Dealing with online flash crowds
Thu, Apr 2 2009

By Jonathan Oxer One of the interesting side-effects of the move towards the "social" web has been "online flash crowds", where a particular web page or video or site becomes the focus of attention of a large group of people very briefly and undergoes an enormous traffic spike. The most famous site to cause the effect is slashdot.org, a technology news site with a huge readership and a regularly updated stream of news items on the home page. Having your site mentioned in a Slashdot story can have the effect of sending tens of thousands of visitors to you in the space of a few hours followed by a barrage of comments about it on the Slashdot story page. Then when the story falls off the bottom of the Slashdot home page the traffic to your site simply stops as if someone turned off a tap: the flash-crowd has moved on to newer stories and your hour or two in the sun is over. It can be quite a bewildering experience if you're not used to it! Now with the proliferation of socially-driven sites there are far more ways your site can become the center of attention of a flash crowd. Types of sites that can drive flash traffic to you include: * Blogging sites (blogger.com, livejournal.com, ...) * Micro-blogging services (twitter.com, identi.ca, jaiku.com, ...) * Social networking (facebook.com, myspace.com, ...) * Social bookmarking (digg.com, stumbleupon.com, del.icio.us, ...) * Video sharing (youtube.com, vimeo.com, blip.tv, video.google.com, ...) * Photo sharing (flickr.com, photobucket.com, picasaweb.google.com, ...) * Presentation sharing (slideshare.com, slidebank.com, ...) * Topic-specific news sites (too many to mention!) For every one of those categories above I could have listed 100 examples, and many of these services have tens or hundreds of millions of users. And then there are a multitude of socially-driven sites that don't seem to fit into any existing category: people are inventing new ways to connect socially via the Internet every day of the week! As illustration of the impact these sorts of services can have, I've experienced flash crowds on my personal blog from a few different socially-driven sites over the last couple of months. One blog post I did in February about a good experience with HP customer service (jon.oxer.com.au/blog/id/305) was listed on Digg.com by a reader and received about 6,000 visits in the space of a few hours. Then a week or so later I did a blog post about a light switch I designed and built that uses web services to link to a home automation system (jon.oxer.com.au/blog/id/307) and a mention on stumbleupon.com resulted in 50,000 extra visitors to my blog over the space of about 4 days. And a few evenings ago just before sitting down to dinner I grabbed a video camera and spent a few minutes making a quick video of a web interface I wrote to control functions on my RX-8 using an iPod Touch and uploaded it to YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqZj4ArrlhA) and after being mentioned on about a dozen of the top tech news sites over the last 24 hours it's now at 31,000 views and climbing rapidly. That sort of massive exposure is the sort of thing most website owners only dream about and it can be very unpredictable, but it's not unachievable. On a less dramatic note I've noticed that Twitter has a very consistent but less powerful impact: if I do a blog post and then do a tweet linking to it, the blog post will typically receive a dozen or so views within the first 30 seconds of the tweet and then more tailing off over the next 30 minutes. Of course that effect is entirely dependent on how many followers you have on Twitter, but by growing your following over time it can become a powerful tool for alerting people to content updates on your site. This isn't out of the reach of typical site owners. You just have to pay attention to what's happening online beyond your own website and becoming part of the broader conversation. So here are some tips for maximising the benefit of online flash crowd exposure. 1. Be aware of it. Create Google Alerts for relevant terms including your company name and domain name so that you will be alerted quickly if anyone mentions you on a social networking site. I talked about setting up Google Alerts in a previous post titled "Online reputation management". If you don't discover that your site attracted a flash crowd until you see the traffic report a month later you've totally missed the boat. You need to know within minutes or hours, not days or weeks. 2. Respond to comments. Don't just watch what people are saying but get in there and be vocal yourself. The driving force of most social networking sites is the user commentary that is added to stories or posts or videos, so read through all the comments people make about stories relating to your site and post responses where appropriate. Keep it professional of course and be courteous at all times no matter how much other commenters may bait you. Even just a simple "hey, thanks for the story about XYZ!" comment can be a good way to show readers of the site that you're paying attention and being part of the conversation. You'll often find that interested people then seek you out directly via email or other methods to discuss things in more detail since comments are public and usually limited to a couple of sentences. 3. Plan for conversion. Drawing a flash-crowd to your site is all well and good, but if you have a business to run the important issue of course is whether you can capitalise on all that traffic. You don't want to just have thousands of people visit your site and then move on to the next big thing, leaving you sitting there all alone with no new customers and the feeling of cleaning up the house after a party is over and all the guests have left. Make sure your site is ready for it with appropriate hooks such as a newsletter sign-up form, your contact details, and anything else you might want visitors to make use of before it becomes the center of attention of a flash crowd. I'd love to hear stories about the impacts of online flash crowds so if you've had this happen to you please drop me an email and tell me about it!