Success in Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) can be viewed as the art of persuasion. For every conversion flow towards a website goal, the business is trying to influence the visitor to make a decision; without a decision, there can be no forward progress. Of course, the art is not just in triggering a decision. The real art is in triggering the right decision.
The first part of this part post looks at the background to the decision-making process and explains how to assess the way your site is currently pushing for decisions. The second half looks at some of the ways you can remove the pressure of choice and persuade more of your visitors to make a purchase.
Intro. The Fundamentals of Decision-Making.
To start to think about how to influence your visitors to take the desired actions, it is important to understand some fundamentals in the way we make decisions:
The default decision is always No.
Nope, nada, no thanks, not this time, not for me. It's pretty straightforward; for the vast majority of people (and therefore your visitors), their default answer will almost always be No. What this means is that in the absence of the right details, any exchange is likely to be turned down.
For example, imagine you visit an e-commerce website selling shoes. When you first land on the site, the first thing you see is a pop-up that immediately requires a decision to be made before you can proceed. The pop-up message states that if you want to enter the site and browse the products, you must first commit to buying at least one pair of shoes. No Thanks would be virtually everyone's response. We'd all leave, no one wants to say yes to something without being informed and it leads to a really important point.
1. The Fear of being wrong is stronger than the desire to be right.
A well-trodden theory from psychology suggests the dislike of being wrong is more powerful than the desire to be right. This adds extra weight to the first point, as the refusal to make any decision would be preferable to making a decision that turned out to be incorrect.
If no decision is made, it is impossible to be wrong.
Recognising that a strong influencer on your users is the fear of being wrong can, therefore, help to guide the way you go about driving decisions from them. The vast majority of websites do a reasonable job of extolling the virtues of their products loud and clear, but often the decision insurance factors are less well-advertised. So countering the argument of What if it’s the wrong colour/style/size… can be a very powerful decision-making aid.
2. Decisions are a trade that must be balanced.
The logical thought-process of decision-making is a bit like a balance of trade. For a transactional decision, the balance is made between the loss of money and the gain of a product and the perceived benefits of that product. For non-transactional decisions, however, the balance of trade can often be harder to visualise, but generally, the trade can be seen as a trade of time on behalf of the visitor.
Let’s take the example of the e-commerce shoe store again. This time, it's your store and in order to promote the site, you're running a number of PPC campaigns targeting key footwear-related terms. When a prospective visitor searches for one of those terms, the ads that you are running explain what you sell, and therefore you have provided them with the necessary information to get a click on your ad. That click costs the visitor nothing but a small amount of time, and therefore it is a fairly frivolous balance of trade.
Now compare that with an insurance price comparison website that you might use to find a great car insurance deal. Answering all of the questions to get a quote might take 20 minutes, but if your insurance costs you £2000 a year and the company’s advertising suggests you could save 10%, your balance of trade is essentially £10 per minute. And that might be worthwhile. But if your insurance only costs £200, that’s now a balance of only £1 per minute, which is distinctly less appealing.
3. The bell-curve of choice.
Everyone wants to feel like he or she are making their own decisions. As part of that feeling, usually you don’t want to believe there are external influences (particularly from a business we are considering transacting with!) that alter your decisions. This is borne out by the high proportion of consumers who claim not to be influenced by advertising, although correlations between advertising campaigns and sales might suggest otherwise! As such, visitors must feel as though they are being provided with multiple options in order to give them a sense of being in control of their decision-making.
On one side we have too little choice and on the other side of that equation is the paralysis of choice.
This is the concept of having so many different options that you cannot possibly decide which one is best at the same time.
And by having no reliable means of comparison, the outcome is generally a decision to quit. As discussed, decisions are a balance of trade, and having too many options (especially if they are not comparable to one another) upsets that balance. The desire is to make that most favourable balance of trade, but the paralysis of choice represents an inability to make a judgement on which is the most favourable option.
It is worth noting, however, that this graph can be impacted by the overall value of the balance of trade. For a decision where the input is minimal, there is a much-reduced impact from too little choice. As an example, if you are looking to buy a pencil for 50p, only having the choice between two pencils is unlikely to deter your decision to buy. On the other side of the coin, however, where the input is extremely large, there is a much-reduced impact from too much choice. In high-value purchases such as homes, cars or even holidays, only being able to view a small field of options is highly likely to decrease the propensity to purchase. In either case, it is worth understanding where your business would fit into this model and consider the options you present accordingly.
4. The Conversion Flow.
So we’ve covered some of the factors of decision-making that should be taken into account when looking to improve your conversions. Understanding the theories of decision-making isn’t the same as effectively applying that understanding to your website. When looking at making changes to driving decisions, the Conversion Flow Model offers a powerful means of contextualising those theories for your site.
