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A Crash Course in Conversion

Conversion’s only purpose is to optimize the return on your marketing spend. To click or not to click. That is the question you need your customers to answer.

I’ll have you converting better before you can say “crash test dummy” whilst humming “mmm mmm mmm mmm” … image source

The 5 concepts below will make your pages better, more focused, more persuasive and more successful.

  • Concept 1: The Economics of Conversion
  • Concept 2: The Call To Action
  • Concept 3: Sorry, Your Homepage Sucks at Converting!
  • Concept 4: Introducing Landing Pages
  • Concept 5: Optimization & Testing – Every Page can Convert Better

Concept 1: The Economics of Conversion

throw my money away on more traffic
Learn concept #2 and you’ll stop doing this.

Most people know that it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to find a new one. Similarly, it makes sense to get the most from your existing flow of inbound traffic by improving the conversion rate.

There are two options when it comes to driving traffic to increase business:

  1. You can buy more traffic
  2. You can spend a portion of your budget on improving your site

If you are in any doubt about which of these options makes more sense, I’ll make it easy for you – it’s the second one.

An example

If you have a marketing budget of $1,000/month dedicated to driving traffic to your site, you may observe the following scenario. Note: these numbers are based on some average Google AdWords pay-per-click stats.

Traffic Budget Conversion Investment Cost Per Click (CPC) Visitors Conversion Rate New Customers Cost Per Acquisition (CPA)
$1,000 $0 $1 1000 2% 20 $50

Now if we use strategy #1 to buy more traffic – doubling the budget.

Traffic Budget Conversion Investment Cost Per Click (CPC) Visitors Conversion Rate New Customers Cost Per Acquisition (CPA)
$2,000 $0 $1 2000 2% 40 $50

Notice how the cost of acquiring a customer remains the same and your budget stretches in a predictable manner. This is why many companies just thrown more money at their marketing. More cash = more customers. It’s predictable, but it’s lazy.

Now we’re going to take some of the budget and spend it on optimization. Remember that your goal should be to reduce the cost of acquiring a new customer.

Note: conv = conversion

Month Total Budget Traffic Budget Conv Investment Cost Per Click (CPC) Visitors Conv Rate New Customers Cost Per Acquisition (CPA)
1 $1,000 $900 $100 $1 900 2.5% 22.5 $44.44
2 $2,000 $1,800 $200 $1 1,800 2.75% 49.5 $40.40
3 $2,000 $1,800 $0 $1 2,000 2.75% 55 $36.36

What this shows us is that as we increase the investment in conversion optimization, our traffic spend decreases resulting in fewer visitors, but the improved conversion rate more than makes up for this by bringing in more customers and ultimately reducing the cost per acquisition (CPA).

By month 3, the effect of pausing the conversion investment produces a further drop in CPA. Why? Because an optimized page will continue to produce the new conversion results obtained in month 2 and will continue into month 4 and 5 etc..

Concept 1 Resources

Check out the book Web Design for ROI for extended discussion of optimization investment vs. traffic spend.
Optimization experts, Wider Funnel are offering a free landing page evaluation for qualified businesses.
Brian Massey, The Conversion Scientist – offers a free 45min consultation.

Concept 1 Task

If you have a marketing budget, plug your own numbers into the tables above to see the effect it could have. Then use this ammunition to convince your boss (or yourself) that conversion matters.

Concept 2: The Call to Action

I don't always click on CTAs
Make your CTA obvious or it won’t get clicked

How do people convert? In simple terms they interact at a designated conversion point. By being triggered by a call to action.

What is a call to action?

A call to action (CTA) is an interactive instructional device intended to solicit an action from your visitors. There are four main components to a CTA:

  • The Call: This is the instructional language used to request that the user interacts in your desired way.
  • The Action: On the web, the most common action one can take is to click a button.
  • The Outcome: The ‘Outcome’ is what happens when the action is taken, and it should correlate strongly with ‘The Call’. In other words, it’s the delivery on your promise. e.g. [Download free whitepaper] indicates that clicking the button will instigate a file download (without any request for payment).
  • The Design: How your CTA is presented visually plays a big part in how people respond to it (size, color, shape, contrast to rest of page).

A CTA for every page

Every page needs a purpose and every page needs a call to action.

In the example below, the headline encourages the user to respond by leading with a hook into their emotional reaction (“If you enjoyed this post”), and makes a direct request for them to subscribe. Also note how ‘The Call’ describes succinctly what will happen when you click it – and the text box reminds you that you are subscribing by email.

Tip: The word “Submit” on a button is utterly pointless as it tells you nothing about the ‘Outcome’. Avoid at all cost.

CTA’s for different page types

Here are some examples of calls to action that can be considered for other ares of your site.

