TL;DR: When hearing conversion rate optimization (CRO), many think of the application of psychological principles such as social proof or scarcity. But before employing those, e-commerce businesses first have to have their fundamentals down—which many don’t. In this article, I present five foolproof (and proven) ways to optimize your conversion rate: optimizing your checkout, getting rid of shipping costs (as much as possible), focusing on usability, getting rid of dark patterns, and gaining a deep understanding of your customers.
I’ve been in the conversion rate optimization business (not to be confused with UX!) since 2012 now. First at Unister, who operated a whole range of travel and hotel booking portals, then at HoloBuilder with their SaaS platform for the construction industry, and now at C&A with their ten fashion online shops. During that time, I wrote a Ph.D. thesis, two core contributions of which were a new instrument to measure usability and a new A/B testing method called Usability-based Split Testing. Moreover, I’ve been strategically and operationally responsible for ramping up a whole experimentation practice with the goal of, well … selling more stuff.
Now, there is already a plethora of articles out there telling you about best practices for skyrocketing your conversions. I won’t link any of them here since a simple Ecosia search will do the trick. Classics of such best practices include conversion funnels, social proof, scarcity, cart abandonment, CTAs, unique value propositions, and page speed, among other things. And all of those are good tips that have been evaluated and deemed effective again and again. However, through conversations, webinars, round-tables, and conferences, I’ve also time and again noticed that many implement social proof, scarcity, and other clever psychological tricks based on out-of-the-box templates, but don’t really have their fundamentals down. Therefore, in this article, I want to provide you with my five personal, proven favorites for optimizing your conversion rate.
1. Optimize the hell out of your checkout
When entering the checkout, a lion’s share of users have already decided they want to really buy what’s in their basket. Hence, it is imperative that your checkout process allows them to make it to the finish line in the smoothest way possible. Even the smallest obstacle can provide a problem to your users that frustrates them so profoundly they decide to abort even though they really want your products—be it an incomprehensible error message, the requirement to put in the same information in multiple forms, or an unfindable button. Actually, very recently, I myself aborted a checkout process during the very last step since PayPal wasn’t offered as a payment option, and then went on to order the same thing elsewhere.
Therefore, reduce the steps of your checkout to the bare minimum, prefill forms as much as possible, offer multiple payment and delivery options, inform your users before they’re about to accidentally leave and lose all their progress, and generally help them as much as possible to recover from errors, or even better, to not make any errors at all. Completion time and ease of use are two key factors you want to look at here. A good starting point is to take Nielsen’s 10 heuristics and vigorously check every tiny aspect of your checkout process against them.
2. Get rid of shipping costs (if you’re a retail business, that is)
I said my optimizations were foolproof, not easy to realize. But seriously, nobody likes shipping costs, and there are customers who do want your products but simply don’t see paying shipping costs. We see that in customers’ feedback over and over again. The math is relatively straightforward here:
➀ With shipping costs: Converting Users = All Users – Users who don’t want to buy your products – Users who’d like to buy your products but don’t want to pay shipping costs
➁ Without shipping costs: Converting Users = All Users – Users who don’t want to buy your products
And it is always ➁ ≥ ➀. Already in 2015, a report by Stitch Labs found that free shipping can increase sales by 10%. Therefore, if you can get rid of shipping costs, get rid of them. If you absolutely can’t—profitability is a tricky business, fair enough—you should at least conduct research and inquire into what the maximum shipping costs are that your customers deem acceptable, and then try and find the sweet spot.