The core principle of the Conversion Flow is to represent the steps that a visitor must take in order to achieve a specific goal. In the case of e-commerce sites, this is generally a sale, but the same model could be applied to lead generation, email newsletter sign-ups or free trial downloads. The important thing is that you understand what the goal is and the steps required to get there. For the majority of goals, the Conversion Flow is linear, and so would look something like this:
Where this model then becomes particularly useful for influencing visitors is when you recognise that each step along the Conversion Flow represents a decision (or series of decisions) made by a visitor. For example, the link to your site from another website or offline marketing collateral needs to drive the decision for a prospect to become a visitor. And the landing page they arrive on must drive the decision for that visitor to proceed to the next stage of the process.
The Conversion Flow Exercise:
To put this model into action for your website and start driving decisions from your visitors, draw out the Conversion Flow of your site. Then, beneath each of the pages, briefly describe the key decision (or decisions) that you need to drive from your visitors. For each decision you note, then make a list beneath that of all the factors that might influence that decision. Now look at your site itself and compare the list of decision-making factors with the content available at each step and you’ll have immediately identified where you might be coming up short. And once you know that, you’ll have a good shortlist of targets to improve your conversion rate.
Sign-posting is just an industry term meaning let people know what’s going to happen when they [insert action]. And while that may sound obvious, it is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of influencing decision-making.
The first fundamental of decision-making is that almost every person’s default answer is No; in the absence of the right information, your visitors will decline to do anything. So where does sign-posting come into this?
Consider an everyday situation; a friend you haven’t seen in some time gets in touch and says that they’d love to meet up for a drink after work and catch up. That sounds like an attractive offer to you in principle, but of course, you need to get more details in order to make a reasoned decision. So you ask what date, what time and what location; your friend then declines to provide this information and just repeatedly asks you if you’re going to meet them or not. This is, of course, a catch-up that will never happen - in the absence of essential information, you would not be able to make a decision and therefore not meet up.
Now that may sound like an extreme example, but if you shift the context to the dialogue between a website and a visitor, it actually isn’t as outlandish as it first appears:
A well-targeted ad pops up while you’re browsing Facebook and says it’d love to show you how you could buy a pair of designer shoes for half the RRP. That sounds like an attractive offer in principle once again, but of course, you need more details in order to make a reasoned decision. So you click on the ad and land on the website for those designer shoes. But you quickly notice that the CTAs just have icons that you don’t understand, so you don’t know what’ll happen when you click on them. There’s no progress bar in the checkout process so you’ve no idea how long it is. Once you’ve managed to find the returns policy, you couldn’t work out how to get back to the Basket page. And to top it all off, when you go to close the browser tab, a pop-up appears asking you if you still want to buy those shoes.
If you want to effectively drive positive decisions from your visitors, make sure they understand what will happen with each decision they take. A lack of surprises will build their confidence in the decisions that they are making and by the time they reach the final decision to submit their payment details, it’ll be an easy sell.
6. Social Proof
Social proof is one of the most commonly-utilised methods of influencing decision-making, but also one of the least understood.
Social proof is about providing a third-party context to your products or services.
So instead of your brand speaking about the quality of its products, that opinion comes from an external source. But understanding the effect of social proof on the fundamentals of decision-making is vital to making the best use of it.
We established that the fear of making an incorrect decision is a stronger driver than the desire to make a correct decision. As such, to effectively drive decisions, it could be claimed that it is more important to allay fears than it is to promote benefits. And it is to this fear of blame, this fear of responsibility, that social proof should be used.
Social proof comes in two different varieties; expert & democratic.
Expert social proof utilises the name or logo of a well-known and respected industry commentator to confer their credibility to your product. A common example of this is on movie posters where they show the star ratings from popular industry magazines such as Empire or TotalFilm.
Democratic social proof, on the other hand, represents the opinion of the masses, the people like you and has even become an entire business model for some companies, most notably TripAdvisor.
How does this link back to the fear of a wrong decision? Well, think about the consequences of that decision; assuming that any financial impact is immaterial at this stage, the person making the decision doesn’t want to be blamed for it if it goes wrong. With blame comes distrust, and with distrust comes isolation and everything primeval about the human condition requires interaction with other humans. To avoid taking the blame, we assign responsibility for the purchase to either the experts who spoke positively about the product or to the people like us who gave it good reviews. Problem solved.
So when positioning your social proof whether at a business-wide level or a product/service level, think first about how it can reassign blame if necessary. And that should help to assume the responsibility for the decision on behalf of your visitors, leaving them carefree and loose with cash!
7. Price Comparison
Like social proof, price comparison offers another means to alleviating the fear of wrong and in this case, more specifically the fear of missing out. Again, similar to social proof, large industries have built up around this concept (think MoneySuperMarket, comparethemarket.com, etc.), such is its power over the way we make decisions.
