Be a converter

What’s the average site conversion rate for a typical merchant today? About 2.4%. That’s pretty depressing when you think about it.

So how do you help your conversion rate through managing your content and refining your site design? Most Web resources that give content advice are focused on blogs; specifically, what and how often you should publish. Those of us who use Websites strictly for sales and marketing are equally concerned with good content, but from a totally different angle — one that traditional content advice doesn’t properly address.

What’s more, much of the design advice out there seems contradictory. The key to enhancing your conversions through adjusting your design and content is not in thinking strictly about the technology or the mechanics of site layout, but in understanding the needs of your visitors. In that, there are many different elements to consider.

Persuasion architecture

Before you begin analyzing the effectiveness of your content, you need to understand your visitors’ frame of reference. Every visitor does things for specific reasons. These reasons translate into four distinct preferences that explain the how and why behind what people do.

Once you understand the four basic personality types — emotional, logical, fast-paced, and disciplined — you can build perspectives or snapshots that give you insight into how your customers might want to purchase your products. From there you can adjust your site design, content, and creatives.

Your visitors fall into certain profiles that give you a better understanding of who each group is and what their mode of behavior is going to be:

  • Fast-paced or spontaneous visitors: Hip, stylish, and fun-loving, these people look for impulse buys and in-style products and services.

  • Emotional visitors: These people think in terms of family and relationships, and will look for what everyone else is buying, or whatever will most help them be socially involved.

  • Logical visitors: This group wants to drill down into the details of your products or services and compare and contrast options.

  • Disciplined or competitive visitors: These folks know exactly what they want and are on your site only to get it in a quick, methodical, and straightforward way.

When you quantify your visitors to this degree and categorize them according to the archetypes listed above, it’s easy to see how designing your site and your content around just one of these types would be folly; you must address them all. And that’s the science of what bestselling author (and “chief persuasion architect” at Web marketing firm FutureNow) Bryan Eisenberg calls persuasion architecture. It asks you to take a closer look at who your customers are, what you want them to do on your site, and why the visitor should do what you want them to.

The next step is to use this understanding to bring together various disparate concepts and weave them into a cohesive strategy that takes into consideration the readability of your content; the usability and search engine visibility of your site; and your conversion and online sales initiatives.

Design for your four personality types

Some facets of designing for the above-mentioned personality types are pretty obvious. It would be easiest to design a separate site for each visitor type, but that’s not always the cheapest or most profitable route. More than likely, you’re going to try to design one Web store that does as much as it can to appeal to all four visitor archetypes.

To complicate matters further, you’re probably starting with a site that others in your company feel is successful and making money. Political challenges aside, here are some tips for improving your site’s appeal to each visitor group.

Spontaneous visitors are impulsive, so you need to have easy-to-find buttons for “add to cart,” “buy it now,” and “check out” functions. You should also have a persistent cart — one that is always updated with the latest changes and in the same place in your navigation — in at least two places on the screen so that the visitor doesn’t have to think about anything in order to immediately make a purchase.

For emotional-type visitors, evidence is paramount. According to Website conversion guru Amy Africa, one of the most overlooked aspects of good marketing Web design is evidence. In other words, you need proof that someone else was on the same page that your current visitor is on, and that he or she bought your product or service. There are many ways to accomplish this: An “ask the experts” section, polls, surveys, user reviews and, perhaps most important, pictures of people.

Logical types need the ability to browse. This means well-organized category pages, multiple refinement options for product listings, breadcrumb navigation, and a working back button. (Many cart systems and highly dynamic Websites have trouble with a Web browser’s back button.) Product comparison tools are also a big plus — vehicle manufacturer sites are a good example, as they frequently have comparison functions so that you can see each model side-by-side, stat-for-stat.

The highly disciplined visitor already knows what he wants, so get out of his way! Just as with spontaneous visitors, these people need a way to buy a product without any hassle. But they also need to be able to find the product right away, assuming they didn’t land on the correct page from an ad or search engine.

This is where your search function and product category navigation will prove its worth. Competitive visitors will be turned off by a high level of hassle in site navigation.

On the other hand, their primary purpose may be to comparison shop, which means that they need the final price, including hidden costs like tax and shipping, upfront.

Computer marketer and general merchant giant are both excellent examples of sites that list upfront shipping costs for typical shipping preferences. Even though some of their competitors offer lower prices, ease-of-use and brand loyalty (due to great customer service) trump the price in many instances.

Newegg in particular offers a shipping calculator for faster shipping — you type in your zip code and it tells you the costs and delivery times for a wide variety of shipping services for the products in your cart.

Analyze your site’s needs

Building on the above principles, here are some further tips for both content and design:

  • Multiple, well-written, perfectly designed entry pages. Having one entry page for all of your ads is not going to appeal properly to all personality types and ad creatives. You should have multiple pages, one for each specific ad, SERP listing, and target customer. How people find your site can say much about their personality.

