Conversion Rate Optimisation (or optimization if you’re on the US side of the pond) is a complex and meticulous activity. In the relentless pursuit of marginal gains, CRO has taken centre-stage for startups and established brands alike.
It is at the forefront of data-led digital marketing, often combining creative skills with in-depth analysis, psychology, and behavioural tracking. According to a report by CXL, 55.5% of marketers plan to increase their CRO budget, and 68.5% aim to emphasise conversion optimisation as a priority. CRO is booming.
In this article, I’ll briefly touch on the emergence of CRO as a discipline, and proceed to offer some key methods for improving conversion rates. I will outline some of the key things to measure, list ways to plan CRO tests, and address some of the most common CRO myths and misconceptions. To wrap it up, I provide a comprehensive list of CRO tools and feature some real-world success stories.
The Emergence of CRO
Conversion Rate Optimisation isn’t new. In fact, it has arguably been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, even if no-one called it CRO until relatively recently.
According to Keith Lovgren, peddlers from long ago had great success encouraging people to stop and shop at their stalls by moving fruit to the front in place of turnips. And you’re probably familiar with the way supermarkets play around with layout and the placement of products when you find yourself aimlessly wandering and wondering where they’ve put the eggs this week.
Even the film industry optimised some of the best-loved movie endings, using test audiences to gauge reaction. If not for them, E.T. wouldn’t have made it home.
While the CRO we know today first emerged as a direct response to a very significant online event, the principles of testing, observing, and reacting remain the same.
A burst bubble
For those of you too young to remember the internet in the late 90s, it was a big deal. Selling online was relatively new, and very exciting. E-commerce grew rapidly, and like most fast-growing industries, it was only a matter of time before it all came tumbling down.
After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the e-commerce website owners who managed to salvage their businesses woke up to an increasingly competitive environment. In order to not only survive, but thrive, they had to find an edge on their competitors.
This resulted in the introduction of analysis tools, usability testing, and an understanding of user experience across the web. Website owners realised that in order to see a return on their investments, they had to develop marketing campaigns they could actually measure. With these analysis tools and an ever-evolving discipline of web design and development at their backs, marketers could tweak layouts, images, content, and offers, and observe which variation performed best.
A scientific art form
From 2007 onwards, CRO has become indispensable to digital marketers. Google introduced its Website Optimizer Tool (since replaced by Content Experiments in Analytics) - a free offering designed to help even the most inexperienced of website owners create a website that will add value to their visitors’ day. This helped level the playing field somewhat, as the tool could highlight issues in the HTML that might otherwise be overlooked.
Today, CRO has evolved into something of a scientific art form. Best practice CRO requires time, patience, and an understanding of data analysis; but it also demands an eye for detail and a creative mind. The margins for success when competing online have never been finer, and careful CRO can make all the difference.
A guide to best practice conversion rate optimisation
10 simple techniques to quickly enhance conversions
Your website shouldn’t be a “once-and-done” job. Rather, you should think of it as a living, breathing part of your business. It needs to grow as you grow, and evolve as design disciplines and trends change. And introducing Conversion Rate Optimisation can keeps your website effective and maximises return on marketing investment.
Optimising your website for conversions doesn’t need to cost the earth or involve months of work. In fact, by following these 10 simple best practices you should be able to experiment and measure the effectiveness of output with minimal fuss and risk.
Every website is different, and every business is different. What might work for one won’t necessarily work for another. This is why testing is so important, and should be part of an iterative methodology.
Simplify your contact form:
If you’re in the habit of collecting leads, investigate your contact form or landing page. Are you asking for too much information? Could you cut some unnecessary fields? Instead of asking for your prospect’s inside leg measurement, make sure you get only the key info; name and email address. You can gather more information when you follow up. By streamlining your form, your prospective customer’s data entry becomes less daunting, making them more likely to part with their email address.
Laura Moisei looked at this in her article for Unbounce. She analyses many different real-world lead gen forms and talks about minimising friction, using privacy policies, inserting a smart CAPTCHA, and more:
“Real and actionable conversions come if you fulfill two conditions: overcoming psychological obstacles + screening out the tire kickers. In other words, a pro conversion is all about getting a lead that has a genuine interest in your business and your product offering. As Mona Elesseily said, “collecting information from prospects with your form is a negotiation, a process of easing into a relationship – and not a sudden event.”