  • Blog posts: The email subscription example above is a classic use case. Others include recommending related posts, and suggesting that people bookmark or share the post with their network.
  • 404 pages: Your “page not found” page should help people to recover from being lost. Do this by making suggestions for what they should do. Include links to your most popular content, or start them down the sales process by linking to a product tour. Placing a large banner graphic on this page can also be a good way to tease a positive action out of a negative situation (just make sure it’s advertising your product, not someone else’s).
  • Confirmation pages: Engage your customers while they are in a positive “buying mood” by adding a CTA to your transactional confirmation pages. You can extend your reach by asking people to follow you on a social network, or set a future date for re-engagement by inviting them to a webinar.

Concept 2 Resources

There’s a great showcase of CTA examples, along with design theory, read [How To] Write a Call-to-Action that Converts – With Case Studies for a deeper dive into this concept.

Concept 2 Task

A good test is to print out some of your pages (a product page, blog page, homepage etc.), pin them to the wall and give them “the six foot test”. Standing 6ft away, can you see a clear and identifiable action on each page?

Concept 3: Sorry, Your Homepage Sucks at Converting!

never send traffic to your homepage
Batman knows that your homepage won’t convert as well as a landing page.

Conversion is about focus – slapping blinders on your customers and shuffling them toward the bright light that is your call to action.

Your homepage is simply not the most focused page on your website.


Your homepage has too many distractions

Even if your website promotes a single product or service, there is the potential for message overload. Perhaps you are driving prospects from your email list, encouraging them to visit you for details of a new feature: If they arrive at your homepage – where there might be other features, seasonal promotions and special offers – they can get distracted and wander from your intended goal.

Your homepage has too many interaction points

Similarly, there are way too many links (leaks) on your homepage for it to be a closely guided conversion experience.

Changing your homepage can be difficult

As companies grow in size – adding departments and products – getting buy-in from different stakeholders to “test your new idea” can become fraught with political challenge. IT, software or QA personnel can create roadblocks due to the risks of changing your most frequently viewed page. Corporate infrastructural rules can also mean that updates to the site are only published to the production servers on a defined weekly schedule – by which point your campaign may have lost it’s timeliness.

Changing your homepage can have knock-on effects

Imagine if you made messaging changes on your homepage to improve SEO, all of a sudden your pay-per-click quality score dives (due to decreased message match with your ads) and your cost of acquiring a customer via that channel rises. It could be that your SEO rank improves – great! But you can see where this is going: Change creates risk.

What’s the answer?

The solution to these problems is to use campaign or promotion specific landing pages that can be managed and optimized in controlled isolation.

Concept 3 Task

Go to your homepage and count how many different messages, paths, links and CTA’s you have. These numbers will be a useful comparison when you get to day 4.

Concept 4: Introducing Landing Pages

Technically speaking, a landing page is any page on your website that customers arrive at or “land” on. However, for the purposes of this crash course, when I say landing page, I’m referring to a page that is created as a standalone entity – a campaign or promotion specific page – designed to be free from the shackles of your homepage as identified on day 3.

Standalone landing pages have a few general characteristics:

  1. No global navigation: Preventing customers from wandering off the conversion path.
  2. Single entry paths: They are accessible only via a promotion or campaign specific marketing link (social media, PPC, email, banner).
  3. One conversion goal: The page has one purpose and usually a single primary call to action.

A good example of a standalone, campaign specific landing page, can be seen below from Webtrends.

The benefits of landing pages

As I mentioned earlier, landing pages remove the restrictions and complexities of your homepage, and can improve your conversion rate in the following ways:

  1. Improved message match: When you design a page with a single focused message, you create a simplified experience that better represents the expectation created by your upstream ad.
  2. Improved quality score: A focused message improves visitor conversion behaviour, and as a bonus, pay-per-click engines such as Google AdWords like it better too. A higher quality score can reduce the cost of your paid advertising.
  3. Separation from primary site architecture: By removing your landing pages from the main site (e.g. setting them up on a sub-domain) you can empower marketers to manage their own operations and be more agile and responsive.
  4. Easier to test and optimize: Technical and architectural separation lets you run optimization experiments (A/B or multivariate testing) without impacting the rest of your site.
  5. Improved measurability through segmentation: An advanced strategy is to create a separate landing page to segment each of your inbound traffic sources. This makes your metrics much simpler and allows you to see which channels perform the best for your audience. Most importantly it allows you to test different ideas, messaging and content appropriate to the channel without affecting the conversion rate of your other channels.

Landing pages vs. homepages

To help illustrate the points above, compare the Webtrends homepage (below) to the landing page shown earlier.

This is a beautifully designed page, but it’s also focused on multiple things. There are five concepts presented in the main promo area (via the rotating banner), four supplementary messages below that, and a total of 25 interaction points. This is a great destination for branded organic search traffic, but not as good as the previous landing page when driving traffic targeted to a single topic.

