Eric Karjaluoto

Why Your Website Doesn’t Convert

When it’s time to create a new website, clients and design studios are often seduced by the notion of making “something neat.” As a result, they can forget what their website is for. Often, a website serves as some form of sales tool—even if they don’t treat it this way. Web retailers want to sell products. Consultants wish to develop a pipeline for new business. Online publishers look to grow their audience, so they can sell more subscriptions and ad space. Even not-for-profits need to “sell” audiences on their philosophies, ideas, and initiatives.

Like it or not, most have something they need to sell, and part of doing so involves maximizing conversions. If you’ve defined clear objectives for your website, you probably hold a keen understanding of how you’re getting conversions. Nevertheless, when I ask most how their website is converting, responses tend to be feeble. Few know what they want their sites to do. So, they go through the motions of “checklist marketing.” This involves doing all the things you’ve been told—without considering whether such approaches are applicable to your organization.

Unsure of what a conversion is? Like most marketing concepts, conversions are straight-forward. A conversion is an action that you deem relevant to your sales and marketing objectives. A conversion might come in the form of a click-through, a sign-up for a product trial, an email or phone inquiry, or a sale. You owe it to your company to track conversions, and continually ask, “how can we increase conversion rates on our website.”

In this post, I’ll provide recommendations on how to set your website up, to achieve more successful conversions. With time, I’ll come back to this post and add other notes. If you need more hands-on help, feel free to contact me at smashLAB, and I’ll can work with you to help define objectives for your website—and meet them. Alternately, send a tweet to me, and I’ll do my best to respond (as well as I can, in under 140 characters).

You Haven’t Made Calls to Action Available

The most obvious reason your site doesn’t convert, is that it wasn’t built to. This isn’t uncommon. Just scan a few websites. You’ll find that for all the attention placed on creative effects, the user is commonly left with limited—or no—means of acting.

I experienced this recently with one of the most beautiful websites I’ve seen. In it, users are able to configure designer objects and then save their customizations. The layout was clean and effective. The interaction was spectacular. The photography was flawless. However, upon completing my selection I could neither find a price, nor a means of purchasing this creation. No Buy button. No phone number. No email address. Nothing.

I can’t imagine one good reason for hiding this information. Sure, this brand felt like a luxury offering, so, perhaps there was a fear of scaring off some buyers. That said, such worries are flawed. A website can serve many purposes, but for many organizations, getting a new lead/conversion is a key one. So, you’d probably benefit from ensuring your website contains at least one call to action (CTA), placed prominently, on most pages.

Not redesigning for another six months? Then shoe-horn some kind of a call to action into your existing site. Even if it isn’t beautiful, giving users a means of interacting with your organization is an imperative. Additionally, getting such an element in place now gives you months to collect data. This affords you a head start on your new website, by allowing you to start exploring which approaches perform best.

Your Incoming Traffic is Insufficient

Calls to action are critical if you want to make conversions possible. Yet, these items do not operate in a void. If your calls to action go unseen, they cannot produce leads. Let me put this another way: You can have the best lemonade stand in the land, but if you’ve hidden it, you won’t sell much product.

There are many ways to increase traffic to your website, and conversions. One approach is to solve the problem with money. Search engine marketing (SEM), digital display, and traditional advertising are all immediate ways to increase your site’s inbound traffic.

That said, be mindful of the audiences you are attracting, and whether you’re reaching the ones you want. (Bounce rates and the volume/quality of your conversions are good indicators of successful targeting.) You’ll also want to determine your cost of acquisition, and compare this to the customer lifetime value (CLV) of each prospect. Doing so will allow you to assess whether a paid approach is a sustainable means of acquiring traffic—and conversions.

I tend to favor content-based approaches for building incoming traffic. We refer to this method as content marketing. Done well, it has the benefit of producing a somewhat self-sustaining pipeline of new traffic. This is different from advertising, which no longer delivers results when you stop buying placement.

In its simplest form, content marketing involves producing content your audience finds useful. You then post this content on your site—and perhaps others’. This tactic has a handful of benefits: 1) It increases your site’s traffic through organic search traffic—and higher Google rankings. 2) It makes available information that prospective buyers/audiences can share with other interested groups. 3) It builds your brand, and fosters an almost personal relationship with your readers. 4) It can position you, and those in your organization, as thought-leaders. (This is important for most many non-commoditized offerings).

In future posts, I’ll speak more on the topic of traffic building for your website—and content marketing. That said, I feel like such topics are too vast to delve into, in great detail, in this one post.