Experiment with your buttons:
You may have read elsewhere that it’s best practice to make your button a specific colour (often red or green), but the truth is the colour itself has little to do with improving conversions. It’s actually more impactful to understand how the colour contrasts with the design of your web page. Ideally, you want to draw the eye to the button and encourage action.
UX designer Luca Longo’s excellent in-depth post covers the psychology and power of colour and contrasts. And now that you’ve considered the impact of colour, start thinking about the words on your button. For starters, never ‘submit’; it has negative connotations, as if the user is “giving up” their information, rather than happily sharing it in exchange for something of value.
Make your button text action-orientated in order to let you visitors know what they can expect once they’ve clicked the button. For example, if you’re using a free resource as a lead magnet, don’t simply opt for “download” or the dreaded “submit” on the button. Consider something specific to the offer, such as “Send Me The Free Guide”.
Drop your sliders:
In what will become a recurring theme as I discuss the various CRO techniques and best practices, less is more.
By using an image carousel to communicate four or five different messages, it will often result in three or four of those messages being ignored or missed entirely. Conversion expert Peep Laja agrees in this comprehensive article, and recommends that sliders be replaced with one clear, static offer. This gives you the opportunity to split test your offers and measure which is more effective. Peep curates multiple studies and articles on sliders and carousels, also citing the work of Craig Kistler:
“In all the testing I have done, home page carousels are completely ineffective. For one, anything beyond the initial view has a huge decrease in visitor interaction. And two, the chances that the information being displayed in the carousel matches what the visitor is looking for is slim. So in that case the carousel becomes a very large banner that gets ignored. In test after test the first thing the visitor does when coming to a page with a large carousel is scroll right past it and start looking for triggers that will move them forward with their task.”
Enhance your imagery:
You know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Never has it been truer than when it comes to creating an effective website. We are very visual creatures, and we often skim content, but pay attention to images. And those images can influence the way we feel, and the decisions we make.
So, take the time to review your images, and ensure you’re using only high quality, high resolution photographs. What’s more, avoid stock photography at all costs. They’re easy to spot, and can appear phony. Try replacing stock images with photographs of real employees and observe if a genuine insight into your business makes it more relatable.
Consider the relevancy of your images. Every aspect of your web page should be geared towards encouraging your visitors to convert - if you’re using images simply to break up text, you’re doing it wrong. Choose images that complement the information on your page, and can communicate features and benefits at-a-glance. Instead of a simple product shot, show your product in action, i.e. the result of using it, rather than simply displaying it.
Test CTA placement and frequency:
There are fewer things more important on your web page than your CTA (call-to-action). It’s the hook that prompts visitors to part with their cash or information. But beyond the words you use, you need to consider placement on the page, and how often the form should appear.
Consider testing whether it’s more effective above the fold (the part of the page visible without scrolling) or at the bottom, once you’ve made your case with copy and visuals. Ensure you don’t overload your page with multiple CTAs. This can be confusing for your visitors, and can lead to analysis paralysis.
If your product or service can’t be adequately summed up by copy and images alone, introduce video to your website’s landing pages. This gives you the opportunity to show your offer in action and make an emotional connection with your prospect. This Kissmetrics article makes a compelling case; customers are 64-85% more likely to buy after watching a product video - conservative compared to some studies.
There are a number of options to use video to increase conversion, as outlined by Margot de Cunha in this Wordstream article, but one aspect to ensure is that your video is concise and snappy. Very few people take the time to watch a lengthy video, so ensure you communicate message efficiently.
Write a killer headline
There’s a reason great copywriters can charge what they do, and that’s because they can tap into emotion and encourage action by putting the right words into the right order. Therefore, getting your headline right can significantly move the needle when it comes to conversions. Try improving the clarity of your offer with different headlines, or bring focus to a particular benefit.
