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The ongoing emphasis on search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t without merit, but there’s a lot more to the digital marketing story. Driving traffic to your website or otherwise expanding your online presence is only half the battle. Ensuring that those things are actually working for you is a different story.

On the one hand, your business has to determine what counts as a successful experience for the web users your attempting to attract. Once you’ve defined those goals, the extent to which you meet them is considered a conversion rate—and the attempt to maximize that rate is generally described as conversion rate optimization (CRO).

Of course, success is more often than not measured in terms of sales. But that’s not always the case, and your business should think outside of the box when it comes developing the goals and objectives associated with your consumer interactions.

Last year, Econsultancy’s Christopher Ratcliff explained a few of the different ways in which you can think about conversions.

“‘Conversion’ may not necessarily be a purchase, although more often than not it can be,” he writes. “A conversion can also be an email sign-up, the creation of an account, the completion of a survey, an app download.

“Whatever the ultimate point of your website is, a conversion is the successful completion of that action. Conversion Rate (CR) is a key metric in ecommerce as it reveals the percentage of your site’s total traffic completing a specific goal. The higher the conversion rate the better.”

None of this makes SEO or other digital marketing techniques any less important. To the contrary, there’s different components of the average consumer’s journey. Current or potential customers generally discover your business’s web presence via some kind of branded or non-branded search. Alternatively, they may have come across a paid advertisement or learned of you from word of mouth. Strategies that attract or generate that kind of traffic remain absolutely crucial first steps.

The big question for many companies is what happens next.

From web design to content marketing, there’s an increasingly a refined discipline involved with CRO. Marketers have realized they must go well beyond frontline traffic generation alone.

Per Forbes’ Josh Steimle, SiteTuners CEO Tim Ash summarized some of those CRO efforts in broad terms.

“Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) is the art and science of getting people to act once they arrive on your website,” Ash suggests. “It typically involves elements of visual design, copywriting, user experience, psychology, testing out different versions of your website content, and the neuromarketing to influence people to act.”

The importance of this kind of thinking is pretty self evident. Getting people to your website is good. Holding their attention and encouraging them to stick around is even better. But convincing them to make a purchase or some kind of commitment is almost certainly what you’re really after in the end.

Businesses can increase the number of absolute conversions simply by generating more traffic (a function of SEO). But that’s not the most efficient way to increase conversions.

“Let’s say for example that your SEO efforts have almost doubled your average monthly traffic through increased rankings in the search engine results pages; it’s fair to say that your average amount of conversions would have increased by almost double too,” explains Open Designs’ Ian Nuttall. “But by working to make onsite changes to improve usability and increase your conversion rate (i.e. the percentage of visitors that take the desired action on your site), you could have seen an increase in your average conversions without needing an increase in traffic at all.”

In other words, SEO and CRO are definitely related. But a better approach to CRO can obviate the need for an endless and overemphasized SEO campaign.

So what kind of best practices and techniques should your business pursue? We’ve taken some of the best advice from around the web and condensed it into a actionable guide you can use to make CRO a central component of your digital marketing culture.

Understanding the Consumer

Putting yourself in a consumer’s shoes isn’t the most novel concept, but doing so in the context of digital marketing is a constantly evolving discipline. As a basic starting point, companies often develop consumer “personas” (or “profiles”) in a bid to learn more about the kinds of customers they’re looking to target. Those personas are representations of average individuals likely to be interested in your product or service. And the variables that constitute such personas can be complex.

From personal finance habits to cultural predilections, there are a seemingly infinite number of attributes that define us. As consumers become more educated and empowered, understanding what makes them tick is all the more important. Moreover, as consumers become more diverse, creating a variety of detailed personas is all but essential.

As Tony Zambito put it in 2013, “As a result of globalization and new technologies, there are more channels used by customers and buyers. Best practicing organizations are using buyer personas, backed by solid research, to improve enterprise-wide understanding of customers.”

The typical personas starts with a notion of where people live, their marital statuses, levels of education, employment statuses or career paths, daily routines and interests. Along with all that, there should also be some conception of why said personas would actually be interested in your products or services. In other words, you should understand who your potential customers are and why they’d become customers in the first place.

