Until a few weeks ago I owned one of the top ranking sites on Google for the search term “beach towels.” This meant I received around 2,000 visitors each month in the fall and winter, and up to 5,000 per month during spring and summer.
The problem was that when I’d purchased the site 18 months ago the conversion rate (the rate at which it converted visitors to buyers) was hovering right around 0%.
Correction…it was 0%.
Always Be Testing
The biggest lesson I learned while taking the site from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month (revenue, not profit), is that there are a lot of great theories about marketing, but no one can tell you the exact thing that’s going to lead to an uptick in sales.
With the goal of increasing the conversion rate I read piles of books on internet marketing, web analytics, and copywriting. Of course, actually doing something lead to the real leaps in my understanding of how to help people move from browsers to buyers.
And by far the biggest lesson I learned is that you have to test everything. You use your experience and rules of thumb to come up with ideas to try, and then you have to try them and test to see if they work.
Of course, this is exactly what I didn’t want to hear.
As a software developer I want things in neat little boxes. I want solid answers. Just as I go to my friend who’s a brilliant SQL developer to help me with my HAVING clause, I want to go to a marketing genius and have him/her tell me the exact steps I need to take to begin converting visitors to paying customers.
But the problem is that marketing isn’t like coding. Coding is a highly constrained environment and, with most problems, a well-known path to success.
Marketing is different – the options are infinite and the paths to success are unique to each problem.
Marketing Isn’t Coding. Marketing is Design.
Note: by “Design” I mean technical (application) design.
Design is a less constrained environment than coding. Design is a blank sheet of paper with no syntax highlighting, no compiler, a few rules of thumb, and a lot of experience.
If someone asks you to write a function that generates a random string you probably have a pretty clear picture of the code you’re going to write. You don’t have to consider the possibility that the compiler thinks orange towels are out of fashion or that it’s trying to save money because there’s a recession.
But if someone asks you to design an inventory management system, there are a lot fewer constraints that you have to work with, which is simultaneously a blessing and a curse (for most developers, too many options is a curse).
The specifics of your design will be heavily influenced by your past experience designing applications, and by the human factors that come into play when designing anything that interacts with people. In design, trial and error (a.k.a. experience) is worth orders of magnitude more than what you can learn from books.
Such it is with marketing.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
As I’ve considered this analogy, the main difference I’ve found between online marketing and design is the speed of the test cycle.
Today you might design an application that hits production in 6 months. At that point the rubber really meets the road and you find out if your design is performant, scalable, and maintainable.
With enough visitors, your internet marketing test cycle can be as short as a few days.
With such a short test cycle, it’s easy to try some pretty crazy things since you can undo them in a matter of minutes. With this in mind I set out testing a stack of crazy ideas on my beach towels site.
I did this for about 6 months; I updated the graphic design twice, tried two different shopping carts, added new products, changed category names, added a personal greeting on the home page, adjusted shipping costs, added an 800 number, and made about 20 other changes.
Each time I made a change I waited for a few days to see if there was a noticeable difference in sales. But none of them made a difference. Until I added three small words…
“Low Price Guarantee”
What kills me is that being the low-cost provider is bad. Unless you’re disruptively low-priced (like Southwest Airlines and Wal*mart), being the low-cost provider is a recipe for price wars, commoditization of your offering, and a sign that your marketing department is not very creative. I have never entered a market (including this one) with a plan to be the cheapest.
So adding this phrase wasn’t on my radar for months. In fact, I made the change on a whim one afternoon and forgot about it until sales started pouring in the following day. This single change sent sales from $210/month to $2200/month immediately.
The lesson here is to be the cheapest provider in any market and you will multiply your sales by tenfold. No, wait! The underlying lesson is to make your customers feel at ease with what they are buying. And to do this you have to know your customer.
People buying beach towels from a website are doing it because they want to save time. They want to find a towel and make the purchase as quickly as possible. They want to feel good that they are making the right decision about their purchase, which is what “Low Price Guarantee” offers.
It gives them permission to buy here and stop surfing around looking for the best deal because they’ve found it.
It offers the promise that they don’t have to continue down the list of Google results. If they can find a towel they like, they can check this task off their list. No one goes online to window shop for beach towels; people want to get in and get out while still feeling good about their purchase.
So the real moral is three-fold:
- Know your customer.
- Make your customer feel at ease with what he/she is buying.
- Always be testing.
And the honorary 4th:
Never use a compiler that thinks orange towels are out of fashion. Everyone knows that orange is the new pink.