What if there was a method – a process even – that you could apply to boost website sales? Wouldn’t that be swell? Well, there is.

This method works across all categories, it doesn’t really matter what business you’re in. I’ve turned it into a checklist. So the way to use it is you take your website, compare it to any item on the list, make improvements, and your online sales will increase.

Start with measurable goals

Before we get started on the checklist, make sure you have actual, measurable goals in place (e.g. sell boots, get subscribers).

  • If you don’t have a single focus for your site, it’s very difficult to achieve results
  • You cannot systematically improve what you cannot measure (or won’t notice when it happens)

So start with specific goals and make sure your web analytics software is tracking those goals.

Personal opinions do not matter (much)

There’s no shortage of opinions in this world. Sadly, most of them are misguided and even incompetent. People see the world as they are, and think everybody else is like then. “But I never click on ads!”, “Nobody shares their email!”, “I think it should be blue” and so on.

You are not the world. You are not your customer. Hence you cannot make conclusions about user behavior based on your personal preferences. It’s very natural to want to, but try to resist.

Instead, focus on evidence based marketing.

The internet is not in its infancy anymore. We (humankind) have had many, many years to test, try and see what works online. There are all kind of frameworks out there that explain where conversions come from. There’s research. There’s testing.

The following checklist is a summary of key elements that help you get more sales (or whatever you’re after).

Increasing sales online: the checklist

Here it is:

  • Create buyer personas
  • Drive relevant traffic and create relevant messages (for personas)
  • Make your design good
  • Create compelling value propositions
  • Understand buying phases
  • Reduce friction
  • Focus on clarity
  • Eliminate noise and distraction
  • Engage visitors
  • Add urgency
  • Follow usability standards

Now let’s look at each item individually.

1. Buyer personas

The more people feel that an offer is right for them, the more likely they are to take it.

Let me prove it to you. Let’s say you want to buy new running shoes. First, answer these questions:

  • Your gender?
  • Age?
  • Weight?
  • Where do you normally run?

Now, would you rather buy running shoes that are suitable for all  or the one that is specifically designed for your gender, age group, weight and type of use? That’s a no brainer.

Your goal is to identify main types of customer groups – their needs, wants, requirements and use cases. Buyer personas are essentially a specific group of potential customers, an archetypal person whom you want your marketing to reach.

Image credit

Optimizing your site for buyer personas gets you away from an egotistical point of view and gets you to talk to users about their needs and wants. What people care about are themselves and answers to their problems, which is why buyer personas are so critical for marketing success.

Essentially it’s about knowing who you are selling to, what is their situation, what are they thinking, their needs and hesitations. If you’d know the exact person you’re selling to and the problems they have, you’d be in a much better position to sell them. RightNow Technologies increased their conversions 4x by building a persona focused site.

How to build them?

The truth is that most companies have only the faintest idea what lies behind the buying decision. We presume an awful lot. The buyer persona is a tool that can help you see deeper  into the buyer’s thinking.

Use interviews with existing customers to map out different personas. To get more information on this read The Buyer Persona Manifesto (free pdf). Here’s a free webinar recording on buyer personas I recommend checking out.

Your personas should dictate every word and every image  on your site. Your website layout, navigation and general user flow should come from personas.

2. Relevancy and motivation

This is about 2 things:

  • targeting the right people,
  • communicating the right message.

It’s not really possible to sell people things they don’t need or want. If you sell laptops and somehow get me to your site – I won’t buy one because I already have one. What you offer is not relevant to me at this moment.

A key ingredient of high conversions is relevant traffic. If you stop driving irrelevant traffic to your site, your conversions will go up. As a marketer, one of your constant jobs is to find the right marketing mix:

  • the right media (where to advertise / promote – free or paid),
  • the right message (what do you say?),
  • the right offer (how much $$$ for what).

If you get the media right and the traffic is relevant (e.g. people are genuinely interested in what you have to offer), you’re instantly doing better.

Now you have to figure out which value proposition works best for this audience. This is where you go back to step #1 and customer personas.

Understand why people need your product, what problems it solves for them and reflect it back to them. When people (your target group) feel understood, magic happens.

