s first listen blog.
      RSS doesn’t have a marketing department…

  • Liz

    I bookmarked your page and come back every week on my own which makes me “engaged” which is the right description cause I looove WBW. I don’t particularly like Facebook and I don’t want them to receive the money you make with the store. So the best thing to do (if I want to help you to reach new people) would be to share your articles on Facebook. Is that correct?
    I am pretty sure I found WBW through a google search, could have been on procrastination 🙂

  • Andre Needham

    Facebook,what’s that? I originally found WBW via a pretty much unrelated Google search. Turns out if you search for “what happened to you universe you used to be cool” the 2nd hit is the WBW post on Putting Time in Perspective. The funny thing is finding WBW has actually made the universe a little bit more cool.

    • william kepperling

      The first one is now this comment. 😛

    • Now I’m immensely fascinated by why you would search for such a thing.

  • william kepperling

    I actually came to your site through a search about an article that you wrote that was in the Reader’s Digest, the name fad post. You probably owe about half of the direct traffic to me, by the way.

    • I also often use Google to find specific post but do not consider me un-engaged by any means! 🙂

  • DeeDee Massey

    I suppose with these responses, we now know who all the techie data nerds are at the Dinner Table.

    Does your analytic program track all visits, or does it narrow it down by unique visits (by an IP or better yet a MAC address)? The volume would be much lower in the latter case. I know I’ve visited the page via various traffic sources, so I’m technically in 3 different pie slices.

    P.S. Thanks for filling my request for a pie chart dessert! Will we get one each week if we eat all our vegetables?

  • I cannot believe I’m one of the few that leverages the magic of RSS to never miss a WBW post. I use Feedly

  • Olyphantastic

    I got to know about this site through John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnote podcast in July. In episode 152 they post a link for Why Procrastinators Procrastinate and How To Beat Procrastination, where they discussed. I read it and fell in love, and read every article, and bookmarked it.

    I wonder how much articles and podcast like that generates traffic?

  • Katherine

    I found your website when I was bored one day and wanted to find out everything I could about North Korea on the internet (spoiler alert…not as much as I thought I would find). I found your amazing/hilarious/informative post on your trip to North Korea and in a relatively short period of time I read every post you have. I especially love the one about the Fermi Paradox, which I keep re-reading because I honestly don’t fully understand it yet, but I find it so interesting.

  • Berwyn

    I seem to remember reading the Fermi Paradox first also, then caaried on from there. I think i picked up on that aricle on a post shared via Flipboard. Loving your work!

  • Matt

    Tim, do you know roughly how many people you reach with each post?

  • Yash

    I have always stayed in touch with wbw through my RSS reader and now looking at the stats and also finding so few people commenting about it….I am sad but also confused. Have people now gone back to the pre-rss ways of subscribing to websites(remembering)? I am of course not talking about those that come through facebook.

    • RSS had definitely become an obscure pay off the internet. Out of dozens of people, the only other person I know who ever used it besides myself was my father. He abandoned RSS years ago for straight up browser bookmarks.

      I love RSS and use Inoreader daily. Don’t remember how I got her, exactly. Probably from a comment on an Ars Technica article.

      • R1ckr011

        I have Feedly, but never worked hard on making it curate stuff before. Quite frankly I’m afraid to start. Just thinking about my Pocket list makes me cringe.

        I use session buddy, and am thinking about one day crushing away my bookmarks into session buddy…But Egh. I’m horribly disorganized. I have too many thoughts. It’s kinda like Tim with his articles. I would love to work for this site tbh. I’ve practically curated a mini-internet based on my partial categorizations in Session buddy and more obliquely Evernote (YES WBW has spurred ideas that deserved full-fleshing over there as well).

  • person

    i was reading an article about aliens on learni.st and it gave me a link t the fermi paradox.

  • Phill

    I found this website from Elon Musk – He posted something about Part 2 of the AI Post. I am of the 1% 😀

    • Atelier Isabel

      Same here. I found my way to this flypaper through Elon’s tweet on AI part 2 and now I’m finding it hard to unstick myself 😛

  • Geoff

    Jon Morrow would probably recommend that you stop wasting your time spending money on FB, since, exactly as you have shown in your Pie chart, your engaged readership consists almost exclusively of Direct and Email subs.

    Of course who can bequeath the benefit of exposure? But I think you have rightly predicted that the main portion of FB ‘likers’ are only partially stuck flies. Yet you spend easily the most amount of money on being exposed on this platform.

    I’m sure you could find a better return on your investment than Facebook advertising, but hey, if you want the full story, go Check out Boost Blog Traffic.

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