- 02/24/2014


Conversion Optimization: How to Understand the Psychology of a Customer

Peter Borden is a strategist, technologist, growth hacker, and full-stack marketer, with over 15 years of experience building marketing and sales infrastructure.

He’s currently helping SumAll with growth hacking, user acquisition, and e-mail marketing among other things. This is part two of our three part series on customer acquisition and optimization – read part one if haven’t yet here.

Can you give a brief overview of what conversion optimization is?

Once your website’s starts to get traffic, you need to figure out what action you want your visitors to take. Conversion optimization is the process of setting goals for the visitors who reach your site, and then making little changes that increase the likelihood those goals are completed. For example, a goal could be someone signing up for your e-mail list or adding an item to their cart and checking out.

Could you give some examples of ways you can optimize conversion?

There’s a couple of things you can do. A lot of people don’t necessarily think to collect e-mail addresses, especially if what they’re selling is a physical product like clothes. Their mindset is that they want someone to buy what they’re selling, so collecting an e-mail address isn’t going to be on most people’s radars. But at the end of the day, you want to get people into the funnel however you can, and getting someone’s e-mail is often far easier than getting them to buy a couple hundred dollar piece of clothing.

Conversion optimization is often synonymous with website testing. I’ll use a product like Optimizely (if you’re a small company) or Monetate (if you’re a larger organization) and will split-test different variations.  For example, the classic test people always talk about when it comes to website testing is changing the button color of the main call to actions. You’ll show one button color to 50% of the population that visits and another button color to the other 50%. Obviously this will get a lot more complex as you do more complicated tests – like testing returning visitors vs. new visitors or just targeting people living in specific geographic locations – but at it’s most basic, this is how conversion optimization starts.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using the different acquisition channels?

If you visualize the channels on a funnel, collecting an e-mail address or signing up for a newsletter is very early on in, buying a product would be a little later, and then doing an upsell or cross-sell is often after that. Most of the time, I see people not utilizing those early or later pieces of the funnel effectively. It happens all the time with e-commerce stores: They’re putting out great content in their newsletter but they’re not making it easy to sign up for their e-mail list.

“Most of the time, I see people not utilizing those early or later pieces of the funnel effectively.”

That’s why, in the past, one of the first things I’ll suggest implementing are either a lightbox or a top banner that captures an e-mail address. But lightboxes are slightly more effective if you have a typical e-commerce product, so for SaaS products, it depends tremendously on how much friction there is. With a product like SumAll, there isn’t a lot of friction to signing up because visitors can sign up for free.

Can you give some examples of what you would test on a website?

Whenever I look at a website, I’m looking for a couple different things. I’m looking for ways in which I can reduce friction by offering reassurances. If someone is clicking on a button that says “sign up” and the product is free, you probably want to call attention to that by changing the button test to “get started for free.” If someone is checking out of a shopping cart, I look for ways to let them know their credit card information is safe. If they’re giving us their e-mail, reassure them you won’t sell their address or SPAM them.

So a lot of it is mainly copy changes?

Actually, it’s both about both copy and design. Remember, part of what you’re doing here is increasing clarity, minimizing distraction, reassuring people, etc., and that can be accomplished either through the graphics on the site, or the copy. Common tricks that go beyond copy include moving the top navigation menu down to the bottom of the site, for example. That little trick will generally bump up conversion by at least 5%, and double it in some rare cases.

Why do you think moving the navigation bar increases conversion? Is it because people get bored and like to click around?

People don’t care about what you’re selling unless they’ve purchased from you in the past or have an established relationship with you. It takes effort to get used to a new layout every time you land on a site you haven’t seen before. People don’t have a lot of time. They’re confused. Uninterested. And, really, you need to be absolutely clear about what you want them to do, without presenting too many options. At the end, all of this stuff is about human psychology and, ultimately, being persuasive.

Another website change that’s popular is altering the button color. Changing your button to orange or yellow, assuming your site isn’t already orange and yellow, tends to work really well. The reason for this is, one, because they’re bright, grab attention, and usually stand in contrast to the rest of the site. The other reason is that everyone is familiar with shopping on Amazon and eBay and, for whatever reason, Amazon’s buttons are orange. Those major e-commerce sites have set the visual language for people, making it the norm, so mimicking that is helpful.