3. Focus on usability
Not only does good usability contribute to customer loyalty, but bad usability can also have significant short-term effects on your conversion rate. The reasoning is simple: The less usable your e-commerce site, the higher the risk that it contains insurmountable barriers for certain users, and the higher the risk that those users leave without purchasing, even though they’d like to. Or:
➀ Bad usability: Converting Users = All Users – Users who don’t want to buy your products – Users who’d like to buy your products but can’t
➁ Good usability: Converting Users = All Users – Users who don’t want to buy your products
And, as above, ➁ ≥ ➀ always holds. Therefore, again, grab Nielsen’s 10 heuristics and/or the ISO 9241-110:2020 standard and make sure your e-commerce site adheres to those. Every usability issue, as tiny as it may seem, is a lost purchase. Usability ranks in the middle of “Maslow’s pyramid” of user’s design needs, two levels below creativity. So, before you invest anything in joy of use and fancy layouts, make sure your site is usable and meets users’ more basic needs. An “ugly” website that works and is extremely well usable will convert more users than a shiny site that’s lacking basic functionality and that users just don’t understand. And as logical as this may sound, it seems plenty of e-commerce businesses do the exact opposite. Of course, having a usable and beautiful website is by far the best option.
Now, how do we ensure the usability of our online shops at C&A? Among other things, we conduct regular benchmarks based on the System Usability Scale (SUS) as well as Inuit, an instrument with less and more actionable items, and provide the resulting insights to product management.
4. Get rid of dark patterns
A VP of Product once asked me to make an “unsubscribe” link as difficult to discover as possible (smaller, grayish, hidden at the very bottom of a landing page). Sure, it’s totally possible to do that, and in the short-term, it will make your KPIs look much better. But be sure that users will get very annoyed and tell their friends and family about it. Or contact your customer service to have them unsubscribed, which causes additional effort and costs.
This is a prime example of a dark pattern, which are bad, but, unfortunately, widely established practices that try to trick users into conversions or prevent them from unsubscribing. Especially the application of the psychological principles of social proof and scarcity, in particular when used too aggressively or even untruthfully, can often be considered a dark pattern. Dark patterns can increase conversions significantly for a certain amount of time, but will surely hurt your reputation, and therefore growth, in the long-term.
Therefore, besides conversion rate and other short-term KPIs, it’s indispensable to also track a more long-term metric like the Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Customer Effort Score (CES), which will be affected by dark patterns. However, if you see the need to employ dark patterns at all, your business and/or products might have completely different issues. Read more about dark patterns here and then hunt them down and get rid of them. Your business will thank you. A better and more enjoyable user experience might not be instantly reflected in your conversion rate, but it’s the more sustainable way to conversion growth in the longer term.
5. The key to it all: Deeply understand your customers
The keyword here is “deeply”. Simply gathering some customer feedback now and then is far from sufficient. Instead, systematically and regularly investigate your (potential) customers’ needs, desires, and pain points. Otherwise, how should you be able to provide them with just the right products and experience, which, in turn, directly affects conversions?
For instance, it’s possible (and probably not uncommon) to simply assume “our e-commerce website just needs to look more modern and we’ll gain a whole lot of new customers”. But is that indeed a pain point of existing and/or potential customers, or just your CEO’s? It might just as well be that your customers need a less complicated checkout, a better search functionality, or, well … better products (it was Berta in Two and a Half Men, who said “you can roll manure in powdered sugar, but it still ain’t a jelly doughnut”). Without a really deep understanding of your customers, you’ll never know, and before you know it, you’ll have spent tons of money on a fancy new look nobody really cares about.
Two established ways for gaining such a deep understanding are Personas and Jobs To Be Done. But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. You’ll most probably end up with the knowledge that different customers of yours have completely different pain points, needs, and jobs they want to get done. Some might be the pragmatic, sober type and some might want to be entertained and courted. You most probably won’t be able to provide one generic e-commerce website that fulfills all of your users’ needs. That’s where effective personalization comes into play, which, however, is a whole different topic.
To sum it all up, when hearing conversion rate optimization, many might immediately think of social proof or scarcity patterns. But before you employ such principles, which are really more like a cherry on top, you have to get your basics straight. Paying close attention to usability and understanding your customers, among other things, is probably not as fancy or “sexy” (and also a little cumbersome), but indeed a foolproof way to drive your conversions.