Neil Patel addresses this in his article, The Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Powerful Headlines. According to his formula, you can increase conversions significantly (he did by 40%) by using specific numbers and dates and inserting a unique rationale (a reason to read). Headlines must be unique, specific, convey urgency, and must be useful. With effective measurement and tracking (and A/B testing), you can identify which headlines drive most conversions and act accordingly.
Play with language and psychology:
Speaking of language, there’s one word that can grab the attention of your visitors and make them convert faster. And that word is “FREE”. By highlighting that there’s no risk attached to the conversion, you’re more likely to convince even the most cynical of prospect to part with their email address.
And as I’ve already mentioned there’s another psychological prompt to use in conjunction with “FREE” - urgency. By claiming that your FREE offer will expire in 24 hours, you’re giving your visitor a nudge to act now or miss out entirely. Try both “FREE” and urgency in isolation, but they do work very well together.
Add social proof:
Just as we’re visual creatures, we are also very social. And we value the opinions and input of people just like us when making a decision. You can use this to your advantage by including real testimonials on your web page. By asking the right questions you can produce great testimonials from existing customers that will essentially do the selling for you.
As an extension of the social proof concept, try including trustmarks on your webpage. This could include TrustPilot reviews or industry-specific certifications, the end goal being that you demonstrate a level of competence and authority. Ensure that these logos and badges are recognisable, otherwise they won’t achieve that goal of building trust between your brand/product and your audience.
With these 10 techniques, you have a foundation upon which to build an effective web page and increase leads or sales. In essence, best practice CRO is about increasing optimum relevance and urgency, improving clarity, minimising distractions (friction), and removing doubt. The marginal gains add up.
You are now ready to start implementing these ideas, and testing their impact.
Planning ideas for CRO tests
It was apparently Benjamin Franklin who said “if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail”. And that mantra could quite easily be applied to CRO.
You need a solid plan before you start testing variations of your website. Without a plan you’ll struggle to distinguish between the changes that are performing well and driving conversions, and the changes that do nothing - or make things worse.
In this post by VWO, it’s suggested that you adhere to the scientific method, which looks like this:
State the problem
Research the topic
Predict the outcome
Run an experiment
Record the results
Compare the prediction to the actual outcome
The tests you run come in at stage 4 of the scientific method, meaning you need to identify a problem with your website, undertake the necessary research, and propose a hypothesis (i.e. “If I change this headline, conversions will increase.”)
If you’re a little unsure as to where to start when planning CRO tests, I’ve outlined 5 simple ideas below.
Note: Many of these will require specialist CRO tools. I supply a useful list of tools and their payment plans towards the end of this article, so please keep reading.
Test your headlines
According to Copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people on average will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This just goes to show how difficult it can be to grab a prospect’s attention, and if you have a web page with an unusually high bounce rate, or that’s struggling for conversions, testing your headline could be a good place to start.
It’s quite often the very first thing a visitor sees when they arrive on a page, so you need to make sure it’s compelling enough to keep them interested.
Test your sales copy
Once you have a headline that’s keeping visitors engaged long enough to read on, you should consider testing your sales copy. Compare versions with differing lengths, formats, styles, and tones until you find the one that works best for you.
Test your colours
Another popular CRO test involves making minor changes to the colours of words, links, calls-to-action, and buttons. Doing so can help you draw your visitor to important information, encourage them to take specific actions, or even psychologically influence them due to the certain connotations associated with colours.
Take this example from HubSpot, which pitted a green button against a red button. You might think that green - with its connotations of “go” - would outperform the red (stop). However, red outperformed green by 21%. This just goes to show why it’s so important to run tests, and how effective a simple colour change can be with regards to boosting conversions.
Test your contact forms
To increase the likelihood of a visitor converting when on your website, you need to reduce friction. In this context, “friction” is anything that will prevent your visitor from moving along the sales funnel.
A contact form is a classic example of friction, and by experimenting with the number and order of fields, the type of information you’re requesting, and the placement of the form on the page, you can minimise drop-offs and increase form completions.
Test your CTAs
Finally, your call-to-action (CTA) is make-or-break when it comes to convincing a prospect to convert. All your hard work creating content, answering questions, and navigating users through your website will be for nothing if you fall short with your CTA.
Test multiple variations, with different colours, fonts, and copy to find the one that outperforms the rest.
