Improving Conversion Rates — Are You Doing it Right or Wrong?

Note from Caleb: Most people waste their time on “testing conversions” because they test things that are too small. In this post from Peter Sandeen, learn how to test your conversions the right way: by making big changes.

Conversion optimization and A/B testing are becoming common among even the smallest businesses. And for good reason.

If done right, they can create huge increases in profits. But there’s a common misbelief about testing, which is reinforced even by many experts.

They say, “Test one thing at a time so you know how each change affects your conversion rates.”

But if business results are more important than statistical analysis, you shouldn’t just test one thing at a time.

It might sound good, but it’s slow and ineffective, and the benefits are marginal.

Instead, take the results-focused approach.

How much traffic do you need?

People often ask, “How much traffic do I need before I can start testing?”

It depends on how big the difference between conversion rates is.

The less traffic you get, the longer running a test will take.

When you don’t have huge visitor numbers, you have to focus on tests that create big differences in conversions. Otherwise each test will take weeks or months.

At the same time, you don’t need a lot of traffic to get reliable results fairly quickly if you don’t fall for the one thing at a time belief.

Testing the details rarely works

Maybe you’ve heard that orange is the best button color for conversions. Or maybe you’ve heard that green or red is better.

The only way to know what works for you is to test it. And sometimes a different button color multiplies conversion rates.

But you’re more likely to get struck by lightning eight times before breakfast.

The new color can only make a real difference when it makes people notice the button significantly more easily.

The same goes with testing other design details; you’ll see a difference only if the changes make visitors focus on different things on the page.

Change the message

Successful conversion optimization is about testing what message works best and how it is best communicated.

For example, the following two headlines have the same message, so testing them won’t make a big difference.

  1. “The new XYZ gadget makes drilling easier than ever”
  2. “Drilling is super easy with the help of XYZ gadget”

However, changing your headlines can create big differences. That is, if you change the overall message.

Instead of focusing on how easy drilling is with the new gadget, you could make the alternative headline about precision, speed, consistency, or a number of other aspects (maybe the gadget allows you to drill square holes).

When you focus on another benefit (or otherwise another aspect) of the gadget, you find out which main idea is most interesting for your visitors.

The point is, as long as you don’t change the message, there’s no real difference in what visitors experience, and your conversion rates will stay the same.

So, what exactly are you supposed to do?

Focus on what makes the difference

Your conversion rates depend almost entirely on three things:

  1. How strong your value proposition is
  2. How well you communicate your value proposition
  3. Traffic quality

We’re not talking about traffic generation now, so I’ll skip the third point here.

Your value proposition is the collection of the most persuasive, believable reasons your target audience has for taking the action you want.

In other words, the stronger it is, the better reasons people have for moving forward (converting).

And the better you communicate it, the better people understand those reasons.

You need to know what your value proposition is to be able to create effective tests. But you need to know that anyway to get good conversion rates.

If you don’t know it (or it’s weak), you can’t point to good reasons for doing anything you ask. Whether it’s joining your email list or buying your products.

Create BIG tests

A BIG test is a test where you change what parts of your value proposition you focus on (drilling easily vs. fast or accurately).

And no, you don’t just change the headline; you change everything about the page to focus on the different aspect of your value proposition.

You might need to change page layout, images, and other design elements along with the page copy to get the new message across as well as possible.

For example, here’s the home page of Dogs — Lost and Found, a fictitious dog shelter.

dogs 1

The message of the page—the aspect of the value proposition the page focuses on—is “help these dogs be happy because it’s unfair that they’re locked up in a shelter or on the streets.”

The image is there to spark feelings of pity. The tagline, headline, and button underline how unfair it is that some dogs are tossed to the streets.

A BIG test could, for example, look like this:

dogs 2

Here the message is “find a new family member or best friend.”

The image creates an idea of a great day at the beach with your kids and dog—your family. The tagline, headline, and button focus on what the reader can get.

The page focuses on a different aspect of the value proposition, and that makes a real difference.

The button color, for example, is a trivial detail compared to how the different message affects conversions.

If you had started testing by changing one detail at a time, it would’ve taken weeks or months to get to the new version.

Time for the nitty-gritty

When you’ve tested focusing on different aspects of your value proposition, you can get into the details.

Test a different headline with the same message but different wording. Test the button color. Try another picture with the same general idea.

But more importantly, find the weak points of your page and change or test them.

For example, I ran a test on one of my landing pages. The only difference was the addition of a “featured in” bar into the header.

Even though nothing else changed, conversion rate went up by 37%.

I decided to run such a “small test” because one weak point of the page was lack of context and credibility.

Similarly, you need to look at your site and pages systematically to find the weak points.

Maybe your conversion rate is suffering from lack of clarity; people don’t stay on your site if they don’t immediately understand what they can get from you.

