Required Reading: The Psychology Behind E-Commerce Website Optimization

Article Featured Image

Selling products online can be tricky, with the slightest nuance in the page’s design or message turning the customer away and eliminating all chances of conversion for good. This is one of the central problems tackled in E-Commerce Website Optimization, by Dan Croxen-John and Johann Van Tonder, colleagues at AWA, an e-commerce conversion optimization agency. Associate Editor Oren Smilansky spoke with Van Tonder to learn why—to quote the subtitle—“95 percent of your website visitors don’t buy, and what you can do about it.”

CRM magazine: In the book you explore the psychology of online customers. What led to your interest in the topic? 

Johann Van Tonder: I was working in a corporate, global internet business firm, and in the division that I led, there were a number of e-commerce operations in delicate situations. They needed to either be fixed, sold, or killed. I was faced, every day, with how to make something out of an underperforming thing. I started out in all the classic ways—trying to move things around on a page and following best practices. After a while, I realized that things weren’t what they appeared to be. People buy in different ways. You have to understand their core motivations. It sounds like such an obvious and straightforward thing, but it’s not. You have to really get under the skin not only [of] your customers but also those people who evaluated your product and chose not to buy it. 

Where do companies tend to go wrong when trying to boost conversion rates? 

A lot of people do some sort of best-practices analysis. They look at their page and they say, “OK, well, this button or image can be bigger; how do we improve the top half of the page?” That’s the wrong starting point. The starting point [should be] what is the behavior on this page, what are the decisions we need to make here, and how do we shift that behavior and influence those decisions? When I started doing this, I didn’t understand and appreciate how much of this is just plain, simple, sales. 

Do you mean that it’s the language of sales, the persuasion aspect, or something else? 

Persuasion marketing is a big part of it, but how the conversation unfolds is, I need something, I come to search for information, your offer enters the fray, I evaluate it in the context of others, and the conversation builds on that. If there’s interest, then I’ll have some questions, and you better be aware of what those questions are, because you’re going to have to answer them preemptively. In e-commerce, this is difficult. In the store, you have the benefit of that conversation playing out in real time. Online, that doesn’t happen. You’ve got to understand what their concerns, questions, and objectives might be and address them preemptively, in the right place. Here’s the other thing: If you address the right sales objection in the wrong place, you’ve lost the sale. 

Can you illustrate this with an example?

We worked with a client in the U.K. who has one of the most solid, robust money-back guarantees in that particular vertical. They’re a gift store, and the people who buy from the site are parents and grandparents. We amplified this guarantee because it was such a strong offer, but we saw that sales and conversion rates dropped. Through a series of tests, we uncovered that if you’re buying a gift for your grandchild, the last thing you want to contemplate is your grandson returning the gift, because it reflects badly on you. By making so much of the guarantee—in fact, even just by offering the guarantee—it raised the concern and doubt. It’s easy to understand once you have the data and the psychology in play. 

How do you feel about using customer personas?

They’ve got a bad rap because most of them are just bull. But when you do personas properly, and [they’re] grounded in research, they become one of the most powerful and underrated tools that you have as an e-commerce manager. Because now every decision that you make, every question that you have to answer, every design that you implement on your website—literally everything about your website—is done from the perspective of these personas. What makes them buy? What’s going on in their mind? What is that decision that they’re playing within, and what else plays into that decision? That’s all packaged into those personas, and once you have that, then you’ve already made big progress.

CRM Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues