I’ve written several guides on various elements of online marketing, helping businesses plan their strategies, and execute different elements of an ongoing campaign. But so far, most of my work has focused on generating new traffic for a site or improving a brand’s reputation.
These are both important elements to any brand’s marketing campaign; if you want to generate any kind of meaningful customer interaction, you need a substantial amount of traffic coming to your site and ample brand visibility to support your reputation. But ultimately, these steps are only half the equation.
How does your traffic behave when it actually gets to your site? What steps do they take? And most importantly, how is that traffic translating into meaningful revenue for your business? Without this key step, you can generate all the traffic you like—and it won’t matter to your bottom line.
What you need is another step of the process: a way to convert your inbound traffic into paying customers (or at least get them further down the line in the buying cycle). Earning more “conversions” is vital for your brand to stay afloat, but conversions come in dozens of different varieties, and the process is somewhat complicated. I’m here to walk you through everything you need to know about conversion optimization, from what qualifies as a conversion to ongoing best practices for success.
First, we need to talk about what conversions are, why they’re important, and some general points to keep in mind when optimizing your site for conversions. This is going to serve as the basic framework on which we’ll build your direction and key strategies in the future.
You’ve probably “converted” or been a conversion before—and recently, too. Have you bought anything online recently? Your purchase technically qualifies as a conversion. Have you downloaded any free content in exchange for some personal information? This is a conversion too. Conversions aren’t just about getting people to pay you money; they’re about getting your users to make a meaningful interaction with your brand. SEO.co uses conversion optimization tactics, just like you should, even on our home page:
Conversion optimization is important because without any conversions, your traffic will pass through your site like water leaking out of a bucket. Once it’s gone, it can’t bring any value to your brand.
Conversion optimization itself is important because most of the time, conversions don’t happen on their own. Let’s say you have the “perfect” product; it’s cheap, it’s something everyone needs, and it’s something that generates mass appeal. You get plenty of traffic, but you never worked on your conversion strategy.
You’ll run into a number of potential problems:
The list goes on. On some level, conversion optimization is about making people want to buy your product (or engage with your brand), but even more importantly, it’s about giving them the power and opportunity to actually do it.
Before you get started in a conversion optimization campaign, you need to understand what your core goals are. Yes, you’ll obviously want to “increase conversions,” but there are some other important elements to bear in mind here.
Next, I want to explain the importance of relying on data. Throughout your conversion optimization process, from the beginning of your strategizing through the ongoing process of refinement and development, you’ll need to rely on the scientific method and objective data to guide your actions.
(Image Source: Investopedia)
Before you get involved with a campaign, you’ll be conducting significant research to ground your campaign direction in an objective vision. There are many types of research you’ll need to consider:
With some of the basics out of the way, let’s focus on some of the main types of conversions, and how you can use them for your site. Different brands in different industries will need to rely on different types of conversions; for example, an online retailer will rely on more direct product purchases, while a B2B service-oriented company will need to generate more leads from contact forms. Understanding the strategic and logistical differences between these conversions is the first step to building an effective campaign.
Product purchases are one of the easiest and most straightforward types of conversion; essentially, when someone buys a product, or multiple products, a conversion has taken place. These are ideal for eCommerce platforms, or for businesses that focus on selling tangible goods, whether you have a vast library of different novelties or you’re just trying to sell your eBook.
There are a few different angles you can take to improve your ability to sell products.
(Image Source: Amazon)
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Conversions based around lead generation differ significantly from those focused on purchasing a product. The idea here is to get a user to express some significant level of interest in your brand, handing over their contact information so that your sales team can contact them and hopefully sell them on your products and/or services. In many cases, these eventual sales are much more significant, either in price or in commitment; for example, rather than purchasing a $20 lawnmower part, they might be signing up for a $10,000, 6-month contract. Lead generation is frequently used by B2B companies, but this isn’t exclusive.
Lead generation conversion optimization is a bit trickier, since you won’t be able to tie a direct value to your conversions, the strength of a conversion is variable, and asking for personal information is much different from asking for money.
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Another type of conversion is the email subscribership, which for all intents and purposes is just a simplified version of the lead generation conversion. Instead of asking for lots of personal information like a name, title, and a reason for contact, all you’ll look for here is a name and an email address. You’ll collect this information to be used in your future email marketing campaigns, so every name you collect has a value—just not as much value as a direct lead or a purchase.
The flip side to this is, of course, that email subscribers are easier to get than leads. The process requires less of a commitment, and people are more willing to submit their personal information as a result. Furthermore, email subscribership can be a peripheral goal for almost any business, even if you have other conversion strategies in place. If email marketing is a central focus or value for your brand, you’ll need to prioritize this.
For the most part, any type of conversion that works in the “lead generation” category can work for the email subscribership category. For example, you could use side bars or popups to encourage new email subscribers, or use a blog callout to forward them to a particular area to sign up.
