Conversion Optimization: How Being Wrong Can Lead to Good Insights

My first rule of conversion optimization is to never assume, and yet… I had an interesting testing experience with one of my clients recently. After looking closely at the data, I formed my hypothesis, and made a recommendation for a variation to test… and it under-performed the original version! I was WRONG!

Now, I don’t expect to be right with every test (in fact, that’s WHY testing is so important), but my hypotheses are based on real data with a strong analysis behind them… and I have never been THIS wrong. Was I losing my edge?! Nope. I just didn’t consider that the change would be outside the online “comfort zone” of the visitors.

The site was geared toward an older demographic, and while much of the site might be considered out of date, even messy, by someone who is proficient using the internet, the change I had proposed was too drastic to be tolerated by this specific site’s targeted group of visitors. In short, I wasn’t speaking their language.

When I first started practicing conversion optimization, I heard an experienced analyst say to a client, “I know optimization, but you know your clients, so always feel free to speak up!” Now I truly understand what he was saying.

Technology, online expectations, and even optimization are constantly evolving. We’re always looking for inventive ways to persuade visitors to convert, new tools to use, and fresh techniques to share with our clients. So, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the new and advanced.

But, this test taught me that the newest, most effective tool doesn’t necessarily translate into big wins for all sites and all audiences. Understanding your visitors, and the language they use, is the first step in optimization. For example, a technology company who is marketing itself to other businesses may find success using web copy for persuasion that would severely hurt the conversion on a retail site for at-home diabetes testing supplies.

There are many ways to understand who your visitors are, and some of them don’t even involve a computer. When’s the last time you spoke with the folks in your customer service department? If you can’t remember the last time, head on down for a chat. Better yet, listen in on a few calls.

There is a reason why customer service and sales agents are the first places we start when we do discovery for persona creation. Visitors will often call when they want to make a purchase/get a quote/take an action, and are unsure how to proceed. Figure out where visitors are having the most difficulty on your site, and then note the language they use to describe their struggle or their goal. Does that same language appear anywhere on your trouble pages?

Here’s a straightforward exercise you can do to design a fruitful test. We call it the “Three Questions Exercise.” Pick a page you’d like to improve, then follow these steps:

  1. Question: Who is on this page? Use the data collected from talking to sales and customer service agents, listening to calls, reading transcripts, etc.. What are your target customers thinking and feeling when they view this page?
  2. Question: What action do you want the visitor to take? What is a realistic conversion (or smaller step; a “micro-conversion”) you’d like the visitor to take? Don’t expect a new visitor to “buy now” straight from your homepage…pick an achievable goal.
  3. Question: What does this visitor need from the site to feel comfortable and confident taking the action I want them to take? This is the hardest of the three questions. But, put yourself in the visitor’s shoes, and it will be easier.

Once you’ve answered the three questions, form a hypothesis about what kind of language might better persuade the visitor to take the desired action. Again, use the data you gathered to make educated guesses about what might make the difference between taking the action, and taking an un-desired action like clicking a back button or leaving the site.

Speak their language. How can you re-phrase something (e.g. a headline, a link, a call to action button) using their language instead of yours? Test this new language idea to see if it persuades more visitors to take the action you want them to take. And most importantly, even if the test results are not what you’d expect, remember that taking the time to ask, “Why did that happen?” can make the test valuable.