Concept 4 Resources

Landing page creation tools: There are several online tools available for the purpose of creating (and testing) landing pages.

  1. Unbounce (hey that’s us!) – lets you easily create and A/B test without help from IT. Designed for the small to medium business market.
  2. LiveBall – Like Unbounce, LiveBall is an all-in-one platform that lets you create and test landing pages. Focused on enterprise and agency clients that require end-to-end professional services.

Concept 4 Task

Check your message match. Take a look at your current marketing initiatives (PPC, email, banners, social media) and compare what they say when compared to the first thing you see when arriving at your homepage. Start thinking about how landing pages could allow you to have multiple simultaneous campaigns and still keep the messages aligned from ad to page.

Concept 5: Optimization & Testing – Every Page Can Convert Better

Optimizing your landing pages can become an addictive pursuit, but like unicorns and fairies, the perfect page doesn’t actually exist. And while there is no magical pixie dust to sprinkle on over your website, there are processes and techniques you can use to make the most of your conversion opportunities.

The best part? No matter what your page is for – it can always convert better.

The most obvious business reason to start optimizing is the economics – do it right and you’ll get a higher return on your marketing spend.

Other benefits include:

  • Solving boardroom arguments: We’ve all been there – sitting around the boardroom table discussing a page on the website, or if you’re nice and advanced, a landing page. Opinion pushes back and forth about the main headline, what color the button should be or, horror of all design horrors, the dreaded request to make the logo bigger.

    It’s time to realize that internal democracy, experience, and the HIPPO’s (HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion) really don’t matter. Have a disagreement about a concept? Then test it, and let the crowd decide.

  • The customer is STILL always right: If you are serious about conversion optimization. It’s a beautiful thing to turn the power over to your user base for conflict resolution. Say NO to archaic subjective opinion! Say YES to learning something about your customers.

Got an idea? Start an experiment…

The foundation of conversion rate optimization is what’s called an “experiment”. With A/B testing, you create competing page variants and simultaneously run traffic to each page to see which has the highest conversion rate.

Optimization is the process of iteratively repeating test experiments to improve their effectiveness.

What to test

This is a very common question and ultimately depends on the content and purpose of your page. However there are some basic elements that most people can test as a starting point.

  • Page headline or title: This is where you state the unique selling proposition (USP) of your product/service/offer. It’s the page element most open to interpretation by your visitors, as it’s usually what they see or read first. As such, it has a great impact on conversion. Remember though that this will also have a big impact on your message match. So keep it tightly aligned with your ad copy.
  • With or without video: Video has been shown to increase conversion rates by as much as 80% (source: eyeviewdigital.com, pdf). A classic A/B test is to add video to your page showing a demo or a face-to-face personalized message.
  • Video auto-play on or off: Usability pros will know that turning on the auto-play feature is a bad practice that often makes people back out from a page, especially if they are in an environment sensitive to sound. However, this is where CCD (Conversion Centered Design) differs from UCD (User Centered Design). You need to weigh up the cost/benefit of any increased conversions against a potential negative brand impact.
  • Call to action attributes: Another classic test is to play around with the size, position, shape, color, and text of your CTA buttons. Different colors have different emotional meanings and can sometimes have an impact, although a more important aspect is the contrast between the color of the CTA and the rest of the page (making sure it stands out). Remember to make the text represent The Outcome (what happens when you click, as defined on day 2).
  • Number of form fields in a lead capture form: Increase conversions by lowering the barrier to entry with fewer form fields.
  • Required or non-required fields: Experiment with making different fields not required.
  • Length of copy: Some products or services demand a long and exhaustive description but generally short and succinct is better. The only way to know for your own business is to try it out. When refining your message for the short version, simplify your copy using bullets and take the advice of Usability guru Steve Krug for the main bulk of content: “cut it in half, then throw away 50% of what’s left”.

Concept 5 Task

Getting started: When deciding on what to test in your first (or any) experiment, it helps to have a checklist of common problems to rate your page in it’s current state. The 5-minute conversion scorecard can help you identify any major holes in your page. Pick a page on your site (ideally a standalone landing page, but you can try it on any page as an exercise) and see what score you get. Any items left unchecked can be used as a to-do list for your first experiment.

One final task … »» Tweet about this post! ««

— Oli Gardner

About Oli Gardner
Unbounce co-founder Oli Gardner has seen more landing pages than anyone on the planet. He’s obsessed with identifying and reversing bad marketing practices, and his disdain for marketers who send campaign traffic to their homepage is legendary, resulting in landing page rants that can peel paint off an unpainted wall. A prolific international speaker, Oli is on a mission to rid the world of marketing mediocrity by using data-informed copywriting, Conversion-Centered Design, interaction, and psychology to create a more delightful experience for marketers and customers alike. You should follow Oli on Twitter
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