The results of these 5 CRO tests can ultimately be combined to create a winning landing page. But you must plan carefully to avoid the common pitfalls associated with conversion rate optimisation.
Speaking of which…
The common misconceptions about CRO
With best practice outlined, and some ideas to plan and implement CRO tests shared, it’s important that you understand what CRO can and cannot achieve. Many business owners will look at CRO with suspicion as yet another expensive marketing acronym, while others want to believe it’s a magic silver bullet that will solve all sorts of business problems.
So, let me take this opportunity to highlight and clarify 5 of the most common misconceptions surrounding conversion rate optimisation.
CRO is simply implementing best practice ideas
I speak with so many business owners who believe that CRO is as simple as slapping together two or three best practice ideas and then hoping beyond hope that it yields positive results. But, as I mentioned earlier in the post, every website is different. Just because a best practice idea worked for one website doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for another.
The truth is, you need to use your data and your insights to inform the best CRO methods for your website. No amount of best practice changes will help you improve leads and sales if you don’t have the numbers to support making those changes.
CRO is just minor design changes
If you’ve read through the 10 best practice CRO techniques outlined earlier, you’ll know that there’s more to it than simply changing the colour of a button. But many people are still under the illusion that CRO means tweaking the design of a website until conversions increase.
The truth is, CRO is about so much more than aesthetics. In fact, here are just some of the elements that can impact conversions:
Trust / confidence
Hierarchy of information
The number of steps to conversion
Shorter copy is always more effective
You might think that by cutting down the amount of sales copy on your website, you’re saving your prospect time and therefore increasing the likelihood that they convert. However, one of the key purposes of copy is to answer questions, remove doubt, and increase confidence in your product or service.
The length of copy is almost inconsequential if it doesn’t help your visitor make an informed decision. By all means, try short and snappy sales copy - but always test it against the longer version. You might be surprised by which one converts best. Every situation is unique!
CRO doesn’t require any research
When you’ve worked in an industry for a long time, it can be hard to shake the belief that you know best. And many business owners can be blind to the fact that what they know to be true and what their customers actually want are often two different things entirely.
The truth is, a gut feeling alone just won’t cut it when it comes to CRO. It requires careful research and a data-driven approach to fully understand the behaviours of your prospective customers. CRO removes the guesswork and allows you to test your hypotheses free from any bias you may have with regards to your product or service.
CRO is a cure-all
If done right, conversion rate optimisation can solve some major business problems. However, as with many other marketing techniques, there can be no guarantees as to its effectiveness. Anyone telling you otherwise - claiming that CRO alone will increase leads and sales by X% - does not have the best interests of your business at heart.
The truth is, CRO should exist as part of a wider marketing strategy. It can help identify issues that are perhaps preventing prospects from converting, but without search engine optimisation (SEO), social media marketing, content marketing, and advertising, you won’t have the steady stream of visitors required to try and convert in the first place.
Experts have their say
I put the question of CRO misconceptions to my network, and received many passionate responses. Here are just a few of the most pertinent:
“It can be easy to focus too much on improving a site’s conversion rate when actually it’s getting the right type of conversion that is important. For example, using buzz words to encourage a certain action may result in a higher conversion rate but if that customer is then not taking the next desired step in the process the higher conversion rate becomes irrelevant. In terms of our website, attracting people to compare car insurance quotes is one thing, but if a certain percentage then don’t go on to become a customer, there is no value being gained. The more honest and open we are as a business as to how we can help, the higher overall value each conversion has.” - Michael Foote, Quote Goat
“A/B Testing isn't essential in order to "do" CRO. And you're not "doing" CRO just because you're running an A/B Test. Sure, pitting two pages against one another will reveal which performs best, but the reason you decided to test those variables has to come from somewhere real. Identifying pain points on your website, developing testable hypotheses, and coming up with testing schedules, should derive from rigorous research and understanding your audience. CRO isn't guessing what might work; it's careful, methodical, and based on real data. It's about knowing what your users prefer and why they prefer it.” - Libby Bearman, Browser Media
“Lots of marketers get tunnel vision when trying to increase conversion rates on a website. They look at the data from tools like HotJar and GA, and turn to AB tests which trial different design and functionality solutions to try and increase the percentage of people purchasing a product, or whatever the core goal is on that specific page. The problem with that is it’s a very short-term focus. It doesn’t take into account the broader experience of the user or the perception that user has of your brand. When you look at a specific webpage in isolation, you’re forgetting the journey that the user has taken to get to that point. Where have they come from, what do they already know about your brand or your offering, do they trust you, what do they expect from you and this experience, and perhaps most importantly - where do you see the relationship between your brand and this user going forwards?” - Aisha Kellaway, Scarlett Roo
Next, let’s take a look at the best CRO tools on the market.