You Don’t Provide—or Quantify—Value

“Follow us on Twitter,” “Like us on Facebook,” “Find us on Instagram,” are all common requests found on the web. (I bet at least one of these phrases is already on your website.) Famous brands and personalities can get away with such vague, commanding, and self-centered language. This privilege is a result of their audience members already knowing what to expect if they act on such language. Few others have as much latitude, because they can’t rely on existing relationships, in the same way.

To convert those unfamiliar with your brand, you need to give them a reason to act. This means changing from a “look at me” approach, to one that’s focused on your audience’s needs. This might sound a little daunting, but such a change isn’t complicated. Affording value through your website isn’t much different from doing so in your business. First, you need to understand your customer’s pain, or desires. Then, you can work to provide either relief or fulfillment.

This approach runs in stark contrast to how many act online. They talk about themselves, blog on generic or random topics, and believe their job is to entertain their audience. The vast bulk of organizations, should avoid such antics. You’ll gain more from identifying your users and developing personas to better understand them. With this thinking done, you’re better equipped to provide answers, insight, support, or some other value.

Similarly, try to avoid buzzwords, marketing rhetoric, and aspirational tag-lines in your online efforts. Instead, make your value clear to the user, so they’ll understand why they should act on your offer. Examples of calls to action that might get me to act include: “Click here for a free ebook on marathon training.” “Subscribe to get time-saving productivity tips—emailed once a week!” Or, “Buy these jeans now, and get 50% off additional pairs.” Although you could make these examples simpler, they help illustrate my point. Each one of these indicates what action I should take, and what I’d get from performing it.

You might not appreciate how little time you have to get your message across on the web. Consider this: the average length of time a user spends on a site is less than 15 seconds. From this, you can extrapolate that users don’t read web content, so much as they skim. If they find useful information, they stay. They also abandon websites that don’t immediately address to their needs.

Given the few seconds you have to grab visitors, you have to illustrate the benefit (in your headline, copy, and call to action). Fail to do so, and you’ll lose them before you even have a proper chance.

Your Trust Indicators are Weak/Missing

Internet users are a suspicious lot—and rightfully so. Phishing schemes, malware, spammers, and overzealous marketers all make people fearful. They now take greater care with their actions and the information they reveal. Web users know that one errant click can expose them to risk—or at least unpleasantness. As this collective anxiety builds, getting a conversion becomes difficult. So, even if your offer is appealing, you could be losing conversions because your site doesn’t feel trustworthy.

Users make choices about their online actions, much like they make real life ones. Few are likely to walk down a dimly-lit alley, in a rough neighborhood, even if there’s something interesting down it. Instead, they’ll opt for an environment that poses fewer risks, with less substantial seeming gains. Meanwhile, improving your offer can work against you, in such a situation. In a dubious context, a better prize, only feels more suspicious. So, before making your offer more enticing, start by cleaning up the place.

Trust indicators help assure users of your credibility. The most important ones relate to high-level organizational systems. For example, a well-defined brand will result in clear and consistent messages on your site. Meanwhile, an effective corporate identity system will help the site feel professional, trustworthy.

When users scan your site, and make all those rapid nano-judgments that lead to a “trust” or “don’t trust” reading. Most don’t even recognize that they’re performing such a task—they do have a feeling about your organization.

You can also leverage smaller trust indicators like third-party references. For example, rankings from Zagat, Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Amazon can increase a user’s confidence in your brand. Noting the companies you work with, mentions in the press, or any accolades you’ve received, can also help. Similarly, photos of your staff, contact details, certifications, seals, and links to your active social media accounts can lend credibility. These indicate that your organization made-up of trustworthy humans.

What I’m suggesting in this section and the preceding one boils down to the following; If your call to action clearly articulates true value to your visitor—and you don’t shake his/her confidence—there’s little reason for this person to not click.

You’ve Set the Barrier to Entry Too High

As a young man, I was bad at dating. My eagerness to be in a relationship got in my way, and made me seem desperate. If only I would have slowed down a little, I’m sure I would have met a lot of nice people, and had more fun. That time has long since passed, for me, but I often think back to it when I see how organizations conduct themselves online.

Many groups are needy and impatient on the web. They demand too much data from interested parties. They aren’t willing to help visitors through the buying cycle. They require full buy-in before the user can get a feel for what they might be committing to. These groups want to close the sale—without putting in the work, and making the process easier for the user. What these organizations fail to recognize is the gap between what they want and what their users want.

These groups need to learn the same lesson my dismal dating life taught me: if you want a relationship, you have to slow down. Odds are, the person visiting your website isn’t ready to commit to your organization—but, in time, they might. So, the question for you, is how you engage them in a dialogue, until they’re ready to act.

An easy way to start this dialogue is to lower the stakes. Someone’s interested, but not quite ready to buy? Maybe they’ll consider a 1 hour consultation. Still too much? Perhaps they’ll download a free demo of your product. Not quite there yet? I bet you could entice them to sign up for your company’s email newsletter.

