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The 5 Rings Of Conversion Optimization
Conversion optimization is bigger than your web site.
From blogs and landing pages, to official outlets on social media sites, marketers now manage a large extended web that thrives beyond the borders of the traditional web site. Great conversion optimization must leverage the dynamics of each layer—and coordinate the interaction between them.
The extended web solar system
There are five rings of your web presence under your direct control:
- Core web: Online applications
- Inner web: Your traditional, navigable web site
- Outer web: Landing pages, blogs, microsites
- Social web: Outposts on social media sites
- Advertising networks: Paid media on other sites
Picture this as a kind of solar system, with your inner web and core applications as the gravitational center:
Of course, there’s much more about you out on the web—what others say, organic search results, affiliate initiatives, etc. But you can’t control those directly. So for managing conversion optimization, let’s focus on what you can systematically test and measure.
The core web: Applications with general appeal
At the core of your web site are any applications that are tied to your business operations. For instance, with e-commerce, the heart of your business is your store, your shopping cart and your check-out. Marketers doing lead generation may have other applications, such as subscription services or demo environments.
These are fundamental to your success and you certainly should test them.
Applications are usually optimized for general appeal—you want them to work well for everyone. You’re looking for the common denominators of your entire customer population. They also tend to be deeper in the conversion funnel, so you want them to be compatible with a wide range of messages earlier in a user’s experience.
However, applications can be difficult to optimize because meaningful tests usually require changes to functionality. For example, does your check-out work better with separate pages for shipping and billing, or with both on one page? You may need engineers to build these tests, and you have to be careful about technical issues and coordination with customer service.
The good news is that once you’ve optimized an application, you probably won’t need to revisit it for a while.
The inner web: A stable, global reference
Orbiting your applications is your inner web—still part of your traditional site, but content rather than applications. It’s therefore easier to test, using page tagging tools like Google Website Optimizer.
However, the organization of your pages and the navigation between them are generally fixed by your site’s information architecture. This may constrain you to testing elements within existing pages, rather than experimenting with multi-step flows or brand new content.
As with applications, you’re optimizing for your overall audience—so be sure your samples are representative and statistically significant.
You also have to be respectful of users’ expectations that your navigable web site is a stable, global reference. If they visit multiple times on different devices, or if they invite colleagues to review the site, they want to find the same content in the same place. Testing substantially different versions of pages can spook them—and make them wonder about which alternatives they haven’t seen.
There are two exceptions. You can try creative alternatives of your home page, as people are used to that being more promotional than informational. You can also experiment more aggressively with ancillary content, such as banners or cross-sells on the edges of pages.
The outer web: The conversion belt
Outside the main navigation of your site—or loosely coupled with it—blossoms an outer web of landing pages, microsites, conversion paths, blogs, mobile apps, and more.
For many marketers, these satellites grow ad hoc, out of necessity for web experiences that don’t fit in the rigid constraints of the inner web. Outer web pages are deployed quickly—with minimal dependencies, committee meetings or IT involvement. They’re aimed at particular niches, not your global audience. They might even run on different domains or subdomains.
The outer web is where the best practices of landing page optimization and post-click marketing shine. Users have more flexible expectations on landing pages, especially when responding to specific, targeted offers. You can engage in full-scale A/B testing of different layouts, content presentations, multi-step flows, calls to action, and behavioral segmentation choices—almost anything you can imagine.
Testing here is less about varying elements in existing pages and more about proactively creating new pages, each laser focused on a dedicated mission. Think dozens—or even hundreds—of long tail landing pages.
In the past couple of years, there’s been an explosion of outer web activity. I’ve nicknamed this ring the “conversion belt” due to the profusion of conversion optimization tactics that people are developing here.
It no longer has to be ad hoc either. By adopting agile marketing principles—and optionally using software designed for this purpose—you can cohesively manage this frontier. (Disclosure: my company is one of many that makes such software.)
The social web and advertising networks
But conversion optimization begins out in the social web and with your online advertising.
This is where the wide mouth of your conversion funnel takes shape. You catch someone’s attention with a brief message in a context that they find relevant. They click—and then expect that promise to be fulfilled.
If they liked a sip of your milk, they want to check out your cow. If that click instead leads them to chickens or horses or ducks, not a cow in sight, it doesn’t matter how good your duck-centric conversion optimization is—you’ve lost them.
The boon and bane of these perimeter rings is how easy it is to push new messages into them. This enables tremendous experimentation. But if the post-click follow-through isn’t coordinated, all you’ve done is waste a click and ding your brand.
The first step of great conversion optimization is taking control of these advertising and social vehicles and synchronizing them with your outer and inner web. You don’t need a one-to-one match—a separate landing page for every single ad—but you want to make sure that the two are harmonious at every connection point.
Note that your social web outposts—Facebook fan pages, YouTube channels, official Twitter accounts, etc.—often appear later in the funnel too. As someone gets to know you and explores more of your social presence, you want to corroborate (or at least not contradict) the original message by which you hooked them. Particularly on long-cycle conversions, such ongoing continuity is essential.
The whole is greater than its parts
There are three takeaways from this solar system model.
First, see the big picture. If you’re only optimizing part of your extended web, you’re almost certainly letting conversions slip through the gaps that are unaddressed.
Second, apply the right kind of optimization in the right context. The process to optimize a shopping cart check-out is different than the one for long tail landing pages. With one, you want general appeal; with the other, you want to reach through the screen and grab hyper-targeted individuals.
Finally, at the highest level, coordinate the connections between these different layers. Real conversion optimization is about reinforcing people’s early hopes for what you can do for them, building on that dream at every touchpoint along the way.
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