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February 9, 2009

9 things you MUST know before you start any conversion rate optimization

During a time when every visitor matters, every click is a potential loss or gain, the tide has shifted: everyone seems to be pondering ways to increase their conversion rates. The average e-commerce store converts less than 2% of its traffic to customers. Yet, some e-commerce sites report a double digit conversion rates.
So, if you are thinking about optimizing your site, here are few things to keep in mind:

1. In optimization be aware of your competitor’s progress: I was talking to an e-commerce executive who was convinced that his site cannot convert more than 1% of its traffic. I asked why. He had a rather lengthy list of excuses that ranged from the type of products they carry, to the pricing structure, and finishing with how bad the economy is doing. No matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he refused to listen.

I would love to have been able to share one figure with him: His main competitor was a previous client of ours. After optimization, that competitor was converting around 7%. Can you imagine how much money that executive was leaving on the table?

2. Testing can be a disappointing experience: Do I think you should implement some sort of testing on your site? Of course you should. But multivariate testing is no magic pill that will solve all of your conversion problems. And testing is not optimization. It is a step in the optimization process. And frankly, it should be one of the last steps in the process. Poor testing will cost time and money. Even worse, you might end up with invalid results. A top executive at a large e-commerce store just told that he discovered the hard way it will take them 2 – 3 years to complete some of the multivariate testing they started last year.

3. Fix something today: If your conversion rate is less than 40%, then there is room for improvements. So, instead of debating why I picked 40% as the mark, how about you do something! Take a look at your analytics. What pages have high bounce rates? Start making few changes to them and see if you can fix the problem. But be careful, unless you really know what you are doing you might make things a lot worse! A client of ours told us before taking on the project that they randomly added features to the site: if new features caused a major upset (dramatic drop in conversion rates), they removed them, if conversion rate was stable, they’d let them be. This is not a good approach because you aren’t gauging exactly why users would benefit from the feature, where it can be strategically more effective for them, etc. And you’re losing a lot of business because of the drastic changes being made to the site without a careful approach to measuring its impact on that specific page.

4. Sometimes you have to admit you are wrong: My 3-year old daughter hates admitting she’s wrong, and she’s still a toddler. Imagine a grown, professional adult. But conversion optimization is part art and part science. And I am regularly reminded that working in conversion can is a humbling experience. Every once in awhile, website visitors hate what we recommend. The trick is to be ready and aware of what is going. We are not married to an idea. If something does not work, we are ready to change it.

5. What works on Amazon will most likely not work on your site: We had a client who tried to copy the design of Amazon every step of the way. His logic was simple. If Amazon has a 12% conversion rate, then he should get to the same conversion rate. Of course that did not happen for many reasons, the most important being that Amazon and this client had completely different target markets. Yes there are good and common sense practices but they are not set in stone. What works for one site and one market, will not necessarily work for another site.

6. Sometimes you have to trust the experts: Conversion optimization is about usability and common sense. Everyone thinks they know usability and have a good common sense. The most difficult customer is one who thinks he knows everything about anything related to conversion optimization. And we’ve met many of them. Of course, the fact that the know-it-all’s conversion rates are below 1% for years, doesn’t really matter. It still does not stop him/her from rejecting optimization recommendations. How do you deal with customers like that? One word: Testing! We’ve learned to be very flexible with our clients. Although many times they don’t implement fully, we suggest that they do it “their” way for the baseline and we’ll test to see which option does better. Generally, after we deliver our first set of results our clients tend to agree that “we know what we are doing.”

7. Optimization is a long term commitment: rarely do companies see double digit conversion rates by implementing one or two strategies. If you are looking to see a healthy increase in your conversion rates, you must be in it for the long haul. This is a dilemma we face with some clients who want full-site optimization but do not quite “trust” us yet. Especially in a ailing economy, ever dollar counts, and you’d rather stick to what you know. That’s absolutely true, but not branching out and moving forward in your company during these rough times may be the worst decision you’ll ever make.

8. Best time to optimize a website is when you are building it: Too many companies wait to do any CRO (conversion rate optimization) until their websites are built and customers are not ordering. When we start providing recommendations and asking them to make changes, these companies discover they have to re-work, redesign and re-implement some parts of their website. They could have easily saved a lot of money if optimization companies were involved from the first stages of the site’s development.

9. Squeeze in a quickie when you can: Not sure where to start optimizing your website? Take your laptop with you to lunch, find someone sitting alone and offer to buy them lunch if they would be willing to show you how they order an item from your website. This quickie usability test can be very telling. Of course, usability testing must be controlled with a list of goals you want the user to achieve etc.

Sitting around and hoping that things will improve with your site is detrimental especially during these tough economic times when users are savvier than ever. Begin reevaluating your site and begin by take a deep glance at your analytics. The answers are right before your eyes.

Khalid Saleh is the president and co-founder of Invesp Consulting, a leading conversion rate optimization company. You can read more from Khalid on the Invesp blog or follow him on Twitter