Podcast 1 – Improving Website Conversions

Philip Shaw: I’m very excited about today’s show. With me is Brian Massey, CEO of Conversion Scientist. I met Brian at Pubcon in Vegas last year. It’s a conference on all things relating to online success. He presented one of his favorite topics: conversions. I remember the session very clearly. It was a very packed room – people were on the floors, they were standing at the back. There was such a great energy in the room. Brian was in his trademark white lab coat, which I believe he wears all over the place, and afterwards a lot of people said it was one of the best sessions in the conference. So thanks so much for joining us, Brian.

Brian Massey: I’m glad to be here.

Philip: All the way from Austin, Texas. Perhaps you’d like to kick things off and just give us a bit of introduction on your background and your business.

Brian: Sure. Well, the name of my practice is Conversion Scientist and I have built myself as the Conversion Scientist. I’ve been doing this practice for about three years now and it comes from an odd collection of experiences, neuroses and interests from training as a computer scientist/computer programmer to being an entrepreneur and spending most of the last fifteen odd years as a sales and marketing person.

I began writing my own analytic software in 1990s because we didn’t have all the fabulous tools that we’ve got today. Between that, and just a general interest in the art of communication, I realised these things all came together and the true power was helping businesses improve their websites, not just from an aesthetics standpoint but these businesses need more leads and they need more sales. My goal is to have them stop looking at the website as a website and start looking at it as a resource for their visitors. So that was the next thing; that’s really where most of my focus is.

The primary thing right now for me is educating and that’s why I’m delighted to be on the podcast. Even among sophisticated marketers, conversion is still a new word, so the more people we can apprise of the value of conversion, the better it’s going to be for my practice – and the better it’s going to be for the web in general, both for businesses and for the poor visitors that have to go to these websites that currently aren’t solving their problems.

Philip: There’s been a lot of talk in the past year or two about conversion. It seems to be emerging as its own specialist field. Why do you think that is and why didn’t it exist five years ago?

Brian: That’s a good question. It’s emerging as its own specialty and it really should. Part of the problem is that we’re still recovering from the advertising agency oriented tactics of the broadcast era from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. Even today, the idea of marketing is that we craft a message and then we seed that into people’s minds so that they will be really manipulated into buying our product or interfacing with our companies. Of course, the internet offers a lot of back and forth, a lot more measurement, a lot more of the things that tip the scales in favor of the receivers of the messages. We are no longer in control of them. So I think it’s something that’s evolving.

The best converters on the planet right now are the people who have experience in direct mail. They know how to craft a sales letter that will get people to call, get people to send in the card and buy their product.
It’s not a new thing; it’s new to the web because we still see ourselves in the framework of that broadcast. I can reach a lot of people therefore it’s probably a lot like TV, and we know that that’s not the truth.

Philip: Absolutely. Perhaps you could bring it to life a little bit with—an example, the audience is primarily small and medium sized businesses. If we took an example like, maybe a law firm, how would they benefit? How would they begin to understand, to benefit from conversion optimisation or conversion science?

Brian: Anybody who studied marketing is going to say, “Yeah, duh.” No doubt about this but the answer is changing your focus from, “Hey we’re going to put up a website about our company” to “Let’s put up a website and find ways that we can use that to answer our prospect’s questions and maybe turn them into customers.” It starts with the customer. In fact the thing that I spend most of my time on is helping customers develop personas.
We organise what a business knows about its customers in terms of who the best visitors are, who the most profitable visitors are, who the easiest-to-close visitors are; whatever their business needs that would help them define the best customer or the best visitors, we define them and describe them in great detail.

This has a real power over what marketers traditionally use. Marketers are very fond of segmentation studies and demographics, but the example I like to use is that of a plumbing website. So I may say to folks that I really want to appeal to with my plumbing website are: a typical is female; she is 44 years old; she has a certain income; she lives in a certain zip code; she has a certain house size, certain family income. If she is interested in remodeling her bathroom, she’s going to come to my website with a different set of questions like: what do you do? How long have you done it? What is your experience? What are your references? Have you done anything like this for my friends, etc?

