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Stemming the Leaks Online

Amazon’s web site didn’t achieve the results it enjoys today through guesswork and a two-year design cycle. Live testing and iterative tweaking is the key to high conversion rates, says Mark Simpson, MD of Maxymiser

Aimlessly pumping funds into online customer acquisition is no longer a prudent strategy for business growth.

Almost every avenue has been exhausted now. As the cost of pay-per-click has continued to soar, other vehicles such as social networking have been exploited to cover every base and ensure a constant stream of new visitors.

In one end, out the other

At the same time, businesses have begun to wake up to the appalling leakage that is taking place as visitors move through their web pages. In the online retail sector, conversion rates (the rate at which visitors to a site progress right through to a purchase) average out at just 3–5%; in the travel industry it’s lower still at 1–3%. This means that, despite all of your best efforts to get them there, a staggering 97% of visitors to your web site are still not doing what you want them to do.

With an economic crisis threatening business and budgets, this is not the time to throw good money after bad. Given the scale of investment made in web site design and redesign, and in driving traffic to sites, the logical next priority must surely be to maximise the experience of those hard-won visitors so that they proceed to the checkout and complete the purchase.

Even more shocking than the overall drop-out of visitors to web sites is the rate of abandonment by those with full baskets. This can be as high as 70%. Even at 50% this would be scandalous, given that these are customers who have spent time on the web site, and selected goods that they are willing to buy. If the web experience fails the customer at this pivotal last stage, any investment made up to this point will have been for nothing.

Worse, the poor experience is likely to deter that customer from ever returning, propelling them instead into the arms of your nearest rival. This damage to your brand could linger too, leaving the disgruntled visitor with a negative perception of your company which they take with them to the high street and into their conversations with other shoppers.

The devil is in the detail

Organisations that have spent vast fortunes honing and tweaking their web sites may consider themselves immune to such horrors, yet it is often the smallest and least obvious details that make the difference between conversion and abandonment. When National Express experimented with its heading, strap-line and call-to-action buttons in the checkout process, it saw a double-digit uplift in conversion rates at the checkout. And when Jobsite split its single-page registration form into two pages, effectively introducing an extra stage to the registration process, it saw completions soar by 48%.

The need for such subtle modifications are unlikely to have come out of the traditional approach to web site redesign, involving closed-door meetings of a company’s key strategists and web designers. They came to light following live testing with actual web site visitors.

Removing the guesswork

In conversion maximisation, the real, live responses of customers are crucial. Even if visitors are polled for their opinions, this may not reflect the way they actually pass through a site. The only way to know for sure that they will respond as expected is to test different versions of a site in a live environment, so that real customer responses can be measured and responded to quickly.

Amazon has known this from the start, and has practised live, iterative site development from the beginning, continually testing and refining the messaging on its free delivery, secure payments and ‘go to checkout’ buttons, and perfecting the way it segments and targets its customers. At Amazon, conversion maximisation is embedded in the company culture.

Most other online businesses, by contrast, continue to rely on blind faith in their web development – following gut-feel, spurious ‘best practices’ or, at best, reactive feedback from small research samples. Alternatively, they may spend large sums of money on retrospective site activity analysis, which is then fed into a protracted redesign lifecycle (where the web site is completely, yet somewhat randomly, overhauled every couple of years).

Dynamic personalisation

In five years’ time, when the conversion maximisation market has matured, such practices will seem absurd. By then, weekly, monthly and quarterly updates based on real statistics will be the norm. Ultimately, it will be the visitors themselves who design the web sites, based on the live choices they make on your pages. A truly personalised web experience will be one based which offers customers web page layouts, sequences and content that have been dynamically put together based on that user’s demonstrated preferences.

As the cost-effectiveness and impact of acquisition marketing diminishes, a focus on conversion strategies makes sound business sense for online marketers.

Chasing 10% more traffic to your site will cost at least 10% in additional spending – only for 97% of that traffic to drop out without purchasing. By redirecting the same level of investment into improving your conversion performance, organisations stand to see far greater returns. The average uplift in conversion following regular testing and small iterative improvements has shown itself to be in the region of 34–35%, which could have a huge impact on the bottom line, no matter what size the business.

Keep what you’ve sown

In a market which is still relatively young, conversion maximisation is the next big opportunity as businesses seek to bolster their falling revenues and secure tangible returns for their online marketing budgets. And, as with any new opportunity, the biggest gains will belong to those who make the shift first.

These are frugal times when cost-justification reigns. Now is no time to leave the tap running when there are leaks in the bottom of your bucket. 2009 will be a year when online marketers are forced to reassess their budget allocations, so there is no better time to embark on a well thought-out conversion strategy. Take care of the leaks, and the bucket will runneth over…

About Maxymiser

Maxymiser Onsite Marketing enables organisations to manage their conversion metrics and increase the effectiveness of any website’s content and design to deliver key metrics such as sales and click through rates. Maxymiser gives clear statistical proof of what content and designs work most successfully in converting site visitors and those which fail to do so, enabling marketers to refine content and design to deliver increasing ROI. Maxymiser’s solutions include Content MVT for multivariate testing, Content Delta for advanced visitor segmentation and Content BT for onsite behavioural targeting. Founded in 2006, Maxymiser is the leading European provider of Onsite Marketing solutions, serving over 60 clients and partnering with many industry leading organisations.