In terms of just removing the top navigation from your website, you still need to have your homepage be clear and concise about what you’re offering, right?

This is true of any tool and technique related to persuasion or influence. There’s a light side and a dark side with some of these techniques verging on manipulation of the user. These dark UI patterns tend to frustrate users quite a lot. For example if you go to website like GoDaddy, when you’re checking out they will pull a lot of stunts to try to trick you into adding things onto your order. They will rearrange some of the buttons, put arrows by things, and purposefully confuse you so you make a mistake. There are other tricks that people often find incredibly obnoxious like lightboxes or landing pages with no navigation. But as obnoxious as they are, at the end of the day a lot of them work quite well. It’s always a balancing act.

Do lightboxes actually work well?

They don’t provide a huge bump, but often it’s in the 1-2% conversion range. I’ve found it works better on e-commerce sites. You can offer to give them deals on products, get alerted about sales, and other offerings. And, it’s usually not just about the lightbox, but is about the fact that they’ve started asking for someone’s e-mail in the first place. You’d be amazed how many sites overlook that fact.

But that’s e-commerce. For a site like SumAll, it doesn’t make as much sense. If you need a good example of what a SaaS homepage should be, take a look at Dropbox.

Another key component of conversion optimization is what’s called “scent”: Scent is a term coined by Bryan Eisenberg, which is the idea that people have a certain expectation when clicking through from an ad. They’re searching for something. Trying to find meaning. Following a scent like a beagle would follow a trail. And one of the chief ways people lose a visitor, and hurt their conversion, is if their ad creative and copy don’t match the page of the site that ad directs them to.

We’ve talked about implementing lightboxes into your website, removing the top navigation bar, and changing button colors, are there any other optimization tricks you’d like to share?

“The first thing I’d suggest is to view conversion optimization not as a series of little tricks, but as a more whole form process of understanding your customer’s psychology.”

The first thing I’d suggest is to view conversion optimization not as a series of little tricks, but as a more whole form process of understanding your customer’s psychology.

So, really, anything that makes a user’s experience more seamless and easy will be helpful. We’re all busy, after all, and there’s only so much time in the day. In certain contexts, trust seals and verification from 3rd party providers that you have secure data can be huge. Product badging is incredibly effective if you have a collection of products on your website and you want to highlight and sell a certain product more than others. Putting a little sticker visually on the product that says “staff pick” or “just for you” is very helpful.

Increasing the contrast on your site is also helpful. If your site is colorful, you don’t want all those colors to conflict with the call to action. Making sure the typography is clean and easily readable even by people who don’t have the best eyes is huge, especially if you’re audience isn’t necessarily young and bright-eyed.

Another thing I see, something that’s absolutely insufferable, is SaaS companies speaking in a way that’s very heavy on jargon. Lots of software products out there are so new and cutting edge that the marketing department or C-Suite thinks they need to “define their space.” But you should never be defining your space. Your customers should. Listen to them. Speak in their language. And keep that language simple and understandable.

For example, not too long ago, I was working with with one of the largest bartending schools in the northeast that was trying to launch an online presence. They didn’t think of themselves as a bartending school but as a mixology school. All of their copy was “become a better mixologist” or “learn mixology” and conversions on their pages were awful. So, I asked them “who normally takes your courses?” “Oh, it’s usually first time bartending school students, or college students who are looking to make a little extra money.” So, we changed the main headline copy from “become a better mixologist” to “make 400 to 800 dollars week by becoming a bartender.” Conversion went up 450%.

You need to speak in language people can understand. I really, can’t emphasize this enough. That said, I understand how difficult it can be for people. For example, I was educated at the University of Chicago, which is hyper intellectual. And, in the Ivory Tower, you’re expected to speak in long, multisyllabic words to demonstrate your intelligence. It’s insufferable, really. When I first got into marketing and sales, I spent many days around non-academic people, dropping all my bad habits and getting back to the basics of simple, clear language. So no matter what you do in terms of copy or design, strive for simplicity and clarity. It all starts there.