The first thing to note with price comparison in influencing decisions is that it has to fit with the way your business competes with others. If you don’t compete on price, then this may not be an effective tool for you; for price comparison to be effective, it requires your visitors to be price elastic, meaning that a change in price has a significant effect on demand.
Next, your business must be in a market with vanilla products; this tends to come hand in hand with price elasticity anyway, as the greater the number of viable substitute products, the greater the price elasticity tends to be. In order to utilise the power of price comparison, the prices you are comparing must be for genuinely equivalent products.
Finally, you must be ready to put in the leg-work to make the comparisons accurate and state when they were last updated clearly. This will not only give your visitors confidence in your comparison, but it will also help you to avoid getting any complaints from your competitors through a regulatory body!
But why do all of this in the first place? Because a price-elastic market means that price is a principle decision-making factor; because the products are genuine substitutes, why pay more if you don’t have to? This means that visitors are likely to go to one or more of your competitors to check out their pricing too, and you may never see them again - once they’re on your site, you need to keep them there as much as possible. So by taking the responsibility for comparing the prices for them (and assuming you are cheapest of course!), you are pulling hard on the fear of wrong lever and removing one of the biggest decision-making barriers in the business.
8. Unique Selling Points (USPs)
Now we all know that USPs are rarely ever unique these days, but the TLA has just stuck, so we all use it! But despite the general lack of uniqueness, USPs can still be an effective means of driving positive decisions. And where they are often most effective is when they are used to influence the balance of trade.
As discussed in Pt.1, the logical thought-process of decision-making can be seen as a balance of trade. And in non-financial decisions, this is a balance struck between a visitor’s time and their perceived value of the action in question; and that action will only take place if the perceived value is higher or equal to the time/effort involved in undertaking it.
Where USPs come in is that they can help a visitor to feel that the perceived value of transacting with your business is actually greater than they first anticipated. A common example of a USP could be free delivery, or next-day delivery, both of which could help to raise that perceived value in a visitor’s mind. And if you can raise that value, you’ve essentially bought yourself a little more time to convince that visitor to complete their transaction with you.
The emphasis on information security in the decision-making process is well-founded. But as with other factors that we’ve looked at, the importance is in understanding the underlying decision-making fundamental that makes it so vital.
As we asserted in Pt.1, the vast majority of human beings have a default answer of unique; if they don’t feel like they have the information necessary to make a reasoned judgement, they will decline to proceed. Accepting this means that you should stop believing that every visitor who comes to your site is looking for a reason to buy, and start thinking that every visitor who comes to your site is looking for a reason not to! And this is particularly important when security is involved.
Concerns about the security of a website are almost always a show-stopper. At the smallest sign of questionable security, the tab gets closed, and an alternative is sought. And the biggest mistake made is to assume that security messaging is something that is only important when a visitor reaches the stage of their journey where they need to input information.
The narrative of we’re safe & secure need only be a secondary one throughout the site, but it should be there. Remember that visitors are looking for a reason not to buy and that security is the ultimate reason not to do so, and weave little nuggets about how you protect your customers’ data throughout the purchase process. Visitors will pick up on them, even if only subconsciously, and by the time they reach a data entry point, they will be feeling the reassuring glow of safety.
10. Triggered Discounting
Our final instrument of decision-driving is the triggered discount, and it is particularly powerful because it leans hard on two of fundamentals we covered in Pt.1. At its most basic level, a triggered discount offers a financial incentive to a visitor if they complete their transaction. Often they are used when a visitor looks like they are about to deviate from the usual purchase path, such as showing intent to leave the site.
As with some of our other techniques, entire businesses such as Yieldify have been built on the principle of triggered discounting and at the centre of its success are two of the fundamentals of decision-making; the balance of trade & the fear of missing out.
If you assume that a visitor was making a negative step prior to the triggering of the discount, the next assumption has to be that they felt that the overall balance of trade was not in their favour. However, by offering to reduce the basket value by 10% for example, the visitor may now feel that the balance has now been tipped in their favour. And as long as security wasn’t their overriding concern, there is a strong possibility that the visitor will continue.
And if the balance of trade wasn’t enough on its own, triggered discounting also plays on the fear of missing out. When used most effectively, the discounts are only valid if a visitor completes the transaction within the same session. This means that a visitor who may have been about to abandon their basket is now faced with a refreshed balance of trade and a limited-time financial incentive that they cannot help but feel like it shouldn’t be passed up.
Driving effective, positive decisions from your visitors can be achieved by applying the techniques above, but to separate yourself from the crowd, you need to consider the fundamentals of decision-making that underpin them. In the same way that a cape and Y-fronts don’t make you Superman, some 4-star reviews and a couple of padlock icons won’t make you a conversion rate guru. Accepting that your job is to drive decisions, understanding that the core components of decision-making will help you to drive them, and applying the techniques above through the lens of those fundamentals just might.