  • Easy-to-use navigation. This is a given; everyone wants a site that is easy to read, use, and navigate. But what is easy for you or your designers to use may not be optimal for some — or even most — of your visitors. There is frequently a technological divide between the people who make or run Websites and the people who use them.

  • Search functionality. When you’re thinking about design, you should try to anticipate every visitor need. No matter how good you are at that, there will always be something you didn’t think of.

    For those occasions, you must have a working search function (and probably a site map as well) for people who can’t find the information they’re looking for strictly through site navigation. Remember, though, that visitors do not want to search; they want to find.

  • An advanced shopping cart system. This is another issue that Amy Africa frequently draws attention to; often one of the least visitor-friendly aspects of a site is its shopping cart system.

    Some common mistakes and shortcomings are time-limited shopping carts that erase selected items after a period of time, and carts that do not keep track of abandonments, confusing or nonsensical buttons and options. The inability to adjust item quantities or to remove items from the cart, the inability to save a cart for later purchase, browser incompatibility problems, and payment limitations are other gripes.

    Abandonments are particularly important; if you can find a shopping cart system that will keep abandoned items for a certain length of time, like does, you’re on the right track.

  • Test and analyze user behavior. The marketing pros at the Web consulting firm Rimm-Kaufmann Group cite testing and analysis as the best way to increase your site’s sales potential. If you don’t measure progress, you can’t determine success.

Likewise, if you don’t analyze your traffic patterns, you can’t make any significant adjustments. You must test visitor behavior by conducting real-world tests with sample visitors, and analyze your visitor traffic flow with intelligent metrics software that can show you how long each visitor stays on your site and what his or her path through your site is.

Use multiple tracking and analytics tools so that you can eliminate anomalies, service outages, and technological deficiencies. Your initial goal should be to determine the top exit pages; those are the ones that need the most work.

Adjust your tone

Let’s get away from Website design and into content. How can you change the words and pictures on your site to increase conversions?

  • Stop talking about yourself. Business content expert Gerry McGovern says that it might be hard for you to hear this, but customers care little about your company. Customers care about themselves, their loved ones and their community, and they tend to dislike sites that are organization-centric.

  • If any of your content — including your headings and page titles — begins with the name of your organization, then your site is too self-centered. There is little question in visitors’ minds of who your company is and you’ve already got your logo at the top and links in the footer that provide more company-specific information if people really want to know. So instead of talking about yourself, talk about benefits that your visitors can understand. Use second-person speech — you, your, yours.

  • Use unique pictures. It’s frustrating for Web consumers to look around for detailed product photos, only to find that every online retailer has the same low-res stock photograph of the product they’re interested in. If you can provide unique product photographs, you’re ahead of the game. If you can offer 360-degree Flash or video perspectives of your products, even better.

  • Fewer words, smaller paragraphs. On e-commerce sites, visitors don’t read so much as they scan. They won’t spend more than 8 seconds determining the worth or worthiness of a particular Web page, and they’re highly unlikely to scroll down below the fold (the fold is the point at which content is below the initially viewable portion of the screen).

    So when you’re writing content, stick to the important information, present it quickly, leave no room for mystery or ambiguity, and keep it all on one page.

  • Use the active voice. Active voice narrative is much stronger and more confident than passive voice. Don’t know the difference between the two? In this sentence I am using the active voice. In this sentence, the passive voice is used.

  • Make a clear offer. Give your readers a compelling value proposition that is relevant to their needs. Don’t get too flowery with your prose — just tell people what you’ve got and what it will do for them.

  • A call to action on every page. Every page on your site should invite visitors to do something — buy a product, download a whitepaper, sign up for a newsletter, or navigate deeper into the site. A page without an offer is a waste of time and an invitation for visitors to leave.

  • Personalize. The more you know about your customers, the better enabled you are to provide them with custom-tailored options, recommendations, and information. is a great example: If you’re signed in and you’ve bought products from Amazon in the past, the front page is custom-tailored with specific recommendations for you. Individual product pages are also customized to show you how quickly you can have something shipped to you, and to give you the ability to order with one click. Amazon makes it advantageous for visitors to stay logged in.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could boost your conversion rate? It’s like money in the bank. Until now, you may have been relying purely on technology and the skills of a Web designer to keep the customers coming in.

Technology is not a means to higher conversion rates; it is just a tool that must be properly managed, configured, and implemented in order to reach your goals. Just having a great CMS with an advanced shopping cart system is not enough — there are no “set it and forget it” solutions for improving your conversion rate.

This means that you’ll have to do a lot of thinking and research, and then you’ll probably have to redesign your site and rework your content a bit. But if the end result is more sales, isn’t it worth the effort?

Stephan Spencer is founder/president of natural search marketing firm Netconcepts and co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO, due out at the end of the year.