You can also earn value and gauge consumer interest with “micro” conversions. These are meaningful forms of user interaction that don’t necessarily translate to direct revenue (or a significantly increased chance of direct revenue). Instead, these are indications of user interest, which is valuable in terms of brand visibility and loyalty.
There are a handful of types of micro conversions you’ll want to pay attention to:
These aren’t the only types of micro conversions out there, but they are some of the most common. They won’t help you figure out your new revenue or your ROI, but they can lend some significant insight into the value and appeal of your brand, and give you direction on improvements you can make to your conversion strategy.
I’ve listed four different types of conversion to pay attention to: product conversions, lead generation conversions, email subscribership, and micro conversions. Each of these is best suited to a different type of business, and most businesses will stand to benefit from paying attention to some of these forms of conversion more than others. However, all of these modes of conversion can be useful in some way. It’s up to your individual goals and desires to decide which of these modes are the most important, and how you’re going to balance your strategy. I encourage you to decide which of these types of conversion you’re going to focus on before planning the rest of your strategy.
Now that we’ve covered most of the basics, we can move on to focus specifically on getting higher conversion rates. This section of the guide will explain how to increase the number of people who end up taking meaningful action—whether that’s buying a product, filling out a form, or micro converting, as most of these different types can benefit from the same best practices.
I’ll be covering a number of different sections here, each with examples of their effective use.
Your first step is to make your call-to-action more visible. This should be obvious; after all, how are people going to convert if they’re never given the direct opportunity? Yet many marketers and webmasters end up with CTAs that don’t stand out in any meaningful way. This often represents a huge loss in potential conversions.
You can actually increase the visibility of your CTAs in a number of distinct ways:
(Image Source: Unbounce)
The truth is, there’s no “right” or “wrong” place for your CTA, as long as it stands out and catches your users’ attention. This can be hard to discover, and you probably won’t get it quite right the first time, so play around with different locations and see how it affects your results.
(Image Source: Hubspot)
There’s no question that these results are real. However, the cause of this can be a bit misleading. It’s not the red coloration that made this CTA more effective, but rather the fact that the color stood out more in contrast with the rest of the page. When experimenting with color, your goal shouldn’t be to find that one, specific, magical color that will increase your conversions; instead, you just need to stand out better.
The core of any conversion is an exchange of value. Your users are going to give you something, and in return, they expect to get something. For product purchases, this system is obvious and straightforward; your customers are giving you money in exchange for a product they believe to be worth at least that much. But the value exchange is present when users hand over their personal information, too, such as in an email signup or form submission. That’s because personal information has a value, and users know this.
Users aren’t going to convert unless your exchange is valuable. Therefore, you need to offer a stronger value if you’re going to see more conversions.
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You’ve made your CTA visible, and you’ve proven your worth. The next thing you should think about is the actual process of conversion. Though in principle, a conversion is often as simple as clicking a button, the reality is, you can make the process as simple or as complicated as you want it. Unfortunately, many marketers opt to make it more complicated than it has to be, often with logical intentions.
For example, they may produce form fields that demand a lot of input from the user; when trying to earn more leads, the more information you can get, the better. Getting information like previous purchase history, current interests, and background can help your salespeople close more deals (and can give you more information to work with from a market research perspective). However, as a general rule, people are impatient and will greatly prefer forms with fewer fields to fill out. Whatever you can do to simplify your form, do it. Believe it or not, shaving off just a few extra seconds of effort can make the difference to a prospective lead.
In a similar vein, you’ll want to make sure your checkout process is simple as well. Most eCommerce platforms these days are able to offer one-click purchasing, or something analogous, to make the online shopping process simpler. You don’t have to do this, but you should reduce the number of steps it takes to check out to the bare minimum.
This is another piece of advice that should go without saying, but make sure your forms and shopping carts are working properly! Do a test run of your form to make sure the fields can be filled out easily and submitted without error, and make sure you get an email notification as well—I’ve worked with clients in the past who simply weren’t getting notification of their conversions, and they’ve missed a lot of opportunities as a result.
Beyond that, you’ll want to use a platform like Mobiletest.me to test how your CTAs, forms, and products look on various mobile devices and browsers. Take note of any significant differences that could bear an impact on your potential visitors, and correct them proactively. The most important things to worry about here are content loading issues—make sure all your content and visuals are loading properly, and in a way that’s accessible to the user.
I already mentioned the importance of being brief when it comes to selling the value of your offer, but now let’s focus on some of the bigger stars of your CTAs—your headlines, taglines, and filler copy. Headlines are what will grab your users’ attention immediately, and it’s responsible for forming the first impression they’ll get of your brand, so take some extra time to craft the perfect, attention-grabbing, reputation building message.
