Marketing is Design: Three Words that Increased My E-commerce Sales 1000% Overnight

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”

Aargh.

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:

  1. Know your customer.
  2. Make your customer feel at ease with what he/she is buying.
  3. 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.

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23 comments ↓

#1 Mike Tee on 02.10.09 at 3:57 pm

Hi Rob thanks for the sharing. I’ve subscribed to the site for awhile now and every single post is incredibly useful!

Back to your beach towel website… does it rely entirely on search engine stats to bring in the visitors, or do you do additional marketing eg adwords, etc?

Coz the issue that I’m facing now isn’t even sales yet… it’s bringing in the traffic!

#2 Jason Cohen on 02.10.09 at 4:12 pm

Loved this post; so true, and so often overlooked by software developers.

You’re always coding for design as well as function. Selling software is as much about these factors you point out as which features you have. You can’t just be content with your wonderfully factored code. That doesn’t sell.

One little point I’d like to add: There are always MULTIPLE paths to design success. You just have to find one.

Of course there are vastly more paths to failure, but as you say, the way to locate the good one is to change paths often enough that, in the long run, the chance you stumble upon the right path becomes reasonable.

Coupled with testing, you’ll know when you’re there.

Thanks again!

#3 Rob on 02.10.09 at 4:16 pm

@Mike – Thanks for your comment.

I performed additional marketing for the site including Adwords and a magazine ad (which failed miserably). But I found the conversion rate for beach towel related search terms to be fairly low, the competition for the terms on Adwords was fairly high, and with beach towel margins being what they are, the Adwords campaign about broke even, which made it more of a hassle than it was worth.

For your site (http://www.elevyn.com/), I think you’d at best have marginal success with AdWords (but you should test!).

A better approach would be to create a few videos (about your site’s mission, a separate video telling each vendor’s story, etc…) and post them to YouTube, Facebook, and other viral video sites.

Also, go with the social network route and start a Facebook group to get people involved. Since yours is a social cause you’re not going to pull in customers using typical advertising methods. You want to facilitate word of mouth (aka viral) recommendations as much as possible.

To that end, consider adding a “tell a friend about us” form at the end of the registration (or purchase) process, and to each product. People like to show other people they are into social causes.

Also, think about doing a promotion for a holiday (e.g. Valentine’s day), and sending out a press release through prweb.com. If you tell a good story in the release and I think you could get picked up by some online news sites.

Those are off the top of my head, and perhaps you are already exploring a few of them. You’ll never know until you test each one.

The site looks great, btw.

#4 Tyson Wright on 02.10.09 at 7:33 pm

Hi, Rob –

As usual, this was a thoughtful and well-written post. But one paragraph sounded very odd:

“Today you might design an application that hits production in 6 months. At that point you find out if your design works. With enough visitors, your internet marketing test cycle can be as short as a few days.”

As a software tester, my job is to make sure we find out whether the design (and everything else in the system) works long before it goes to production. If you aren’t finding out whether your design works until after going to production, there are some big problems in development process.

By the way, it was fun meeting you at K&C’s last month. Hope all is well with you.

#5 Rob on 02.10.09 at 10:23 pm

@Tyson – Good to hear from you; thanks for the comment.

You’re right, I rushed that sentence. It should have been:

“At that point the rubber really meets the road and you find out if your design is performant, scalable, and maintainable.”

I’ve updated the post to reflect this. Thanks for the careful read.

#6 Natalie on 02.11.09 at 2:53 am

A helpful article that also made me re-evaluate my current beach towel stash.

#7 Kingsley Tagbo - IT Career Boot Camp on 02.11.09 at 9:32 am

Rob:

This is a excellent article. Congratulations for transitioning from Software Consultant to Marketer, Copyrighter aka Internet Marketing Guru :-)

#8 Kingsley Tagbo - IT Career Boot Camp on 02.11.09 at 10:50 am

Rob:

1.) What testing methodologies or tools did you use to track whether your changes where effective or not?

2.) What was your primary means of driving traffic to the site (Google Adwords, Blogging, Social Media), etc?

3.) When your sales skyrocketed ten fold, did your traffic skyrocket as well or did you make ten-fold sales from the same amount of traffic?

Thank you

#9 Chris on 02.11.09 at 10:59 am

“Low Price Guarantee”

Did you actually implement that? Did anyone call you out if you didn’t have the lowest price?