To be sure, personas can become far more intricate. Depending on your industry and marketing strategies, it may be wise to dig a bit deeper into what kinds of consumers you’re targeting.

You should also keep an open mind when constructing personas. Think creatively about who might be among your customer base. To that end, data (analytics) that you collect about customers can be extremely useful when building personas—but it isn’t everything. Insofar as expanding that customer base is generally key to maximizing profits and market share, a create and broad approach to personas can be a useful tool as you attempt to expand your brand’s presence and appeal.

Personas aren’t the end of a comprehensive attempt to understand consumers. Their journeys are an equally crucial component of the equation. Those used as a term of art, the idea of a “customer journey” is pretty self-explanatory. It speaks to the ways in which consumers find your website (or other online presences) and what they do when they get there. That includes things like their motives for visiting, how they interact with your site itself and what ultimately persuades them to make a purchase (or sign up for an email list, etc.).

VWO’s Ralph Wolbrink defines the concept simply, writing, “Customer journey is quite simply a story board that shows how customers engage with different media, consume information and make decisions while moving through the different stages of a buying process—awareness to engagement to purchase.”

The better your business understands personas, the better it can cultivate an accurate description of the journeys those personas (real or imagined) will take. Tools like Google Analytics can help you refine your study of personas and journeys alike.

“Right there in Google Analytics is a gold mine of data related to CRO,” Steimle explains. “Not only can you track conversions within the software, but all the data leading up to a conversion. Perhaps more importantly, you can track the data that doesn’t lead to conversions, and figure out what you need to change.”

There’s plenty of other software out there, too. Crazy Egg can generate “heatmaps” that illustrate what people are clicking on and give you a better indication of the kinds of information or experiences they’re seeking. Meanwhile, ClickTale gives you insights into your visitors’ scrolling habits and even record video of their sessions. These kinds of analytics aren’t everything, but they’re a valuable resource for any business looking to build CRO decisions around hard data.

Beyond analytic data, there are a few concrete means by which businesses can wrap their heads around the consumers they’re targeting. Focus groups remain one of the more tried and true mechanisms used to learn about potential customers, but they certainly aren’t the only alternative—especially when it comes to a digital environment. Surveying users has become one of the more popular options for companies or organizations looking to gather information about visitors’ opinions and interests.

Finally, there are several ways to test consumers’ experiences with your website (or digital content). A/B split testing and multivariate testing are the two most common examples of ways businesses can try out different kinds of web designs or content.

Putting yourselves in the customers’ shoes can take a number of different forms. Sometimes it’s as simple as going through the same motions, exploring your website from the consumers’ perspectives. It may even be worthwhile to take screenshots at various junctures while considering what someone may be thinking or feeling at that point in the journey. While this may seem like a somewhat subjective solution, that’s not an entirely bad thing.

Remember that people’s points of view aren’t the full picture. There are real psychological reasons people prefer certain kinds of digital experiences, and you should investigate those, too. Someone may not be consciously aware of why they prefer one button or design to another, but there are almost always explanations for why certain kinds of people like certain kinds of things.

There’s also a sociological dimension to understanding the consumer. Considering group identities and preferences is a huge part of building effective conversion strategies. Though it’s useful to think of consumers from an individual perspective, it’s also helpful to view them in a social context.

“It may be obvious how demographics affect CRO–if you’re marketing to someone in Hong Kong you’re going to use different messaging on your website than what you would use to market to someone in the US,” writes Steimle. “Psychographics goes further, in that (as defined by Wikipedia) it is ‘the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles.’”

Those pillars of group analysis—demographics and psychographics—should help your business analyze targeted consumers a bit more efficiently. If nothing else, they’re reminders that we’re fundamentally social creatures, especially when it comes to purchasing habits.

When all is said and done, your customers are still human beings with free will and complex identities. You can’t understand everything about them, and catering to their interests is an ongoing and imperfect endeavor. That said, it’s still worth trying. There’s no better starting point when it comes to pursuing conversions.

Developing a CRO Strategy

At its most basic level, CRO involves an assessment of your current conversion rates, a diagnosis of what’s working and what isn’t and then an attempt to improve said rates. Though you should absolutely look at what’s working for others and consider some industry-wide best practices (some of which are detailed in the “tips” section below), it’s important to remember that every business’s situation is different. What’s best for another website may or may not be best for yours.

