Today’s post is based on an article I wrote recently for SearchEngineWatch and it concerns a surprisingly common scenario in the conversion rate optimization business:
Someone in the company has a big marketing idea they want to test on the company website, or a strong hunch that a particular online merchandising strategy will pay big dividends; so they look for a person or product that can perform a test of this idea or hunch and, hopefully, make the company a lot of money.
However, that may not be the best way to approach testing. Why? Because you really need to know that the basic functions of your site–like making purchases if you are an online retailer, or making bookings if you are an online travel site–are performing reliably before you try something more ambitious.
Consider what happens if you draw a lot of new traffic to a site with a complex offer–like free expedited shipping on purchases over a certain amount for returning customers in certain states–but the basic conversion process has not been tested. This new traffic may result in more sales, but how will you know if the increase is as good as it could have been if the process of making purchases on your site has not been tested?
The Purchase Flow
This point was brought home to me when I was talking to a traditional brick and mortar retailer who also has a very successful online store. Last year the company started an aggressive program of testing and targeting. When I asked the person in charge of website marketing what they tested first, he said: “We started with the shopping cart.” When I asked why they started there, his answer–which I will paraphrase here–made a lot of sense:
“Unless the cart was optimized we wouldn’t be able to tell if any of the other tests were truly worth it; we’d never know to what extent a particular promotion or targeted offer was responsible for an increase in revenue versus the possibility that some people just managed to get through the purchase process better than others.”
From watching people in its brick and mortar stores this company had learned that even minor obstacles to the natural flow of browsing and buying can disrupt “the purchase flow.” This is a handy term to describe the entire process of buying, completion of which is the ultimate measure of conversion for a retail website. Reducing friction in the purchase flow, making sure item selection and the checkout process are quick and easy, can increase revenue per session and average order value as well as reduce cart abandonment rates.
For some good examples of tweaks to the purchase flow you might want to test, consider the online store of fashion retailer Aeropostale. When shoppers are browsing product selections a Quick Info button appears if they move their mouse over a product image. Clicking the button presents details of the product in a lightbox without taking the shopper to a separate page, removing one possible friction point. To further reduce friction, the lightbox provides a convenient “Add to Bag” button (Aeropostale’s hip alternative to “Add to Cart”).
When a shopper adds an item to their bag, they don’t have to go to the cart page, they can dismiss the lightbox and remain on the product selection page, ready to make another purchase. They know the item was added to the bag from a counter in the bag icon at the top of the screen. Hovering over that icon reveals the contents of the bag without the shopper having to leave the product selection page. All of which removes extra steps and friction from the buying process.
The idea of testing purchase flow techniques like this is to make sure it is easy for visitors to your site to take the actions you want them to take; for a retail site that means items to the cart and checking out. So you want to test the item selection process, the add to cart process, and the checkout process. You may also want to test the effect of reducing the number of steps in the checkout process. For example, what happens when you let customers check out directly from the cart page instead of having to click “Checkout” after reviewing their cart?
More Ambitious Tests
After you’ve tested your purchase flow and are satisfied that it is optimized, you’ll be ready to try more ambitious tests, confident that the results will reflect the effects of any new elements you introduce rather than the random influence of a hit-or-miss purchase process. Want to test the effect of a tiered shipping offer? Keen to target different brands to visitors from different states? Eager to announce “tax free shopping” on the home page for visitors from states where you don’t collect sales tax? If you have a tested conversion process in place you’re ready to go for it, and take your site to the next level of optimization.
For more about the different paths to site optimization and examples of different testing, targeting and merchandising strategies, check out our whitepaper on Sheplers, a company that rose 154 places in the 2011 Internet Retailer Top 500.