The best CRO tools on the market today
CRO tools have an astonishing average ROI of 223%.
Optimising your conversion rate requires skill, know-how, and patience. And it’s a task made infinitely easier when you have the right tools for the job.
That’s why I’ve selected a number of leading tools - many of which are completely free - to help you with the various aspects of CRO. Using these, you’ll be able to conduct research, analyse data, and test theories in your quest to increase conversions and boost your business.
CRO Research Tools
SurveyMonkey (Free): Create a simple online survey with SurveyMonkey and gain a valuable insight into a customer’s experience with your brand, product, or website.
SurveyNerds (Free): SurveyNerds is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to online surveys, which means its powerful suite of features is still in beta, and completely free.
CRO Analytics Tools
Google Tag Manager (Free): Using Google Tag Manager, you can set events to track clicks, scroll depth, form and cart abandonment, and more within Google Analytics. You can then create goals related to these metrics to monitor progress and success.
Google Analytics – Experiments (Free): A huge part of CRO is experimentation, and thankfully you don’t need fancy software to run content experiments; you can do it from within Google Analytics. Test up to 10 variations of a landing page to discover which converts best.
Kissmetrics (From $500 per month): At the other end of the price scale, Kissmetrics focuses on the tracking of users rather than page views. This gives you the opportunity to follow a customer’s journey through your website, and identify any obstacles they might encounter.
Crazy Egg (From $9 per month): If you’ve ever wondered where on your website users click the most, then Crazy Egg is the tool for you. It tracks scrolls and clicks, and displays it as a very useful heatmap. You’ll be able to pinpoint areas for improvement at-a-glance.
CRO Testing Tools
Five Second Test (Free): This free tool gives users five seconds to review a screenshot of your website and then offer honest feedback. It’s particularly useful if you want to make sure your message is clear and your design is uncluttered.
Unbounce’s Dejargonator (Free): This Chrome extension from Unbounce identifies classic marketing jargon that might prove jarring to your target audience. Use it to clean up your messaging and avoid tired, cliched buzzwords.
Readable.io (Free): Readable.io shows you just how difficult your content is to read. If it’s too difficult, it might be preventing prospects from converting.
A/B Testing Tools
Visual Website Optimizer – Test Duration Calculator (Free): VWO’s Test Duration Calculator can help you decide the length of your A/B tests, providing you with enough data across a suitable testing range.
Optimizely (From $49 pay-as-you-go): This enterprise platform has an incredible suite of features geared towards detailed A/B tests for both websites and smartphone apps.
Unbounce (From $79 per month): Not only does Unbounce allow you to create quality landing pages, it also allows you to conduct simple A/B tests to enhance your conversion rates.
Website Testing Tools
Google Mobile-Friendly Test (Free): Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test is the ideal way to quickly check how a page on your website appears on mobile. This can help you identify any issues smartphone users might encounter while browsing your site.
Pingdom (Free): Speed is crucial to improving conversions. If a prospect has to wait too long for the site to load, chances are they’ll click back and go elsewhere. Pingdom analyses the page speed of your website, scores it out of 100, and highlights suggested improvements to make it load faster.
Real-world CRO case studies
The above tools certainly establish a starting point for your CRO. I’ve used many of these and seen remarkable results for clients. In this section, I’ll dig into one case study and highlight some external success stories that have been featured elsewhere on the web.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT: These stories are to highlight the impact of CRO in a real-world context, but are not designed to act as your yardstick. Simple changes only have huge effects when methodologically tested against thorough research. Another business might change an image and see huge improvements, whereas your recipe might involve any number of other ingredients. Each situation is specific and unique.