Easier said than done, right? Here are a few tips to help you through the process.
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Written content alone isn’t enough; not all of your users will want to read to understand the benefits of your exchange. It’s also valuable to include images and video to influence more conversions, especially on a landing page. However, as you might imagine, not just any images and videos will work. Here are some tips to help you use images and video effectively:
(Image Source: KissMetrics)
Marketing Experiments has a great example of how changing a stock image to an original image can boost your conversion rates immediately.
(Image Source: Marketing Experiments)
Most people have an inherent distrust for corporations and brands, or at the very least, they tend to trust their peers more than organizations that are clearly out to make a profit. About 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews submitted by their peers as much as they’d trust a personal recommendation from a friend or family member—which is somewhat surprising, if you think about it. But the bottom line here is that most people need some kind of social proof, some evidence that you’ve been making exchanges with other users satisfactorily, before they’ll commit to your brand in any way.
Social proof, therefore, should be one of your top priorities. There are a couple of easy ways to instill more social proof in your CTA or landing page: reviews and testimonials. Though related, these are two distinct forms of content submitted by your past customers. Reviews are generally short, descriptive analyses of a past purchase or interaction, often based on a product or service. Testimonials, on the other hand, are generally longer, serving as a pitch for a company or organization as a whole.
As you can see in this example by VWO, simply adding a handful of reviews to your product page (or testimonials to your lead generation page) can have a substantial impact on your conversion rate.
(Image Source: VWO)
Social proof can go a long way in cultivating more trust from your new user base, but you’ll usually have to go a step or two further if you really want to earn your users’ dedication. One of the simplest ways to do this is to add “trust badges” to the bottom of your site. These small icons, usually located in the footer of a page, show users your affiliations and accreditations, demonstrating your authority (and possibly your security). VWO found that adding trust badges can increase your conversion rates by more than 70 percent.
(Image Source: The New Media Co)
You can also build trust by showing off your expertise. For example, you can list all the major publications you and your brand have been featured in. You could also show off how long you’ve been in business, how much growth you’ve experienced over the years, or list some of your most noteworthy clients (assuming they’ve given you the permission to mention them).
In addition to all the factors I listed above, there are a handful of other variables you should keep in mind when planning, executing, and evaluating the success of your conversion optimization strategy:
There are countless variables to consider in a conversion optimization plan, but for the most part, it’s best to stay out of the weeds. Keep your attention high-level, on your actions and your measurable results.
Throughout this section, I’ve been listing a number of different considerations for increasing your conversion rate—the best practices for conversion optimization. I have one more best practice to share with you, and it’s a little bit counterintuitive: ignore best practices (at least some of the time).
What do I mean by this? Why did I waste my time writing out and showing examples of all these best practices if I’m now encouraging you to deliberately ignore them? It’s because every business is going to be unique. Your brand, your voice, your audience, and your goals will all be different from everyone else’s. The “best practices” for conversion optimization are rules that work well for most brands—but not all the time. If you stick too closely to norms and conventional practices, not only will you miss out on some great improvement opportunities, your conversion attempts will end up looking like everyone else’s—and that’s definitely something you don’t want.
Go against the grain by defying some of the standard conventions, as long as you have a good idea to substitute for the original best practice. As you’ll see, the more you experiment, the closer you can get to perfection.
In the last section, I walked you through the steps of creating an “optimal” conversion opportunity—essentially setting the stage for the average user to want to convert. But not all people behave the same, or have the same needs; in fact, we’re all pretty darn unique. That’s why one of the biggest factors in conversion optimization success isn’t the stage you set, but the people who come to that stage in the first place.
One of your biggest priorities should be making sure the right types of people make it to your conversion opportunities, and catering to them to maximize the potential for conversion.
Most of your online marketing efforts (other than conversion optimization) will focus on exploiting external platforms like search engines, advertising opportunities, and social media sites to funnel traffic to your site or landing page. Your first step should therefore be choosing the “right” platforms—the ones with the highest likelihood of sending appropriate traffic to your site.
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There’s a kind of “pre-party” that happens before the actual CTA, which can influence whether you’re successful in getting a conversion. You’ll have an advertisement, or a piece of syndicated content, or some other external post designed to get people to your site. How you frame this can influence whether or not a person clicks through, and once they get there, can influence whether or not they stick around to convert.
Your new and returning visitors will likely behave differently, based on the type of business you run. For example, with an eCommerce platform, a returning visitor has likely already been through the ordering process once, from start to finish. Accordingly, they know they can trust you, so you’ll have less of a need to prove your trustworthiness through social proof, trust badges, and similar factors. For a B2B service, a returning visitor will likely be further along in the buy cycle than a new visitor, and they’ll want to see a different list of benefits. In almost any case, returning visitors are more likely to convert than new visitors.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to serve returning users differently than you serve new users, such as directing them to a different version of your website. What you can do, however, is set up a separate flow for your new visitors, creating specific landing pages for visitors you know to be unaware of your brand that work on building trust and awareness. You can also use the behavior flow chart in Google Analytics to better understand how your new and returning visitors behave differently once onsite, using this information to refine your optimization efforts.
