Web Conversion Optimization Tips from Science

on under Conversion Optimization.

We all want users to engage with our site, subscribe, make purchases, and spread the word. At this point, most web marketers agree that all of these count as "conversions." The practice of conversion optimization is all about testing changes to your site's layout, content, structure, flow, and so on, in an effort to get the highest conversion rate.

But that doesn't mean you need to reinvent the wheel.

Academics have been testing the science of trust, attention, and human behavior for a long time, using the same kinds of controlled experiment designs you should be using in your own tests. While it's important to test things yourself, you might as well start with the conclusions of some of the best minds in science.

Here are a few psychological principles you can leverage for higher conversion rates:

Using the Psychology of Visual Attention

Why do we pay attention to some things and ignore others? The Annual Review of Neuroscience offers some interesting insights:

  • Multiple stimuli compete for attention in the brain. The more stimuli there are, the more they inhibit one another. This means that the last thing you want to do is overload your user with too many stimuli, or their attention won't be drawn strongly toward any one of them in particular. There should only be one strong stimuli on the screen at a time.
  • When desired, we have the ability to enhance particular kinds of visual stimuli. Elements that are intended to convert, then, should have properties similar to the kind of elements your users are intentionally looking for.
  • We also have the ability to filter out particular kinds of visual stimuli. This emphasizes that conversion copy should not look like an advertisement or bear any resemblance to something that they wouldn't be interested in seeing.
  • We can focus our visual attention on a particular area, so conversion copy should be placed where users are already investing their attention.
  • If we are purposely looking for something different, the contrast becomes more noticeable to us. For this reason, designers should think carefully about whether they want an element to stand out or blend in. Both can be beneficial, depending on what the user is trying to do.

What we should learn from this is that visual attention can't be so easily hijacked. High contrast or flashing buttons may get more attention in some circumstances, but this may actually cause them to be filtered out more readily because they look like ads.

Don't overload your user with too many stimuli. Copy that's meant to convert should be placed where user's are already investing their attention. Ask whether the user will be in a state of mind that causes them to seek novel images or ignore them. You will sometimes have more success if you work your conversion copy directly into the text of your articles than if you use a large "buy now" button. As always, your mileage will vary.

Another important thing to realize is that the human brain is hard-wired to look for faces, especially faces that are looking directly at us. Furthermore, our eyes are drawn toward objects that other people appear to be looking at.

Leveraging the Commitment-Trust Theory of Relationship Marketing

In 1994, the Journal of Marketing published a paper called The Commitment-Trust Theory of Relationship Marketing. The paper reviewed an experiment that tested 13 hypothesis about how and why customers come to trust companies, and the impact that this had down the road. After surveying 204 tire companies, they verified the following:

  1. Customers are more committed to a company if the costs of leaving the company seem high. This doesn't mean they feel committed to a phone company that will bill them excessively for abandoning a contract early. Instead, it means that they would need to sacrifice the benefits of their relationship, and put time and effort into switching to another company, or abandon the product or service altogether.
  2. Customers are more committed to a relationship with intrinsic benefits. This one's pretty straightforward.
  3. Customers stick with companies that share their values.
  4. Customers also trust companies that share their values more than others. This is the only precursor necessary for both commitment and trust. That makes shared values incredibly important. Shared values are also unique, in that it's impossible to be all things to all people. Finding the right combination of values, then, can make you uniquely positioned in the marketplace with values that other companies do not share.
  5. Companies that regularly communicate with their customers are more trusted by them. This appears to be especially true of timely communication.
  6. Opportunistic behavior leads to distrust from customers. Companies that openly resist temptations to capitalize on consumer weaknesses foster trust and more long term success.
  7. Customers who are committed to a company are more likely to adhere to their policies or requests.
  8. Customers who are not committed to a company are more likely to leave.
  9. Committed customers are more likely to cooperate.
  10. Commitment and trust are closely related.
  11. Trust and cooperation are positively related.
  12. "Functional conflict" and trust are positively related. "Functional conflict" occurs when a customer and company disagree but are able to resolve issues amicably. Companies that allow customers to air their concerns and arrive at solutions will receive more trust from consumers.
  13. Uncertainty leads to distrust.

Conversions of all kinds are centered around commitment and trust, meaning that shared values, benefits, high switching costs, and so on are important for boosting conversions. Here are a few tips we can learn from these results:

  • In your blogging and ad copy, draw attention to your company's values, and how they are different from (not better than) any company that provides the same services.
  • Stay involved in public discussions with consumers, so it is clear that your company is always involved in timely communication, using forums and social media, as well as discussions on your own site. Make every effort to resolve disputes amicably so that consumers feel they can air their concerns and be heard without being put down.
  • Openly resist temptations for short term benefit and prove that you are seeking long term benefits that are helpful for you as well as the consumer.
  • Make the costs of abandoning a relationship with your company intrinsically high. This means investing a great deal of time and effort into relationships that will be missed if the customer chooses to walk away.

Can you think of other ways to use existing research to boost conversions?

Image credit: Juliana Coutinho

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