This is what we call a very methodical approach. So you would want to put up a website that is full of that sort of information, that would answer those questions, and maybe capture her email address so that you can continue to educate her on the fabulous value of your particular plumbing company.
Now, if she has a leak and it is ruining her wood floor, this same person, same demographic, same home, same zip code, is going to come in a very different mode. She really only needs two pieces of information. Number one, that you can be there in 15 minutes; number two, the doggone phone number.

So in design, if, for instance, we’re plumbers with a fleet of trucks roaming the city at all times and we really want those emergency plumbing opportunities, we would design a very different experience targeting those. And you can use those same websites to target both, but what you will miss if you stick with the demographics is the reason that they typed the search term or the url at that point and that is where so much of the power is.
So hopefully you can see where starting with the customer is not only smart marketing – because that’s the first thing we’re taught in marketing class – but on the web it really gives you power to craft content and experiences that are going to convert better than the competition.

Philip: That makes a lot of sense. Say, you’ve developed these four personas and they arrive at your site with the same keyword, how do you direct them or what leads them down a different path according to that different persona?

Brian: There are things that you can’t control as well as things you can, with your keywords and your search advertising. There is a way of laying out a page that puts things in certain places that appeal to the different modes of persuasion. I follow the prescription of the Eisenberg brothers in their book, ‘Waiting For Your Cat to Bark’ in terms of what they call Loads of Persuasion, but what we can think of as Decision Making Modes or what Tim Ash calls Cognitive Modes.
So jargon aside, you have somebody who is going to be coming in in a methodical mode – that is, they’re going to make decisions very slowly and very logically. They’re going to be interested in finding more information out about you. They tend to scroll the page.

Then there’s someone who’s coming in very spontaneously. They’re going to make decisions quickly and emotionally. They’re interested in action; typically as soon as they find something that solves their problem, they take action rather than spending a lot of time researching alternatives.
We can place what we call conversion beacons: the calls to action that bring people to pieces of information that they need or to a specific conversion site. It could be a form asking them to provide their email address in exchange for a white paper, for instance; or “add to cart”, another great conversion beacon. These are the signs that we place on the page where we’re waving our hands saying, “Hey, if you’re looking to buy something, come over here.

If you’re looking to answer this question about what kind of plumbing references we’ve got, come over here.” You place those on the page, the “spontaneous” and the “competitive” people who make decisions very quickly have to see something on the page immediately or they’re going to go off. People say you only have eight seconds to get someone’s attention on a web page. It’s these folks that you’re talking about; the spontaneous and the competitives who make decisions quickly and logically.

So you place those at the top and, especially if you’re targeting a spontaneous persona, you want to provide something to draw the eye. For the competitives you need, for instance, a headline at the top of the page which gives them a payoff. If you continue reading or continue on in the site, your problem will be solved or you’ll be better, you’ll look better or you’ll see the newest. Those are all competitive values.

On the other hand, for the methodicals, you’ll want to provide a lot of information so that the things below the fold are the things they will look for. The fourth quadrant are humanists; they make decisions slowly and emotionally and are very relationship oriented. So how you place these conversion beacons on the page determines how people will get into the site. Does that make sense?

Philip: That makes a lot of sense. So how do you know what quadrant your customers fall into?

Brian: The conversion analysis process I use does two things: number one, it’s an interview process in which we have someone from marketing, someone from sales, someone from customer support, ideally somebody from the executive team – a team leader, be it in marketing, would be a great choice there.
Anybody who holds the institutional knowledge of the customer, and interacts with them. Add to that any other segmentation studies that have been done, any analytics that are already in place on the existing site. We have an interview with all these folks in the same room and we build consensus around the most important visitors.

We will first target the most important visitor and, as I said, it could be the most profitable ones, the ones who close the easiest, the ones who have the longest lifetime value… Every business has some measure of who is important to them. For certain sites, it can be those who talk the most – those are the influencers.
We build consensus around who they are. What we’re really doing is organising what the business knows about their visitors and about their customers and their prospects into these personas. As I do that, it makes sense. We don’t want to force anything, but if it makes sense, I’d like to see a persona from each of the modes of persuasion or the decision-making modes that makes sense.