Bounce and exit rates are distinct, but for our purposes, they mean the same thing; a user has become disinterested with your site, and leaves before converting. Bounce and exit rates are valuable pieces of information that help you understand where your users tend to leave your site, and possibly, why they tend to do it.
Why is this important for conversions? With so many conversion opportunities throughout your site, and a user population that’s likely going to explore your site somewhat thoroughly before converting, the longer the average user stays on your site, the likelier they’ll be to eventually convert (or at least walk away with a good impression of your brand). A high bounce and exit rate could mar an otherwise solid conversion optimization campaign, so it’s in your best interest to improve your site’s performance here.
I won’t spend much time digging into the logistics of improving your bounce rate, as this could be a topic worthy of its own guide, but KissMetrics does a pretty good job of outlining the basics here.
(Image Source: KissMetrics)
I want to end this section with one peripheral consideration—a variable that can influence your overall effectiveness in conversion optimization. It’s all about the value of your conversions. Not all conversions are equally valuable, and emphasizing an unprofitable conversion could cause you to spend too much money on an ineffective strategy.
Your greatest tool here is awareness—you need to understand exactly how valuable each of your conversion opportunities is. Combined with knowledge of your total number of conversions and traffic, you can make a good estimate for your marketing ROI—but I’ll get into that later. For now, let’s look at how to calculate the value of a given conversion in three dimensions:
By this point, you’ve got a solid start on your conversion optimization strategy. You’ve done your research, you’ve committed to all the standard best practices (or have strategically deviated from some of them), and you should be seeing some higher conversion rates accordingly.
But you’re not done yet. I’ve mentioned before in this guide that there’s an ongoing component to conversion optimization—you have to keep working to improve your conversion rates, or else your campaign will stagnate, and you’ll miss out on some extraordinary potential. This section will explain the importance of experimentation, testing, measurement, and analysis in your campaign for better long-term results.
It’s not enough to opt for an “optimized” conversion strategy. You have to put your changes to the test in a live environment—and more than that, you’ll have to commit new changes to gradually improve your results as a kind of ongoing experiment. There are many values to ongoing experimentation:
One of the most effective ways to experiment is the classic AB test, so named because you’ll be comparing two different versions of your website, landing page, or CTA—the “A” version and the “B” version. This test is effective because it boils down your results to a simple apples-to-apples comparison, allowing you to determine what it is, precisely, that does or doesn’t work.
(Image Source: Optimizely)
Essentially, you’re going to follow the scientific method here. you’ll come up with a hypothesis; for example, you might decide that a change in font could increase conversions, or that a new image is what your CTA needs to get better results. Then, you’ll design a test that puts that hypothesis to the test, keeping your “A” version the same and applying the desired change to your “B” version. You’ll put both into a live scenario, compare your results, and form a conclusion about the effects of your change—and then repeat this process indefinitely as you come up with more hypotheses for improvement.
Though simple in concept, there are a handful of best practices you’ll need to follow for your AB tests if you want to use them effectively:
Independent of your AB tests, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your conversion rates, which you can do by setting up Goals within Google Analytics. Getting good results in a test is a solid start, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to your long-term trends. Changes in competition, seasons, trends, demographics, and traffic sources can all have an effect on your conversion rates, so watch for these fluctuations and monitor your performance over time.
Occasionally, you’ll want to take a pulse of your overall marketing ROI. You can tap this metric easily once you have a good handle on your conversion rates:
There are a number of tools you can use to assist you in your conversion optimization efforts, including tools that analyze your current layout, ones that support you by automating experiments and AB tests, and ones that thoroughly measure your results.
These are just a few of my favorites:
(Image Source: Unbounce)
(Image Source: Hello Bar)
(Image Source: OptinMonster)
(Image Source: VWO)
(Image Source: Optimizely)
Most of these tools I’ve outlined have specific areas of expertise, and they all offer something different when it comes to user experience. Most of them offer free trials, so I encourage you to give each of them a try and see which ones will be the best fit for your brand—you may even end up using more than one.
Conversion optimization is one of the best marketing strategies you can pursue because it, by extension, can improve the return of all your other marketing strategies. As you bring in more traffic with tactics like SEO, social media marketing, or even paid advertising, conversion optimization will help you maximize the potential value of those visitors.
Everything in marketing comes down to revenue, and conversions are the final gateway in getting that revenue. Don’t underestimate the importance of this strategy, and remain committed to your ongoing improvements.