Additional reading:

3. Design and visual hierarchy

In a nutshell: beautiful design sells better than ugly design. Beautiful does not mean it’s full of bells and whistles. Beautiful design is also effective.

BMW, Apple or Nike are not throwing millions of dollars at design just for fun. They know it sells better. In fact, design (not just how it looks, but how it works too) is the key reason why people buy them.

How do you know if your site is ugly?

If you built your site yourself – and you’re not a designer – it sucks. Get a new one.

If you use cheesy stock photography – like customer service people with headsets or suits shaking hands – it’s likely the rest of your site sucks too. Don’t use the ‘Women laughing alone with salad’ style:

If you had a freelancer build it who charged you $2/hr, it sucks. Quality craftsmanship always comes at a fair price – no matter what country they’re from.

The more you know about something, the better you’re able to tell the difference

Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? There’s this scene (starts around 1 minute into the video) where Anne Hathoway’s character mocks the fashion people who think two identical belts look ‘so different’.

Be it dogs, fashion or web design – you have to spend years analyzing them to be able to separate the good from the bad, and know exactly why.

I’ve seen too many buttugly websites that their respective owners thought looked great. Yes, to an extent beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but mostly not. Your site is either ugly or it isn’t.

Sure, there are exceptions like Craigslist, but those are outliers. First of all Craigslist started when buttugly was the standard, and later it successfully made barebones design its “thing”. If they’d start today looking like they do, nobody would use it.

Visual hierarchy and user guidance

Your website’s design carries another important role – it communicates what’s important and what the user should do next.

Every page on your site should have a most wanted action – the #1 thing you want people to do on those pages. This is where visual hierarchy comes in.

Look at this website:

Now think what was your eye movement order? What did you notice first, second, last? Probably the first two were the headline (It’s your money…) and the image, followed by the the explanatory paragraph and call to action (Free! Get started).

It not a coincidence. They wanted you to see those thing in that order. And what’s equally important is what you DIDN’T notice – the navigation, all the other secondary information that is not really important at first.

Additional reading:

4. Value propositions

A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the main reason a prospect should buy from you (and not from the competition).

In a nutshell, value proposition is a clear statement that

  • explains how your product solves customers’ problems or improves their situation (relevancy),
  • delivers specific benefits (quantified value),
  • tells the ideal customer why they should buy from you and not from the competition (unique differentiation).

You have to present your value proposition as the first thing the visitors see on your home page, but should be visible in all major entry points of the site.

If your main landing pages (home page, product page etc) don’t have a value proposition or they don’t understand it (see #7), you are losing sales.

I’ve written an extensive post on creating value propositions along with a bunch of examples. You should read it.

Design Boost does it well.

  • What is it: learn app design. Tools and know-how for building and selling apps
  • End-benefit: become over-employed
  • Who’s it for: people who want to build apps like the pros

5. Understanding buying phases

Let’s say you surf the web and come across this site:

What stands out is that they go straight for the sale – asking to register right away. The only thing people know about them at this point is “Create attractive articles. Quick. Easy. Profitable.” – which says absolutely nothing.

It’s like when you see a pretty girl / handsome boy walk by, approach him/her with a meaningless sentence and then go for the kiss. What would be the success rate of that? Zero. We know this, yet people do it all the time online.

Understanding buying phases is all about understanding how people work.

Largely, customers fall into 3 groups

  • People who have a problem / need, but they don’t know it
  • People who are researching different options, comparison shopping
  • People who have made the decision

Depending on your industry there might be a few additional groups. Use customer interviews to learn about the different phases your buyers are in.

You have to sell differently to each group. The first group is pretty much hopeless and it’s very difficult to sell them anything, since you need to sell the problem first.

Researchers

In most niches these people form the majority. The main question you need to answer for them is ‘why should I buy from you?’.

If you don’t have a compelling value proposition, you’re going to lose. If you don’t make it clear how you’re better or different from the competition, you’re going to lose – especially if you’re not the cheapest.

Humans don’t like to think. They like to compare products by looking at a couple of simple parameters like price and maybe something else (e.g. in case of web hosting, disk space).