So if we end the session with four personas that everybody’s nodding, saying, “Yes, those are really the folks. If you get those guys, we win as a business,” and we can spread those to all four modes of persuasion, we know that we’ve probably covered the spectrum not of just the visitors but also those visitors that maybe don’t fit those personas but will consume the same content but just in a different way.
So it’s the conversion analysis interview and then I compose the profiles of the personas and add specific marketing strategies and recommendations that, I know from my experience as a marketer, are most likely to increase conversion rates.

Philip: Excellent. Can you give us an example of a small or medium size business you’ve worked with recently and outline the brief steps? Perhaps touch on the tools like Google Website Optimizer that you may use in the process and the results you achieved?

Brian: Actually I probably should go back. The issue is this: what we focus on with conversion analysis, conversion science, is building a great foundation for conversion. You can’t do landing page optimization until you have a landing page with some content that’s at least converting at some measurable level. So we really are talking about web and content strategy here. We don’t have the direct connection between “we did this test on this particular landing page”, “we changed the color of the button and we got a 100% increase in conversion rates”.

So it’s not directly that sort of thing but to give you an idea, there’s a company here in Austin that does online videos for high school students, home school students and college students in algebra and calculus and social studies and courses like that. They’ve been delivering them by video over the web for ten years. This is an online business with an option to purchase CDs.

We did a full conversion analysis. We sat down with all the people involved with the customer and we did a set of persona profiles and came up with four for them. As an example, there was an existing college student who was an overachiever and taking the courses so she makes sure she gets As. There was a returning student who had been enrolled in one of the courses through a college course and colleges do use these courses like textbooks. He was a returning user. He was a humanist, she was very competitive. We also got a new and a returning user, and then the other two proposals targeted the parents.

We had a home-schooling parent and a parent of a kid, again very competitive, wanted their son to excel. We ended up with everything but a spontaneous purchase. We had three of the four modes of decision-making modes and it became clear that, especially with two competitives in the mix, the products descriptions and conversion beacons that brought people in to look at the product descriptions had to be strong on the payoff. It wasn’t enough to say, “Here’s a course on Calculus,” we wanted to change some of the copy and the content to say, “This is how your kid excels. This is how your kid gets better. These are the competitive values of the personas we’re looking forward to.”

In the case of the competitive college student, they’re not looking for videos because they want to learn more about calculus, they want to get the A. The copy they would develop pervaded the website and it also pervaded their pay-per-click campaign. It was primarily done through Google so that the ads changed significantly. We’re no longer saying “learn calculus”, we’re saying “get that A in class”. We’re no longer saying “great resources for home schoolers”, we have messages like “give your kid an edge over public school”.
We went through that process and the next thing we did was help them with implementation. After we had the personas and the recommendations, we went as far as to wireframe some different layouts. We created a page that was designed more like a YouTube page. They’re selling video and, actually, we found that in the process when somebody sees these videos, they are very likely to buy. We proposed a landing page that looks more like a YouTube page in which the sample video is there, and information about the person who posted it, the instructor in this case, information about the class and some of that competitive copy.

All those things were put in place and then we started them on a regimen of testing. Now this is always very interesting because testing is really a cultural thing. There are a lot of marketers out there that say, “everybody is doing this split testing, we got to do split testing” and are running into walls. Walls from IT, walls from planning, all of those things. It’s a cultural change so be patient, is my advice.

We started doing that and they began doing some AB testing, the first couple of tests were less than ideal but we used a search engine company in Austin, and we were able to dial up the quality of the visitors. I won’t go into the detail of some of the discoveries we made there but suffice it to say I don’t do pay-per-click marketing and it is an interesting, organic world in there and there are a lot of surprises to be found out there if you are watching and measuring what you are doing.

We took them through the process the first couple of tests. We had recommended using YouTube and they have had some amazing success both through the higher quality traffic generated from their pay-per-click campaign and I was surprised about this, they took some of these techniques over to YouTube and are actually generating traffic from YouTube. Among conversion circles, it is generally assumed that good luck, if somebody is on YouTube viewing your video, they are going to stay in the YouTube world, there’s not a lot of incentive to get them over to the site, but they have really been able to change that.
So that’s really how understanding the visitors doing the personas increased the quality of their traffic, created new opportunities for them and they are pleased as punch with the increase in revenues that they have had since roughly last March when we really started putting all these things in place.

