The Artful Science of Conversion

Could there be a manual -- laying out steps one by one -- to teach marketers how to lead consumers down the path to conversion? Well, it's not so simple as that, but years of study have yielded some pretty hard-and-fast rules.

Come along with me as we take a little journey in time…

March 2000. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley, formerly one of Wall Street’s top Internet analysts (he was the lead analyst on the initial public offering), wrote that conversion rates are “the most powerful Internet metric of all” in a Fortune magazine article.

Fast-forward to June 2001. The business gurus from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article titled “Getting Clicks With Casual Customers,” wrote that “the study of conversion is in such an early stage that there are no firm rules about what works and what doesn’t.”

Rewind to January 2001. ClickZ, recognizing the value of bringing its audience leading-edge information, starts the Converting Web Site Traffic column written by yours truly.

Rewind to March 2000. The first issue of GROKdotcom, my company’s newsletter, is published.

Fast-forward to today. As illustrated by the developments I’ve mentioned, you can see that there’s long been a debate over the nature of conversion marketing online but only recently has it come to the forefront.

Are there rules and science influencing our understanding of conversion practices? Let’s review some facts, and then you can decide for yourself. Many readers have successfully implemented some of the techniques I write about, and their documentation provides a persuasive argument. So am I claiming to have invented the science of conversion? Hardly. Conversion is part science and part art that relies on understanding the psychology and process of persuasion and adapting it to the online medium.

Why does paying attention to the point of action (POA) increase conversion rates? Because you answer objections at the point the customers are getting ready to take an action. That is where they experience their greatest cognitive dissonance, and so that is where your answers have the most impact.

Why does applying the AIDAS test improve your Web site’s conversion rate? Because marketers have long known that any time you want to make a presentation, it should follow the format of attention, interest, desire, action, and satisfaction.

These are just two of over 1,100 variables (the number is increasing all the time) we have identified that influence conversion. These include factors ranging from font size and text color to the message you place on a button to how effectively you convey your unique selling proposition, or USP. (One of our clients just added a great one to its site, and the conversion rate doubled.)

Does Flint McGlaughlin, who has been looking into the issue for the past year and a half, think conversion is a science? He has been conducting research on the variables that affect conversion. Here is a sample from his August 5, 2001, issue of Marketing Experiments Journal on site compatibility: “We test five Web sites on 14 different computer systems and discover how to improve our conversion ratio by 42 percent without changing a single word of copy.” Hmmm. That sounds awfully scientific to me.

Still think the science of conversion sounds theoretical? Let’s take a look at how a real-world e-tailer takes advantage of this science. The Sharper Image, which began selling on the Internet in 1995, has been profitable since the day it started. One of the reasons for the company’s success is that it does everything in-house, and the same people are responsible for making sure stuff sells in the catalog, in stores, and on the Web. Mollee Madrigal, a spokesperson for The Sharper Image, explained by saying: “The copy and creative for every channel are the responsibility of our wonderful senior VP of creative services and his great team. He even writes the copy for many of the products himself.” Strong copy that engages a prospect’s senses and stimulates his desire until he takes action… hmm, it sounds like there is a process going on here (see AIDAS above and “A Pair of Ears Beats a Pair of Eyes“).

Eliminating extra steps in the buying process improves conversion rates, and The Sharper Image even has a formula for displaying images on the home page. Madrigal explained: “The home page always includes the number-one best seller and a sales driver.” In simple English, Sharper Image is leading the prospect down a path of her choosing.

Another strategy Sharper Image uses to increase conversion rates is something called “dynamic browsing.” Dynamic browsing allows visitors to explore the online store and quickly scan an ever-changing selection of products. “Dynamic browsing is an effective merchandizing tool,” said Madrigal. “Just as in our stores or our catalog, products have characteristics that we would want displayed near to each other. We’ve tried hard to translate this to the Web effectively.” For example, in a clothing catalog you would see a whole outfit — not just all the shirts, then all the pants, then all the shoes, and so on. “Whenever dynamic browsing is activated, the product is displayed with three related products and others that have weighted attributes towards the product selected,” she said. Sure sounds like Sharper Image has some firm rules as to what works and what doesn’t.

Are you wondering why I chose The Sharper Image? Why not Certainly is applying scientific techniques to increase its conversion. What I wanted to illustrate, however, is this: The Sharper Image is applying scientific techniques that were developed well before the Internet became commercial. Should you go out and duplicate The Sharper Image’s Web site? No, like every Web site, it’s a work in progress — it needs continual improvement. And it’s optimized for its business, not yours. Also, the company hasn’t yet successfully translated to the Web everything it does so well in its stores and catalogs. But that’s the core of what the company is doing, and it’ll get there. The marketing folks know what direction to take because they know their consumers haven’t changed — only the medium has. What they do specifically has a lot to do with their products, services, and their powerful brand — all variables that may not apply in your situation. But the foundation, the “artful science,” for understanding how to improve conversion rates applies to us all. And I’m advocating that we all get back to the fundamentals. That’s where the results are.

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