Sadly nothing has changed – we still suck at selling online!

Steve Jackson

Steve Jackson

Sadly nothing has changed – we still suck at selling online!

We had a discussion at the office about how the biggest issues we see with websites and digital marketing are the the same year after year. That reminded me of this interview I conducted in 2004 for an American publication. I was surprised at how many of the questions asked in the interview then are still asked and relevant over a decade on. It’s a sad state of affairs that with all the money spent on digital marketing ever since, these techniques haven’t yet gone mainstream. All my answers from ten years ago seem to describe the situation as it is today, even if the tools available would be so much better. Here’s the old interview (largely un-edited, comments I have added are marked separately):

How does one design a web site for results? 

It depends. Firstly it’s about goals. Have you defined what it is that you need from your visitors? Also do you understand what problem you solve for your users?

For instance, are you selling online to consumers? If so then your goal is to sell products. Your visitor’s goal when buying a product might depend on where she is in the purchase funnel. Is she just researching or is she ready to buy from you? Two different user experiences are needed for that.

A content website on the other hand might be driven by ad sales, in which case the goal is to generate as many visitors and page impressions as possible. That will allow you to sell more ad space. Your visitors want to see your content so it is a balancing act between giving them good stuff to view and serving ads so you can keep the business going.

Service websites might want to reduce the amount of service calls from customers, so a conversion is counted as a visitor who got what they needed without calling the helpline. Your visitor just wants to have the issue solved.

A business selling services might want to generate leads, so filling in contact forms or sending a request for quotation is considered a conversion. Your user might just want to know more about how you do what you do or how you can help them directly.

All business functions have a different goal and therefore need to be designed in a different way. Perhaps the best answer to this question is to say you first define your visitors’ goals and then design your site to help your visitors achieve that goal. You need to align your business goals with your visitors’ needs or desires. Then of course you need to measure and test the various ways in which people navigate the site so that you can better cater for them.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of designing a web site to increase conversions or sales? Top tips? 

There isn’t one answer because again, it depends. It depends on which people you want at your website and what your business objective is.

However, to give you an example of one answer, let’s take an e-commerce website. Who are you selling to? Have you done your market research? What kind of people are going to be purchasing your products and what motivates them to buy? 

Let’s say for instance you’re selling jewellery. Some of your visitors will be women who are looking for the latest fashion. Some will be men who have got to buy a present for their wives or girlfriends, have a budget and need a lot of help. Someone will be looking for presents for a 21st birthday. Someone else will be looking for a specific piece of jewellery from a specific designer.

Do you communicate to each individual in the same manner? You shouldn’t. Your copy and content is the most important part of your website, so by planning how you communicate with the people that buy from you is the key part of the process that wins or loses the sale.

For example, consider how you would communicate with two of the personas above, lets take the obvious ones, firstly Mr Bob Noclue, a 28 year old guy who is buying a present for his girlfriend.

He is motivated by the desire to buy his girlfriend a nice present that she will appreciate and because she’s special to him he doesn’t want to offend her. So he wants to feel safe in the knowledge that he’s buying a gift that if he makes a mistake can be easily put right (a good returns policy). You want to make it easy for him to make a decision by assuring him that the gift he’s buying is something that will delight his lady. You might consider copy like this;

“When she’s happy, you’re happy. Delight her with this beautifully crafted 24 carat gold engraved Aztec heart pendant. You can place a picture of yourself inside so she never forgets who gave her this delightful gift. From the mountains of Brazil each one hand crafted with meticulous care, this unique gift will delight the lady in your life. We even guarantee it. If your lady doesn’t love this gift then you can swap it for any product matching the same value or get your money back, no questions asked.” 

Next we need to craft the same product to a different persona.

This time it’s Jane Iknowwhatiwant, a 28 year old, highly fashion-conscious young jet-setter who’s buying a product for herself that will help her stand out from the crowd. She wants to know details like who the designer is, how the product was made, who else is wearing it, and whether she can have it before her next official engagement.

“Exquisite fashion from the Aztec. Be the belle of the ball with this outstanding and unique 24 carat gold heart pendant from the Ronaldo fashion house. Each item from Ronaldo’s is uniquely crafted which is why celebrities across America are our customers. Order it today and you can have it delivered to your door within 2 weeks, just in time for you to shine at your next dinner party.” 

By doing your research and planning your website to communicate directly with the people who are going to buy from you, you have a better chance of closing the sale. My top tips? I only have one, desing your communication for the different types of people who are going to buy from you.

EDIT; How many companies today craft copy that is different depending on the user? Marketing automation tools today make this easier than ever.

What are the biggest mistakes web site owners are making with relation to converting site traffic into leads/sales? 

They put hurdles in front of people instead of making it easy. The biggest hurdle is that they communicate to the wrong people about the wrong things. If I was Bob Noclue I wouldn’t be impressed by the high fashion copywriting and that is typical across all websites. There is a “one size fits all” attitude when it comes to copywriting and it’s woefully inadequate.

Then there are the usual suspects like bad usability and design getting in the way of completing the process. Stuff like bad shopping processes, poor internal search engines, poor information architecture, irrelevant graphics, poor error messages, poor return policies, poor security, etc. The basic stuff that web marketers should have covered often result in lost sales. 

But let’s face it, when you really want a product you will move mountains to get it. The main problem is that copy and content doesn’t persuade the visitor to “want” the products. 

EDIT; ”One size fits all” still fits all. Einstein once said ”Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.

What does it take to close a sale on the web? 

You have to give the right message to the right prospect at the right time. That’s all.

It sounds easy, but in most cases it’s not done very well. Most sites fall down here because they aren’t credible in the eyes of their visitor (giving the wrong message) or that they put too many distractions and hurdles in front of the visitor. 

EDIT; I still see this daily on most websites I visit. Again, marketing automation techniques make targeting much easier today than it was 10 years ago.

Of all the things we talked about above, do you feel that designing for conversions is something that most web sites are doing? If not, what could they be doing better? Where are they missing it? 

The websites that do at least try to convert often do so in a way which is pushy and deliberate rather than tugging the heart strings of the purchaser, which is what copy, content and graphics should be doing.

We also find a lot of websites using words which aren’t factual but are vague. Things like “Plenty of room” instead of “300 square meters of space”. Plenty of room is a vague statement, but isn’t descriptive and doesn’t put an exact picture in your head. Plenty of room to me could mean something entirely different to you. 300 square meters on the other hand can’t be mistaken for anything else. 

There is a lot of hype out there which everyone is trained to ignore. Words like ”guaranteed” (without any accompanying explanation), ”lowest prices anywhere”, ”while supplies last” etc. are all so common our minds switch off. If you guarantee something describe it in the same paragraph, tell us your prices and tell us how many you have in stock! 

The majority of websites miss that they need to communicate something in their message in a way that we as the visitor want to be sold. Give us what we want and we’ll buy. The money being spent online right now proves it. Unfortunately not enough businesses out there know enough about who they’re selling to and how to communicate with them. 

Another big reason is they don’t measure and test, they don’t find out where the hurdles are and they don’t scientifically improve their websites. 

EDIT; How many websites do you see today that are vague in their communication when selling online? Is yours vague?

Parting notes…

It’s a shame that companies who spend millions per year on media still communicate their messages poorly and write one-size-fits-all ads. Over a decade since I gave this interview I still see the same fundamental problems in many businesses trying to ply their trade online. It would make me despair except that I think a decade ago a lot more education needed to be done. This was a time where conversion rate wasn’t a well known or important KPI. Today at least many people know they can do better work.


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