If people can’t understand the differences between your product and that of your competitor, they’re going to choose based on the price. “If it’s all the same, why pay more!?

Do this:

  • State your advantages and differences on your home page and on product pages
  • If you sell mass market products (e.g. Sony TVs, Dell laptops, Gucci perfumes) and you’re not the cheapest, you need to clearly communicate the added value of your higher price.

Researchers are looking for information that will help them decide. Your job is to provide them with as much info as possible to make a positive purchasing decision.

If you rush the sale – ask for a sign-up before they have enough information, you will scare them away. Here’s a good case for burying your signup or buy button. One company removed the sign up call to action from the top of the homepage, and sign-ups increased 350%.

People who have decided

Some people, after they’ve conducted their research, will come back to you for the transaction. They’re looking for clearly visible call to action buttons (add to cart) or links with trigger words (sign up).

Your job is to make sure that’s easy to find. Conduct ‘think out loud’ usability testing to test it.

6. Reduce friction

Whenever you ask people to do something or commit to something, there’s friction. It’s impossible to remove friction completely in a business transaction, you can only minimize it.

Friction is all the doubts, hesitations and second thoughts people have about giving you money for a product.

Is it really worth the money? Will it break? Can I trust this guy? Will it work? What if it doesn’t fit? Is this a scam? Is it the right choice for me? Will she like it?

The way to convert an infidel to a believer is to address all of their doubts and give them full information, so they are able to convince themselves.

The usual suspects – elements that add friction:

  • Long and/or complicated process. This is “get a quote” forms with 10 fields, 3-page applications, etc
  • Websites with horrible usability where people don’t understand how to buy or can’t find any contact info.
  • Anonymous site: no names, photos, phone numbers or physical address published. If it seems you’re trying to hide, you must have something to hide. If you don’t publish photos of yourself, is it that you don’t want your customers to recognize you?
  • Ugly, amateur website
  • Insufficient evidence. This is where you make a bunch of claims, but don’t back them up.
  • Insufficient information. A chair, 2 ft tall, black, $5000. There are thousands of sites that hardly provide any information about the products they sell. Research says 50% of purchases are not completed due to lack of information.
  • FUDs. Fears, uncertainties, doubts. Much like the list of questions above, every person has some doubts in a form of a question. The way to overcome these is to address those FUDs in your sales copy. Interview your customers to find out what they are.

The classical way to boost credibility is to use testimonials:

Credible testimonials are with full name and photo, from both celebrities and people like your buyers. Anonymous testimonials are not believable.

Fitness site Bodyhack combated arguments that their results page photos are Photoshopped. “Noone can achieve those results in 3 months“, they heard. They added a ton of evidence, like videos, to overcome these concerns.

Make a list of all the FUDs your target group have, and address them with evidence.

Social proof is powerful. Show impressive numbers, like how many happy customers you’ve got. Nobody wants to be the only idiot buying your stupid product.

7. Clarity

People won’t buy what they don’t understand. In fact, people fear what they don’t understand. Racism, xenophobia and all that comes from the fear of the unknown.

Whatever you’re selling, the buyer is a human. Doesn’t matter if it’s your granny or a top exec from PwC. They’re all humans. If the text (or video) on your site is easy to understand and in a compelling language, your conversions will go up.

A friend of mine blogged about an email he received. I think it’s a good example of what NOT to do.

Hi Deniss,

My name is […], Senior Director of Feedback Management at [..]. I wanted to let you know about some information that could impact on your role at […]. A recent […] study, “Customer Feedback Management: Leveraging the Voice of the Customer to Amplify Business Results,” revealed that companies successfully leveraging Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs accomplish quantifiable year-over-year performance gains including increased annual revenue and higher customer satisfaction ratings.

[…] I will be hosting a webinar, based on the study’s findings […]

I hope you’ll be able to join us for what is sure to be an informative webinar that will yield valuable take-aways for your organization!

You can always avoid this kind of jargon by using the “friend” test. Read the text on your website out loud and imagine it’s a conversation with your friend. If there’s a word or a sentence you wouldn’t use, re-word it.