It’s critical that you not overlook the diagnostic steps, especially if you’re an established business that’s looking to improve its conversion rates. Spreadsheets can help you organize the kinds of issues that prevent or discourage visitors from making a purchase or otherwise meeting your conversion goals. Those kinds of issues are sometimes divided into “usability” matters and “objections.” The former involves structural problems with your web experience itself, things that might prevent someone from actually making the purchase. The latter has to do with reasons someone would willfully decide not to make that purchase. By cataloguing and ranking these factors, you can narrow your CRO to-do list.

You can also perform something like a SWOT analysis of your site and its ability to create conversions. Listing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the conversion process itself may be a useful framework for assessing the status quo and determining where you want to go from there.

Some kind of brainstorming process should generally follow from all that analysis. What are the best ways to make your visitors’ web experiences more engaging and productive? How can you redesign elements of your website to encourage more conversions? Are there content-based solutions that will keep visitors on your pages and increase the likelihood that they make a purchase?

Throughout your planning process, don’t forget the importance of testing. It’s the best way to determine exactly what works for your business and all its industry-specific characteristics.

As Nuttall puts it, “There is far too much conjecture and counter-conjecture from people who believe they know what constitutes as a website optimized for conversion; ten minutes of research into conversion rate optimization will reveal hundreds of online marketers across the world discussing the effectiveness of a green ‘add to basket’ button compared to a blue ‘add to basket’ button, and alike.

“Unfortunately, you cannot simply apply these principles to your website without proper testing; what works for one website or industry will not necessarily work for another, as the motivations of customers are different in each niche and industry. That is why the backbone of an effective conversion rate optimization campaign is testing; the effect of each change must be monitored individually to allow you to reach a better ‘treatment’ page.”

And remember what testing is fundamentally about. Conversions may be your bottom line, but all of this strategizing should also be predicated on treating consumers the right way.

“Constant testing doesn’t just mean a possible increase in conversion,” Ratcliff argues. “It will also lead to a better user experience. Removing barriers, simplifying forms, clarifying navigation, all these things lead to an improved customer journey and therefore making your site a better place to browse.

“The goal of CRO is not to manipulate visitors into converting. It’s to ease the journey of already interested or engaged visitors through your website until they’ve achieved the outcome they desired themselves.”

So how should you go about all this planning?

Larger companies may decide to handle CRO strategies internally, using their ample resources to build digital marketing teams comprised of specialists on various fronts (including SEO and CRO alike). Smaller businesses generally don’t have that luxury. They may be better served by working with a digital marketing firm that can meet their unique needs. Even so, it’s a good idea for management to have a sense of what’s going on. Doing some firsthand research will empower you to ask the right questions and actually understand the answers. It can also help you choose the right firm or consultant and ensure they’re committed to your bottom line.

Design and CRO

First impressions can be lasting impressions. When visitors discover your website, you have a golden opportunity to keep them engaged and encourage them to scroll further or visit other pages on your site. Though the factors at play here are fairly intricate, visual appeal is an undeniably central consideration.

And no, it’s not just about appeal. It’s also about functionality. Does your layout make sense? Are buttons in the right places? Do font styles match the tone you’re attempting to convey? Is the color scheme appropriate? Everything should look good, but it should also be logically situated.

Web design may not be everything to CRO, but it’s essential to be sure.

“Web design forms the entire landscape where conversion optimization takes place,” writes Marketing Land’s Jeremy Smith. “If the user can’t understand, use, view, operate or experience a website, then the user can’t convert, period. Crappy design means crappy conversion rates.”

However crappy your current design may be, the solutions generally aren’t wholesale. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is one of the easiest mistakes to make when attempting a comprehensive rebuild.

“One of the core truths about conversion optimization is that it relies on continual improvement,” Smith continues. “That’s the whole premise of split testing. You take a single element — let’s say the image on your landing page — and produce two versions to see which one improves conversions.