Philip: Great case study. If I play devil’s advocate for a second, one could say it just sounds like aspects of good web designing, good copywriting in the first place in terms of the processes around personas and that sort of thing. Is that essentially what we’re talking about or is it just that this actually what good web design is?

Brian: Philip, you can’t let the secrets out like that. You have to cloak this in strange vocabulary and stuff.
The bottom line – the way to win in conversion is to have great content, be a great communicator, anticipate your visitor’s needs and deliver them. So that is great for conversion, that is how I’ve chosen to position it but, yes, we are talking about good marketing. The reason I couldn’t go out and say, “I’m a web strategist, I’m going to show you how to be a better communicator,” is that conversion really is tapping on a nerve.

It means “our website is generating more business for us” as opposed to “this is a website that’s really doing a good job of communicating for us,” which you would measure by business and revenue. Counting in terms of conversion really does bring home the importance of being a good communicator.
I’m even on a bit of a rant in that I think businesses should stop marketing all together and start focusing on communicating because that is where they are going to kick their competitor’s butt. What I really want to do in my practice is deal with the companies that want to be the examples of their industry or their space, where they want to use the internet to dominate, to innovate, to communicate, to engage, to make their visitors delighted. It’s not easy.

It takes a certain amount of bravery. For now, I think, anticipating customers’ needs, delivering them in a way that they like – and there’s plenty of best practices, all the way from how you lay out your landing pages to what makes a good email campaign and keeps your visitors from reporting you as spam. All of those fall under the umbrella of conversion. Some more specifically than others.

Philip: If I had to answer my own question, I see this as two halves. Half of it is around best practice on web design, web copy, usability and all that sort of thing, but the whole conversion side of it, it is adding the second big trunk which is all around testing and measuring, and I think that’s what’s becoming really, really valuable, and what excites me so much about conversion is that you don’t just create a nice looking site and great copy and all that sort of stuff without actually measuring the success of it and then tweaking it and constantly changing, testing, measuring.

Brian: Exactly, it’s the art of science and despite the name of my company, I’m probably more on the art side of it. I’m a great complement to search engine companies that are driving quality traffic, and folks like Tim Ash who are really, really focused on landing page optimization. But Tim can’t come in until you’ve got something to start with. That’s what conversion science is about.

Philip: Absolutely. You obviously see a hell of a lot of websites and you’ve built up a lot of expertise around what makes a great landing page or a great home page. Maybe we can focus on the landing page, particularly regarding pay-per-click or Google Adwords. What do you think the key elements are, and what are the most common mistakes that you see a lot of companies make?

Brian: The most common mistake that I’ve seen is developing a landing page that doesn’t speak to the offer you put in your ad. We go out and we can create hundreds of ads on thousands of keywords and tens of ad groups or even hundreds of ad groups and we organise them together to a small set of landing pages so we’ve got ads that are offering maybe, for example, 20% discount coming to a page that’s talking about how great the product is.

That is a significant disconnect. If you say in your offer 20% discount or buy one get one free or counting specific feature or a specific kind of product in your catalog and you bring them to a page that doesn’t mention those things, it’s the experience of being lied to. Anyway, you’re not lying, you’re just not tying the knots up. I would say that is number one.
The second thing is there are certain indulgences that in the world of design, you can argue aid and communication. One of the greater culprits is the BAH (The Big Ass Header).

This is the big, flash header that is very common on websites. In test after test, it demonstratedly reduces conversion. So, if you’ve got one of these sites designed with a big header and maybe even if it is rotating in flash, talking about the features of your product, it is probably hurting your conversion significantly.
The other thing is I’m a big fan of well written copy. One of the best ways to get people below the fold is to start them into a story, provide a headline that grabs their attention, start them into copy that grabs their imagination and then get them down into the benefits of what you are offering. This is a page that is offering a white paper or this is a product page where you want them to click ‘add to cart’.