What does this company do?

Pretty clear, isn’t it. No fancy schmancy stuff. You don’t need big words. You need to be clear.

If the text on your website is not fun to read and takes effort to understand, you’re doing it wrong.

Same goes for video. A good example of a clear presentation is by Nest:

It’s a thermostat! This could be the most boring technical video of all times. But it’s not.

8. Noise and distraction

There’s an adage for outdoor billboard design – it’s ready when there’s nothing left to remove. In a way this also applies for websites.

The more choice you give to people, the harder it is to choose anything. When there are too many options to choose from, it’s easiest to choose nothing at all.  There’s tons of research to confirm this. In addition, greater choice makes us unhappy.

If you have a ton of products, you have to provide great filters to help people narrow down the choice.

Noise and distraction is not just about how many products you have. It’s how busy your layout is, how many competing design elements there are, all asking for attention.

Rule of noise: The closer you get to closing the sale, the less things you should have on your screen. Once they get to checkout screen, you shouldn’t have ANYTHING on the page that doesn’t directly contribute to conversion.

Look at Amazon checkout screen. No sidebar, no menu, no related products. They just really want you to click the “Place your order” button.

Have a single most wanted action for each screen, and make sure the important stuff stands out. Don’t have anything in the layout that isn’t absolutely necessary. Simple works.

9. Engagement

What’s your conversion rate? 1%? 3%? Even if it’s a high 5%, that’d mean that 95% of the visitors don’t buy anything.

They came to your site (maybe even through paid advertising), bought nothing and left… now what? Have you lost them for good? Not necessarily.

In a lot of cases the best way to increase sales is to avoid one at first. Remember buying phases? Instead of asking for money, try to engage them in some way and ideally collect their email address so you can keep talking to them.

General rule: the more expensive and/or complicated the product, the more time people need to make a decision.

If you’re selling cars or computers, it’s highly unlikely that someone will buy one online on their first visit. This is why you should get their email first, add value, prove your expertise, get them to like you, etc.  BEFORE you ask for the sale.

Think Traffic wants to sell you different infoproducts. But much, much later. They go for the email first:

While email is the best way to go, you might also go for

  • social media follow (Twitter, Facebook etc).
  • some sort of test or quiz,
  • immediate tryout of your product,
  • sweepstakes – enter to win.

Optimizely lets you just enter any URL to see their product in action:

Appsumo is using a lot of sweepstakes to build their list:

Additional reading:

10. Urgency

Urgency is a powerful motivator, if done well.

Most of us have seen something like this:

Act now or you miss this super deal!

There are 3 ways to create urgency:

  • Quantity limitations (Only 3 tickets left at this price)
  • Time limitations (Discounted tickets until July 1st)
  • Contextual limitations (Father’s Day is coming, get a gift now)
As long as the reason for the urgency is believable, it will work. Too many marketers abuse it and try to add urgency to everything. It’s not just possible. But when it makes sense to use it, it will produce a ton of results.

11. Usability

If your site is difficult to use, people won’t use it. Nobody will bother to figure out stuff. The best websites provide a seamless experience – everything seems intuitive and people don’t have to think.

Luckily it’s not the 90’s or early 2000’s anymore when usability was just plain awful. In 2010 the average failure rate was 22%.

Check out these fantastic usability checklists for different sections of your website. Compare your site against all of them and make necessary corrections.

If you’re in it for the long run, focus on loyalty

What does the future hold? Jakob Nielsen proposed the following formula a while back:

B = V × C × L

B – business results
V – visitors / traffic
C – conversion
L – loyalty

If you want to double your results, you can either double the number of unique visitors (very expensive), double the conversion rate (possible, but increasingly harder as there’s a max limit to your conversion rate) or double repeat purchases.

Whereas we might aptly call the period 2000–2010 the conversion decade for website usability professionals, 2010–2020 will be the loyalty decade.

- Jakob Nielsen

If you want to increase sales right now, focus on conversions or (relevant) traffic. If you want to increase sales online in the long run, focus on loyalty.

Compare your website against this checklist.  Let me know your results.