There was a little stir after Shane Atchison’s recent column pronouncing the linear conversion funnel dead. Shane got the idea I was an overzealous cheerleader for linear conversion funnels. He even seemed to fear I’d suffer heart failure upon reading his revelation.
Subsequently, clients, friends, and Web Analytics Association (WAA) members emailed and called (some bewildered, some amused), wondering what was going on. We all had a good laugh. This misconception about linear processes has been a pet peeve of mine for years.
After publishing his column, Shane sent me the classiest email explaining the stir that column caused on his end got him to read some of my past columns. He’d misunderstood my position. No harm done, Shane, and thanks for your concern.
Misperception is fortunately an opportunity for clarification. So please allow me clarify.
The linear conversion funnel has its place. Though rudimentary and limited, it’s a great blunt-force beginners’ tool for online marketers with little or no metrics in place (and there are far too many of those left).
For what it’s worth, Shane’s right. The linear conversion funnel won’t take sophisticated marketers very much further in their optimization efforts. No conversion funnel will, 2.0 or otherwise.
Instead of considering the conversion funnel by itself, we should think of it as living at the bottom end of the buy/sell process. Conversion is no longer the biggest problem facing online marketers; persuasion is.
Without persuasion, there’s no incentive for visitors to walk through your linear sales process. Unlike conversion, persuasion isn’t linear. The conversion funnel is smooth and simple, but the persuasive reservoir that feeds it is as complex and non-funnel-like as your visitors are.
The Limits of Conversion Rate Optimization
When we first began studying conversion years ago, we observed conversion is about the sales process. By definition, it’s always linear. The sales process is about moving consumers along a continuum that goes from prospecting to close and retention.
In the sales process you appear to have much more control of the customer’s environment. You can optimize clearly defined steps that move prospects forward to a close. But this isn’t accurate. It’s an oversimplification, taken from the seller’s perspective.
In the linear sales interaction you can easily measure whether you moved people through the sales process. Either the customers took the next step or they didn’t. You can see the drop-off between the funnel’s steps.
Conversion rate optimization assumes people want to participate in your sales process by taking an end-stage conversion action now. If they want to transact now, your job is to help them do so easily. (If this is still an issue for your company, priority one is to harvest the low-hanging fruit. Optimizing your sales process is important, but it remains limited in its ability to drive maximum return on your marketing investment.)
While you’re busy optimizing your sales process, customers are engaged in a distinctly different process: their own, idiosyncratic buying. They’re in complete control of it. They interact with myriad factors that exist outside of your selling process, outside of your company. These factors are completely out of your control. How can you possibly control their interaction with competitors, word-of-mouth issues, and so on?
Optimizing the Buying Process Is a Matter of Persuasion
You have the customer’s permission to sell inside the conversion funnel. Outside the conversion funnel, even on your own site, the matter’s more delicate. That’s why we insist a persuasion architecture that includes persuasion scenarios is a superior method of understanding customer behavior. When you build a predictive model of customer interactions with your site (and any other business entities or touch points), you recognize customers are in control and only see what’s relevant to them. Scenarios are plans to influence their buying decision based on what’s relevant to them.
You no longer control how or when in the buying process a customer approaches you to purchase. So you must consider every touch point (online, offline, and across channels and media) as a piece of the buying process in a customer’s persuasion scenario. Use it to influence her next action in your favor.
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Over my last few columns, I’ve outlined the persuasion scenario planning techniques we use to plan ways your company can influence this. It can also be broken down using this diagram:
The funnel-like shape represents all the business touch points customers may have to navigate. No matter how long it takes, the buying process always begins with customers becoming aware of a problem, need, or want. They then conduct a search (whether in their heads, by being confronted by an offer, by asking others, or with a search engine) to identify a possible solution. These are the driving points where people enter a persuasion scenario.
While gathering information, customers refine the buying criteria that affect their purchase decision. Customers then narrow the field of choice to the best few options (to keep this simple, I’ll deal with retention issues in another column).
Finally, customers choose from what they perceive as the best few and take action. This is the point of intersection with your selling process. It represents the narrowest portion of the funnel.
The whole concept of evaluating alternatives can’t be linear. Once the consumer makes the decision to purchase (conversion beacon), the process becomes somewhat more linear.
Persuasion scenarios account for the non-linear decision-making process. They also account for various needs that drive your visitors toward conversion while addressing cross-channel marketing issues.
Knowing When You’re Ready to Tackle Persuasion Problems
You’re ready if you experience one or more of the following:
- Despite drastic changes to marketing, messaging, and landing pages, you can’t move your conversion rate needle more than a point, positive or negative.
- You have one or two marketing channels with a consistent, decent conversion rate. Every other channel or effort you try has abysmal results.
- Perception research, online and off-, shows severe disparity between customer perception and your reality.
- You sometimes get huge spikes after a successful campaign, but you can’t duplicate that success.
Solving the Persuasion Dilemma
Persuasion and conversion are two sides of the same coin. Both offer marketers substantial opportunities for growth by providing tools to leverage assets and understand human behavior. Conversion funnels are only one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Persuasion scenarios, on the other hand, allow customers to feel a seamless, relevant, non-linear path through your touch points — online and off-.
Helping customers see what they want, when they want it, and in the way they want to see it is substantially preferable to forcing them though a hub-and-spoke back-and-forth path. Visitors will reward your newfound respect for persuasive scenario planning with an action that speaks louder than words: a conversion.
We’ve developed a method to use current Web analytics tools to measure persuasion scenarios, though it does requires some report customization.
Go ahead and pull your conversion funnel off the mantle. But don’t toss it out just yet. It’ll be a nice memento as we chart bigger and bolder persuasive landscapes.
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