One high-impact CRO outcome is highlighted by my work with the app, DAD. We relied very heavily on data in a bid to maximise user growth, and implemented a number of tactics to optimise conversions.
The first issue was speed of testing. We needed to develop landing pages quickly and efficiently to enable faster testing across the board. In response, the team developed a bespoke WordPress landing page platform which allowed quick deployment of pre-tested code, traffic-weighting functionality (for A/B testing), detailed conversion reporting and custom tagging, and much more. This resulted in a 300% increase in marketing-driven experiments, and ultimately delivered a 15% increase in web conversions.
However, we recognised that 85% of in-app sessions weren’t resulting in a conversion goal being met, although analysis didn’t point to one root cause. Therefore, we implemented an SDK in both iOS and Android apps to identify the users who don’t convert and launch a proactive chat message to start a dialogue within the app. This was followed by an automated email, designed to reassure the user about DAD’s value. Communications were segmented according to whether users had previously completed a goal, and how many sessions they’d previously had within the app. These endeavours improved goal completions by 5%, and enabled further conversion optimisation thereafter. Proactive chat was also used by Intuit, in a much-publicised CRO win.
We also wanted to improve conversions from app registration to first usage (onboarding). For this, we worked on optimising the welcome email cycles. We identified that this needed improvement, and so A/B tested a short form email template versus a longer one. The longer version explained the service and emphasised reassurance messaging. The longer email outperformed the shorter template, resulting in 5.5% more users clicking through to launch the app, and 2.6% more to make their first call with DAD. Again, this opposes the common discourse that “shorter is better” - it very much depends on what the specific users need to nudge them into a conversion.
And now for a couple of stories from elsewhere. Lots more are featured in Kissmetrics' 100 Conversion Optimization Case Studies, which is worth a browse in order to comprehend the vastness of CRO tactics and their potential impact on website, landing page, or social ad.
Firstly, Highrise increased their signups by 102.5% by inserting an image of a human on their landing page, and cutting the length of content right down to a minimum. The full story of their testing procedure is available on the Signal vs. Noise blog, including information on how and why the team tested different people with different smiles and different testimonials. Their research not only concluded as to what works best, but also highlighted which variations didn’t actually matter in terms of conversions.
Secondly, let’s look at the role of content length in CRO. Sure, the common “best practice” is to be as concise and cutting as possible. Crazy Egg did the opposite a few years ago, according to this Koozai piece. Increasing the length of a landing page x20 resulted in 363% more signups, highlighting their audience’s wish to learn more about the product prior to registration. They have since changed their approach again, but this iteration certainly expedited the growth of a successful tool. This is yet another example of how CRO must be placed in the context of each business and its audience.
Finally, we have the issue of security. Concerns about security is a fundamental barrier to completing a purchase, and this can manifest in fear about data (or money) loss, product guarantees, and in general reliability queries. Oriental Furniture experienced a 7.6% increase in conversions after adding a BuySafe seal to their landing page, and in this example, the replacement of a generic globe image with a secure padlock yielded 2-3 times the conversions as prior. Again, this is about more than “finger in the air” tests - it’s the acute perception of what is preventing a specific audience from advancing further.
In a nutshell, it’s important to recognise the huge impact of small changes. But only 52% of businesses with landing pages test them to identify CRO opportunities. If the line between success and failure is narrow, CRO is critical to sustaining customer growth. CRO isn’t necessarily an activity which catalyses growth. Instead, it supports your sales and marketing activities, and maximises return on investment.
CRO isn’t about making a series of small changes and hoping for the best. It’s about testing iteratively, based on well-founded research. Testing should be done on the aspects which are most likely to make a difference - anything from copy language or volume, image size, CTA placement, or testimonials to button colour, value proposition, and page load time. Despite the inspirational stories, changing one image isn’t likely to be the revelation that acquires millions more customers for your business.
Conversion Rate Optimisation must form a solid part of your business growth toolkit, especially when you’re at the stage of rapid customer acquisition. You don’t want investors to doubt the potential of your growth due to a lack of conversion optimisation. It could be the difference between success and failure.