#10 Rob on 02.11.09 at 11:23 am

@Kingsley –

1. This one was a simple testing scenario. Since I had enough traffic, I simply made one change at a time and watched my conversion rate. I didn’t need to use any special tools, although I do on some of my other sites (I’ll talk about them in the future).

2. Traffic was from organic search (primarily Google). But it could just as easily have been from AdWords, social media, etc… What mattered is that before this change I was converting a very small amount of visitors to buyers, and afterwards the conversion rate was much higher.

3. There was no traffic increase; it was purely a conversion increase. In other words, with the same amount of traffic I started making 10x the sales.

#11 Rob on 02.11.09 at 11:26 am

@Chris – This is a good question.

I absolutely honored the guarantee. In 5 months, 1 person found a cheaper price and I refunded the difference.

#12 Praveen Rajan (Marketingly.com) on 02.11.09 at 12:27 pm

Rob, this a good advice!

1) Do you maintain a process of keeping track of your “marketing” tweaks? Are you able to refer back to past changes to develop new one’s?

2) Have you considered upping the ante with “LowEST Price Guarantee”?

#13 Kingsley Tagbo - IT Career Boot Camp on 02.11.09 at 12:47 pm

How does one keep track of “marketing tweaks’, any tool or spreadsheet?

Thank you

#14 Mike Tee on 02.11.09 at 1:56 pm

Hi Rob, thanks for the suggestions.

Just to share – we already have a FB Fan Page which I think performs better than Groups which nobody checks… and also invested some money into FB Ads which performed miserably! So now we’ll be embarking on Google Ads and see how it does. Will also be trying out your idea of prweb :-)

#15 Rob on 02.11.09 at 2:40 pm

@Praveen –

1. For this site it was simple – I made changes and tracked them in a spreadsheet. For other sites I own I have a more complex process that I’ll post about in the future.

2. I no longer own the site (something I will be posting about in the future). But “Low Price Guarantee” implies that we are guaranteeing the lowest price. There were a few sentences of description after these three words that explained it in more detail.

#16 Ruben on 02.14.09 at 10:46 am

Great post Rob! Incredible to think such a small change made that big of a difference, but it makes sense in a way.

It definitely gives me something to keep in mind as I bring my mISV product to market (or buy one). Find a way to give users the warm and fuzzies about making a purchase. Help them be confident they’re making the right choice.

It would’ve been interesting to see how something like “Satisfaction Guaranteed” would have done. Saying you guarantee something is powerful, you just have to be willing to back it up. Good stuff.

#17 Rob on 02.15.09 at 3:03 pm

@Ruben – “Satisfaction Guaranteed” had been added a few weeks prior to the low price guarantee. I didn’t notice much of a difference in sales when I added it, but my take is that people buying beach towels are not too concerned about disappointment. After all, they’ve seen what the towel looks like on the site…what could be so wrong with it that they would not be satisfied?

With a more complex product like software, I think at least a 30-day “Satisfaction Guarantee” is a must. It gives buyers more confidence to take your product for a spin.

#18 Matt on 02.25.09 at 5:40 pm

Hi Rob,

Very interesting article thank you.

It’s not clear if you used any tools to assist in measuring your tests aside from monitoring your sales.

Google’s Website Optimizer is an excellent tool that enables you to implement and measure A/B and Multivariant testing, which is essentially what you are doing by testing variations in your copy/design/layout etc. Difference is you can test two or more versions of a page and how that converts to sales (or any other goal) simultaneously.

This could help really reduce your test cycle time (as you could run X homepage variations at the same time rather than in serial).

There is a team of guys who call themselves Conversion Rate Squirrel who have a wealth of information on the subject, including Google’s Website Optimiser and numerous other tools and insights.

I recommend anyone interested in learning more in this area to look them both up.

No affiliation to either

#19 maxwell on 02.27.09 at 11:32 pm

These tactics work. Don’t ignore them because they look obvious or you’ve seen them mentioned elsewhere (there’s a good reason for that).

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#21 @sternalpr on 09.17.09 at 5:59 pm

Nice post. I’m with you 100%. I deal with a lot of small businesses and entrepreneurs who would like to start doing their own marketing. Testing especially is such a critical step in any marketing. I think a lot of small businesses and entry marketers get discouraged when they don’t see early results. But it’s so important to keep testing and try different things.

John Sternal

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