Or maybe you’re describing your offer so that it doesn’t feel relevant for your visitors; would you stay on a site that offered something that seems irrelevant to you?

But all that comes after testing what aspects of your value proposition are best at persuading visitors to convert.

If you want to figure out what’s the favorite food of your best friend, you won’t change the food you serve one ingredient at a time until you hit find the answer.

Rather, you try all kinds of foods to see which is closest to her favorite before perfecting any one recipe.

All you need to do

Start by getting really clear about your value proposition.

If you don’t know what it is, you can’t get to the next step.

Make sure the page you’re optimizing is focused on communicating your value proposition. If it’s not, change it until it is; you’ll definitely see a lift in your conversion rates.

Then create an alternate version of the page that focuses on different aspects of your value proposition. In other words, a page that stresses different reasons for taking the action you’re asking for.

And finally, share your experience and questions in the comments below.

Right now, Peter Sandeen is probably knee-deep in snow with his wife and dogs (he lives in Finland). But you can download a 5-step system for finding the core of your value proposition.

23 thoughts on “Improving Conversion Rates — Are You Doing it Right or Wrong?”

  1. Good point Pete.

    I agree with you on the value proposition.

    I have found that no amount of split testing can replace an outstanding OFFER.

    That’s what people go for, they don’t care so much about the color of the button it’s more about what’s in it for them.

    If it is a good deal people will knock over furniture running to come get it. This is what I have found works the best.

    1. Hey Darnell,

      You’re right; it’s really about what you offer and how you explain it (which is more of what the value proposition is about).

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with 😉


    2. Great points here. Having an outstanding offer can go a long way, and bringing that together with a strong value proposition will go a long way.

  2. Just started my blog and the traffic is crawling like an ant… Anyway, good advice Peter. Will look into it when the traffic is increasing. Thanks for sharing.

  3. The puppies v. family is a great illustration of your point. This is one of those things I should know but then I see those two images it’s a great reminder to think bigger. Great article–thanks!

    1. Hey Jenny,

      Thanks :)

      It’s not the simplest idea to explain, so it’s great to hear the example made it understandable.

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with 😉


  4. An idea I’d add to this article: radical changes let you get out of a local maximum.

    I.e. you do lots of small tests with the same offer and gradually reach a point where additional improvements become increasingly harder to achieve. The offer is maxed out, but maybe there’s a completely different variation of the offer that resonates so much better with the market.

    1. Hey Chris,

      Good point 😉

      And that actually happens quite often. It’s easy to get fixed on one idea of what your product is about. Finding new ways to present it often helps you reach a totally new customer bases.

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with 😉


    2. Exactly Chris.

      The small changes may slightly improve rates but if you make a big change, you could see huge improvements.

      I really like your idea of being maxed out. It reminds me of video games.

      Awesome insight Chris.

      Peter, really love this post. It doesn’t beat around the bush.

  5. I’ve been thinking about testing for far too long and not doing anything about it. Approaching this project seemed so overwhelming. This post gives me a great place to start. Thank you!

    1. Hey Julie,

      I avoid clichés, but Nike’s tagline is just too good… “Just do it”

      When you get started, it gets that much easier. And if you start with big tests, the process will help you more than just the “normal” testing.

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with 😉


  6. Great article, I always thought it was bad advice to test every small detail. That could take forever! Testing value propositions is much smarter and help you narrow in on your goal much faster.

    1. Hey Alex,

      Thanks. And yep, it can take “forever” and the results will never get as good as you can make them with more drastic tests.

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with 😉


  7. Peter,

    This is a very good article on understanding conversion testing and how it can help determine whether you gain the sale or lose it. Conversion seems to be the last thing that clients think of when it really should be the first. More importance seems to be placed on the cost of a campaign than what the potential client will ultimately be seeing (i.e. the value proposition). People are also adverse to change so if they believe one value proposition has worked for them “all this time” it is hard to convince them to test out a new proposition. Thanks for the valuable post.

    1. Hey Richard,

      I agree. You should have solid conversion rates before you start paying for traffic; what’s the point of paying for traffic that doesn’t make you any money? :)

      Let me know if you have any questions I can help with.


  8. Thanks Peter for really “showing us” how conversions work and how they can make a difference with the pupppies images. This is something I need to learn with my storebuilder for a retail site that I do, this post really inspired me to go further with it. Thank you again.

  9. Hey Peter,
    Great article! Super useful as I sometimes find the thought of A/B testing daunting but am just setting up and getting started. I am looking into Optimizely, not sure if that allows for these big tests. Any suggestions?


  10. Excellent article! I really like the point about the message. Split testing is great and I often times split test ad copy vs ad copy without changing anything else to see what message communicates the most effective. Good to see I am on the right path! Bookmarked so I can refer back, thanks!


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