4 Must-Have Components of a Successful Conversion Optimization Program

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4 components of a conversion rate optimization program

Thinking about implementing a CRO program? That's easy. Building one that stands the test of time? That's a little harder. But don't let the logistics overwhelm you. When built on the proper foundation, your CRO program can be fruitful for years to come.

In my experience with companies large and small, there are certain attributes common among every successful CRO program. Let's take a look at those now.

1. A Way to Measure

A successful CRO program always has ways to measure success. Of course, the simplest measure of success is conversion rate; for many environments, this works well. But each business is different and has varying conversion points (often both online and offline).

The first step is to figure out what success means to you. What drives your business? Is it sales, subscriptions, memberships, leads, downloads, e-mail sign-ups or advertising and page views?

As a general guideline, here's a list of common site types and potential KPIs to track:

  • E-commerce websites: Conversion rates for e-commerce sites can be measured by the percent of visitors who start and finish the checkout process. Average conversion rates for most e-commerce websites are typically low-usually around 1 to 2 percent. A more advanced metric would be the profit per visitor (which accounts for both order size and the different margins of specific items).
  • Lead-generation websites: Conversion rates for lead-gen sites are usually calculated by the percent of visitors who begin and complete a lead generation form or process. Average conversion rates are often higher for lead-generation websites, since the commitment required is lower than for an e-commerce purchase. You could also take this metric a step further, by measuring the completion rate by "qualified leads" (which have been scrubbed and accepted by the sales team).
  • Media and publishing websites: These websites are usually centered on improving engagement with a goal to increase the average revenue per visitor, based on things like clicks on content and ads, page views, length of stay and return visit frequency. There are often tradeoffs among the different kinds of metrics and ways to monetize the site (CPM, CPA, run-of-network ads).
  • Blogs: Blogs usually have few tangible conversion actions and often rely on advertising revenue or lead generation as their main conversion goal. Others rely on engagement-related goals like number of comments per article, number of times a blog post is shared via social, return frequency or number of people subscribed to the blog feed.
  • Brand websites: Many large brands have sites solely to support and deepen their brand engagement. These websites often have few traditional conversions and provide product education, hoping to achieving visitor engagement or content sharing. Metrics might be as simple as the number of views on a goal page.
  • Review websites: These are sites like Yelp and Angie's List, and their goals are increasing the number of vendors or establishments reviewed and rated, as well as increasing the number of free and paid members.
  • Auction websites: Conversion goals for these sites include increasing the number of items listed and the number of active members who are selling or buying.
  • Educational and certification websites: Conversion actions for educational and training-type sites are usually measured by the percentage of visitors who signed up for online training.

Whatever type of site you have, the key criteria for defining conversion actions and KPIs is that they're measurable and have a clear value to the business.

2. The Support of Upper Management

You likely won't get far without top-down support. Here, diplomacy and persuasion are key to putting a conversion program in place. The ability to tie the CRO program to what matters to the company is what gets buy-in. 

Executives in your company care about financial impact. Take the time to dig up financial information that allows you to estimate the lifetime value of the conversion actions you're going to test. Use conservative estimates to make your business case stronger and more defensible.

Beyond buy-in, you have the delicate balance of keeping executives happy, as well as reaching your objectives for the duration of the program. This is where the ability to compromise is key.

Upper management can tend to get overzealous in their involvement in a conversion program. For example, their opinions about your site's audience may be strong, but not supported by data.

As a solution, instead of fighting their ideas, try to accommodate them by testing them along with your own. If their gut feelings are wrong, that will come out in the test data, and you can objectively show the impact (good or bad) of their ideas.

No matter how you get buy-in, just remember that a conversion program is likely one of the most financially promising marketing initiatives in your company. Once you do get the C-levels on board, you should have the political support to get the active cooperation of other team members.

3. An Alliance with IT

When you're testing things like checkout processes, forms and complicated multi-page flows, you're inevitably going to need the support of the information technology team. However, it could be like pulling teeth to get your project added to their queue of projects.

Most IT departments are extremely territorial about how and when changes happen on their site. That's because their mindset is different from marketers. IT tries to keep staff from sabotaging their systems and processes, and marketers don't always understand the level of effort that goes into their requests.

The best way to make friends with the programmers, developers and system administrators in your company is to arm yourself with all the information ahead of time, making sure you're following procedures and communicating clearly about exactly what's involved. Then, listen to what they have to say and be respectful of their limitations, too.

Like it or lump it, without the alliance of IT, you'll be very limited in your ability to take a conversion program higher than just tinkering with headlines and swapping out images. Do what it takes to integrate into their world, so you can get what you need in yours.

4. The Courage to Try

All successful CRO programs have one thing in common: they're based on decisions where failure is a real option. There's no doubt about it; during the course of your CRO program, you will inevitably fail - hopefully quickly and often. Those failures are often the very stepping stones that will get you to huge improvements in the longer-term.

As an evangelist for CRO, you have to be willing to take risks, even when you are concerned you could make things worse than they already are. Insecurities run high when making decisions about testing. Marketers often beat themselves up because they believe they're supposed to be the experts on which path is best. Worse yet, they fear the decisions they made for the website prior to testing will be scrutinized.

It all comes down to this: If you do nothing, you are virtually guaranteed to not improve your conversion rate. Ever. You must act to produce results.

Even if you don't have a good outcome on a particular project, you will learn something. On top of that, you'll build the excitement and psychological momentum needed for your CRO program to succeed long term.


This article originally appeared in Tim's ClickZ column October 3, 2013

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