“When image A wins the test, what do you do? Swap out the headline, move the button, change the form fields, and rearrange the bullet points, right? No! You change the freaking picture to the one that got the best results. You don’t touch anything else! Split testing shows you which single element is doing better. Split testing does not give you license to change the whole website.”

Smith also concedes that there are times when massive change is in order. Some sites are in desperate need of epic revision. The point is that you shouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion automatically. Adopt a step-by-step approach to design before making any final determinations. If your current problems are especially egregious, an expert can help you make that call.

As Smith puts it, “How do you know when it’s time to tear it down and start from scratch with a redesign? I hate to rely on simplistic answers, but you just know.”

Whether changes should be incremental or dramatic, it’s important that the CRO specialists and design specialists are on the same page. That’s not always the case. The former are generally more interested in data-based solutions and financial objectives. The latter may be a bit more artistically or creatively inclined. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a meeting of the minds is essential to a final product that works.

You’ll find more concrete design recommendations in the tips section below, but it’s usually a good idea to have a big picture concept of what you want. Establish some priorities in terms of visuals and usability and work with your team to meet your conversion goals. Then you can get into the more granular mechanics of how to get your design just right.

Content and CRO

One doesn’t have to belittle the importance of design in order to appreciate the real substance behind most websites. That substance often takes the form of content. If design is the thing that captures an eye and grabs a visitor’s interest, content is the tool that holds that interest and motivates real action. From that perspective, design and content offer a formidable tag-team effect when it comes to conversion. One without the other will invariably leave your CRO efforts woefully incomplete.

Content isn’t an end unto itself. It’s there for a reason, and—in many cases—that reason should be inextricably linked to CRO.

As The Daily Egg’s George Mathew explained last year, “You need to establish the goal behind the content. That’s right. A goal. As a CRO, all your tactics should start with a goal. Begin by asking what you want your readers to do. Possibilities include: subscribe to your blog or newsletter, buy from you, or share the post on Facebook or Twitter.”

Once you’ve defined some goals, the next step is figuring out how to get there. As is the case with web design and CRO strategy in general, large companies can generally handle content with in-house resources. Small businesses are more inclined to hire a small writing staff (often via independent contracting). Either way, you’ll want to work with people who are willing to accept some training. Good writing is nice, but purposeful writing that furthers your content marketing bottom lines is even better.

To ensure the writing is up to par, you’ll also want some semblance of an editorial staff. For some small businesses, this may be something that management itself takes on. It may be financially untenable to actually hire new editors.

One way or another, the key is to actually build some kind of content infrastructure that’s prepared to advance your CRO objectives. That infrastructure can take a number of forms, but you’ll have difficulty generating quality content without one.

Once the infrastructure is in place, it’s time to formulate a plan. What form should your content take? Can you sustain a regular blog or will you be limited to more basic, one-time copy on your site? If you can publish some kind of blog, how frequently can you generate new posts? How lengthy should those posts be? What kind of service should your content be providing to the community or consumers at large?

While you should be wary of one-size-fits-all solutions, there are some general recommendations that makes sense for most businesses. For SEO and CRO reasons alike, some kind of blog is probably advisable. The more frequently you post content (and the more robust or lengthy that content is), the more likely you are to drive traffic to your website. Once that traffic shows up, it’s important that your content actually provides a valuable service. It should answer questions, provide solutions, entertain, inform and—most importantly—engage.

There are countless examples of blogs that perform precisely such a function. From digital marketing experts that publish advice (like this one) to law firms that offer overviews of various legal topics, an increasingly wide variety of businesses are sharing content with consumers in a bid to build relationships and ultimately improve those conversion rates.

Written content remains an attractive alternative thanks to its cost effectiveness and universal appeal, but websites are increasingly looking to more visually stimulating options. Photographs, video and other kinds of graphics are the latest wave of engaging content. With web users interested in material that quickly captures (and holds) their divided attention, these kind of solutions make a lot of sense in the 21st century.

Video is an especially useful way to reinforce written content and communicate a call to action (CTA). Visitors may wish to see your product or service in action. They may want to hear directly from someone associated with your business, seeing an actual face rather than simply reading copy composed by hired help. Service-oriented businesses (like restaurants) may benefit from offering visitors a photographic or video-based tour of their facilities.