Play with long form/short form copy but really spend the time to make your copy, your headlines and even the links that are bringing them to the next step, remembering that you are communicating with a human being who is engaged by things that are different, that are unexpected, and having a little bit of confidence in that. Now that’s something that other specialists could take me to task for. When we’ve written copy on websites and gone long form, we had good results.

Philip: Yes, the debate continues about short versus long copy and I heard a great response the other day at a conference. People were getting quite passionate about it , and some audience members were saying they just hate the long copy version and someone’s answer was – “Just test it.”
Brian: Amen. That’s what it should always come down to. You know you’ve got a good one when they say, “here’s what the study says but this is something we should certainly test”. If you’ve got a methodical in the mix, long copy could be your saviour. They will read it and the bottom of the page of a long copy is a great place to restate your offer.
Philip: On the copy point of view, working with clients, I think paying for good copy is one of the most underrated areas and I see lots of clients that don’t see the need for it. A lot of the copy is written in-house, not by a specialist copywriter, and that’s one of the first things that recommend, paying for that expertise. It’s well worth it.

Brian: I agree.

Philip: For the people listening, is there something they can do themselves to improve conversion on their website? There are a lot of books out there, you mentioned Tim Ash and Brian Eisenberg’s books, that are very, very popular. You can see those on Amazon. Is there a lot they can do themselves? When do they need to bring in a specialist? What are your thoughts?

Brian: This is going to sound very self serving but I think it’s one of the reasons why an outside copywriter works well. The Eisenberg brothers like to say that it is difficult to read the label when you are inside the bottle.

Getting someone in early who will take a dispassionate look at your business, who will look at the analytics and hear what the team is saying and put that through a filter that is not about the history or having work there or the limitations or “I’m afraid IT is not going to let us do this” – all things that stop a good marketer – is an incredible value. It is a real advantage. Bringing someone in that is experienced in your industry is even better because they can usually steal ideas from some of your competitors who are people that are in complementary areas.

I would say in terms of copywriters, designers (designers, I’m a little bit more flexible with), web strategists or people who are helping you with best practices and certain web strategies like email… There are ten best practices in there. Search engine optimization: there are 45 mini disciplines in that space that a marketer who is responsible for general marketing just is not going to get up. Conversion is the same thing. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of learning curves. If you can buy months of learning these lessons yourself from somebody who has the experience, knows what they are doing and maybe even knows your industry. It’s a no brainer. You pay these folks $500 an hour and probably come out on top. Especially if they are shooting for the bottom line, increasing the bottom line.

That sounds very self-serving but my favourite part of this job is when the lightbulb goes on. So we go through the sales process and they say, “okay, we want you to come in,” we go through this interview process and within the first hour of that process, the lightbulb starts going on and they go, “Oh my gosh, I’m starting to see. We never thought about it that way. This is obvious but no one ever pointed it out.”
And it is just a beautiful, beautiful moment. Then when I come back and present the personas to them, they are like, “Oh my gosh, we now have a reason for spending the money here. We now know we don’t need to spend money over there.” It’s amazing and it is something they would never have come to internally no matter how much they read about conversion, personas, all of those things. So I am a big fan of it.

Philip: Superb. Brian you’ve covered a fantastic array of topics and the benefits that business owners can expect. That’s awesome. Thanks so much for your time.

Brian: Sure.

Philip: Where can people find you?

Brian: Everything flows through the Conversion Scientist. That’s my blog and it’s at theconversionscientist.com and that is scientist as in the person who does the science; everything goes there, where I’ll be doing presentations, where I’ll be speaking, publications. I give everything away for free and just to put a copy on what I just said, all marketers should strive to be better communicators and understand conversion so I’m not saying you shouldn’t be learning this yourself and reading those books; I’m saying that you are buying time essentially by bringing people in who have already digested all that stuff so, yes, please keep learning, please work on making your websites better, both from me when I’m looking to solve my problems and for your business who can really, at this point, you can have an incredible, competitive advantage.

Philip: Excellent. Thank you so much Brian.

Brian: Thank you.

By Philip Shaw