Of all those who’ve marketed to me, I think David C. Baker has done so most deftly. David runs a consultancy called ReCourses, which helps creative companies operate better. On his site, visitors can read his posts, but must provide some personal information to access his more in-depth thought pieces. Once they’ve provided this information, he sends email updates about new posts he’s written. He also offers up free samples of his books—all, I suspect, with the help of some well-tuned marketing automation software.

David understands—and acts upon—one of the fundamental laws of marketing: people trust what’s familiar. Through his blog posts, thought pieces, downloadable resources, books, webinars, presentations, and workshops, he establishes comfort among buyers who would benefit from his unique insights. David uses each of these tools to lower the “risk cost” for the user, starting with a small conversion that leads to others.

You Have a Pollution Problem

My first point in this article, about not making calls to action prominent, has an equally dangerous counterpoint. You find this in the website that provides so many ways for users to take action that the propositions take over. Such sites often devolve into one large stack of offers, demands, and requests—which fight with one another for the user’s attention.

This kind of visual pollution comes with two notable problems. The first goes back to trust: a site that’s replete with calls to action becomes the online equivalent of a high-pressure used car lot. This abundance of activity, might lead some to think a deal is waiting to be had. Most just get a cheap feeling—like they’re a moment away from someone tricking them.

The second concern comes down to user fatigue. An overuse of calls to action sets-up an environment in which the user feels like many voices are shouting at them. Most users simply won’t put up with this noise; they’ll just click the Back button, and find a site that meets their needs with less grief. This choice relates to something called interaction cost. Users are always looking for easier ways to achieve their goals. Don’t let your desire for conversions backfire due to a lack of restraint.

Apply this same sort of restraint to every aspect of your website, and how you engage your users. For example, upon getting that click, keep input forms simple. No user wants to complete a massive questionnaire, just to sign up for your newsletter. Reduce the length of your forms, and you’ll improve the user’s experience—and increase the probability of them completing this action.

This last point is a tough one for many organizations, and I’ve faced it first-hand. A campaign gets stymied by a manager who wants to “kill two birds with one stone,” and get “just a little more” data for their list. What they fail to recognize is that the added information might come at the cost of conversions. Remember that you’re working to get the conversion—not to extract the most user data. Once they’ve committed, and you’ve built a bit of a relationship, you can ask them for more.

You Don’t Know What Your Website is Doing

If you aren’t setting goals for your website, measuring results, and refining your approach, you don’t own a website, you have a digital brochure. The good news is that turning your website into a proper sales tool isn’t in any way out of your reach. In fact, you can make this change quickly.

Start by opening up your Google Analytics (GA) account, and poking around. This will give you a sense for what’s happening on your website, and maybe you’ll even spot some underlying trends. (e.g. “Holy crap—our site’s traffic is 25% lower than a year ago!”) As you conduct this informal survey, and repeat the process, you’ll gain a better feel for your site. You’ll come to learn which content is performing, how users are behaving, and whether there are any big holes in your website.

As traffic starts to increase, you’ll also be able to perform A/B and multivariate testing to see which calls to action are performing. If you don’t have a lot of site traffic, I wouldn’t put much effort into implementing such testing in a formal fashion. For any such data to be telling, you’ll need to achieve a certain critical mass of volume. In the meanwhile, though, you can set goals and review performance regularly, to gain a more general sense of what’s performing.

Along the way, you might want to run some casual experiments with your content, to see what changes affect conversions. For example, varying headlines, swapping button placement, varying color, can make a big difference in how website converts. For example, Firefox learned that the call to action “Download Now – Free,” converted nearly 3.5% better than, “Try Firefox 3.″ (Quite a difference for a small text change.)

Like many of the other points in this article, I’m only presenting the basic gist. I figure it’s a long enough post, without me going into specifics. That said, in future posts, I’ll return to the topics of analytics and optimization and discuss them in more detail.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

Long articles like this can feel daunting, and lead users to skim the summary paragraph, and bookmark for reading at a less busy time. If you’re one of those, I’ll summarize with a TL;DR, just to hold you over. Here goes:

If you want to your website to produce a greater number of conversions, you must: 1) Determine what actions you want your site to generate. 2) Provide clear and prominent calls to action. 3) Attract more traffic to your website. 4) Provide content/offers that your clients consider valuable. 5) Establish—or at least not shake—the trust of your site visitors. 6) Lower the barrier to entry. 7) Avoid polluting your site with too many calls to action or complex forms. 8) Measure, monitor, and test your site, to make it better.

BTW: As of late, I’ve been writing more on my other site: Deliberatism. Maybe drop by and check it out?

Sign up to receive new articles by email:

Email *