The point is pretty simple. Why settle for telling someone about what you do when you can show them instead?

Customer reviews and testimonials are another nifty way to boost your conversions. In addition to diversifying your content and allowing others to do some of the work for you, testimonials are one of the very best ways to reassure consumers when it comes time to actually make a purchasing decision. Hearing actual customers vouch for your product or service is a compelling pitch. Consumers want evidence from those with whom they can actually relate.

As content goes, this is just a starting point. Different approaches will work better for different businesses. The big point is to think creatively, ensure that you’re providing a useful service and engage consumers as much as possible. With an appropriately tailored design and content strategy, the conversions will come.

CRO Tips You Need to Know

Now that you have a generalized concept of how to approach CRO, there are some actionable tips that will help you turn the big ideas into concrete techniques.

Use Clear Language: This is especially important when it comes to headlines or any other text that stands out prominently. Though you never want to be overly verbose, the addition of a particular word here or there can make all the difference. People generally want precise, concrete language—words and sentences that tell them exactly what your page, business, product or service is all about. Note that you’ll want to balance your wording with a commitment to the right kind of design. Really long headlines or overly lengthy paragraphs may seem useful, but they can also come at the expense of visually appealing design.

Make It As Easy As Possible To Get In Touch: Yes, you’ll need to have the human resources on hand (e.g. customer service staff) to actually make this happen. But that’s a whole other story. The bottom line is that people shouldn’t have to search extensively in order to find your contact information. Beyond sending the wrong message, you’re also likely to lose conversions that might simply have required some minor clarification via email or phone call. Don’t turn those potential customers away. Note that “live chatting” with customer service representatives has become an increasingly popular means for connecting with visitors.

Establish Your Competitive Advantage: What is it about your business that creates a unique kind of value for its customers? For many consumers, a principle barrier to conversion is the suspicion that one of your competitors may offer a superior product or service. You should address that concern upfront by explaining why you’re the industry’s best.

Leave the Stock Photos Behind: On the one hand, stock photos can create a sense of professionalism. There’s nothing cornier than ill-equipped employees (or, worse yet, family members) awkwardly posing for photos. That said, stock photos often come across as impersonal or staged. There are all kinds of better alternatives, namely using photographs of something (an iconic location, etc.) or someone that isn’t posing at all. For restaurants, that might entail an action shot of the chef in the kitchen. For other businesses, it might mean a meeting with clients. Show people reality itself—not a stock photo or artificial representation thereof. Your visitors will know the difference.

Create a Sense of Urgency: Plenty of caveats apply on this one. You don’t want an overly forced sense of urgency. Consumers are increasingly astute and will often notice artificial ploys designed to make them “buy now.” That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a limited time offer that encourages visitors to make their decisions sooner rather than later.

Add Credibility to Your Site: Credibility can be establish in a number of different ways, including via the customer testimonials discussed in the content section above. Along those lines, you should feature any awards, badges, community recognition or other forms of acknowledgement. Remember that building trust with consumers is often a key precondition to getting those conversions.

Avoid Too Many Form Fields: Sure, you want to know plenty of information about your visitors and customers. In theory, that’s a big part of understanding them in the first place. But remember that asking people to fill out forms can be perceived as daunting and annoying. If you’re really committed to making that consumer journey as effortless as possible, think twice about requiring visitors to complete all those (likely) unnecessary forms.

Use CTA Buttons Instead of Links: In-text links can serve a number of important functions, but when it comes to calling your visitors to action, you want something more visible and concrete. That’s why buttons (e.g. “Add to Cart”) can be so valuable. They give consumers an easily noticed alternative to links that are too often hidden at first glance.

Use More Informative Button Text: Generic and simplistic button text may seem easier for visitors at first, but they may be less inclined to tap those buttons when they aren’t fully aware of what happens next. More descriptive text like “Create My Account” or “Learn About Our Story” tells users exactly what’s about to happen and makes their journey a bit more effortless.

There’s plenty more where these tips come from. For additional tips, feel free to check out a list created by BackLinko’s Brian Dean. And as always, remember that what’s worked for others may not be the best solution for you. Consulting with experts may be the best way forward when it comes to developing conversion strategies that suit your business specifically.

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