Volume 133: 06/21/06

Conversion versus Persuasion: What's Your Challenge?

Conversion is no longer the biggest problem facing online marketers; persuasion is. However, a misconception about the nature and value of linear conversion funnels persists. Some say the linear conversion funnel is dead. Others still conceive of their efforts as entirely based on linear conversion funnels.

This misconception about linear processes has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Fortunately, misperception is an opportunity for clarification. So please allow me clarify.

The linear conversion funnel has its place. Though rudimentary and limited, it's a great blunt-force beginners' tool for online marketers with few or no metrics in place (and there are far too many of those left). But the linear conversion funnel won't take sophisticated marketers very much further in their optimization efforts. No conversion funnel will, 2.0 or otherwise.

Instead of considering the conversion funnel by itself, we should think of it as living at the bottom end of the buy/sell process. Let me say again, conversion is no longer the biggest problem facing online marketers; persuasion is.

Without persuasion, there's no incentive for visitors to walk through your linear sales process. Unlike conversion, persuasion isn't linear. The conversion funnel is smooth and simple, but the persuasive reservoir that feeds it is as complex and non-funnel-like as your visitors are.

The limits of conversion rate optimization

When we first began studying conversion years ago, we observed conversion is about the sales process. By definition, it's always linear. The sales process is about moving consumers along a path that goes from prospecting to close and retention.

In the sales process you appear to have much more control of the customer's environment. You can optimize clearly defined steps that move prospects forward to a close. But this isn't accurate. It's an oversimplification taken from the seller's perspective.

In the linear sales interaction you can easily measure whether you moved people through the sales process. Either the customers took the next step or they didn't. You can see the drop-off between the funnel's steps.

Conversion rate optimization assumes people want to participate in your sales process by taking an end-stage conversion action now. If they want to transact now, your job is to help them do so easily. (If this is still an issue for your company, priority one is to harvest the low-hanging fruit. Optimizing your sales process is important, but it remains limited in its ability to drive maximum return on your marketing investment.)

While you're busy optimizing your sales process, customers are engaged in a distinctly different process: their own idiosyncratic buying process. They're in complete control of it. They interact with myriad factors that exist outside of your selling process and outside of your company.

These factors are completely out of your control. How can you possibly control their interaction with competitors, word-of-mouth issues, and so on?

Optimizing the buying process is a matter of persuasion

You have the customer's permission to sell inside the conversion funnel. Outside the conversion funnel, even on your own site, the matter's more delicate. That's why we insist a persuasion architecture that includes persuasion scenarios is a superior method of understanding customer behavior. When you build a predictive model of customer interactions with your site (and any other business entities or touch points), you recognize customers are in control and only see what's relevant to them. Scenarios are plans to influence their buying decision based on what's relevant to them.

You no longer control how or when in the buying process a customer approaches you to purchase. So you must consider every touch point (online, offline, and across channels and media) as a piece of the buying process in a customer's persuasion scenario. Use it to influence her next action in your favor.

Click on thumb nail to view full-size image

Waiting for Your Cat to Bark? outlines the persuasion scenario planning techniques we use to plan ways your company can influence this. It can also be broken down using this diagram:

The funnel-like shape represents all the business touch points customers may have to navigate. No matter how long it takes, the buying process always begins with customers becoming aware of a problem, need, or want. They then conduct a search (whether in their heads, by being confronted by an offer, by asking others, or with a search engine) to identify a possible solution. These are the driving points where people enter a persuasion scenario.

While gathering information, customers refine the buying criteria that affect their purchase decision. Customers then narrow the field of choice to the best few options.

Finally, customers choose from what they perceive as the best few and take action. At this point, customers begin interacting with your selling process, represented by the narrowest portion of the funnel.

The whole concept of evaluating alternatives can't be linear. Once the consumer makes the decision to purchase, the process becomes somewhat more linear.

Persuasion scenarios account for the non-linear decision-making process. They also account for various needs that drive your visitors toward conversion while addressing cross-channel marketing issues.

Knowing when you're ready to tackle persuasion problems

You're ready to undertake solutions to problems with persuasion if you experience one or more of the following:

  • Despite drastic changes to marketing, messaging, and landing pages, you can't move your conversion rate needle more than a point, positive or negative.

  • You have one or two marketing channels with a consistent, decent conversion rate. Every other channel or effort you try has abysmal results.

  • Perception research, online and offline, shows severe disparity between customer perception and your reality.

  • You sometimes get huge spikes after a successful campaign, but you can't duplicate that success.

Solving the persuasion dilemma

Persuasion and conversion are two sides of the same coin. Both offer marketers substantial opportunities for growth by providing tools to leverage assets and understand human behavior. Conversion funnels are only one tool in a marketer's toolbox.

Persuasion scenarios, on the other hand, allow customers to feel a seamless, relevant, non-linear path through your touch points -- online and offline.

Helping customers see what they want, when they want it and in the way they want to see it is substantially preferable to forcing them though a hub-and-spoke, back-and-forth path. Visitors will reward your newfound respect for persuasive scenario planning with an action that speaks louder than words: a conversion.

Go ahead and pull your conversion funnel off the mantle. But don't toss it out just yet. It'll become a nice memento as we chart bigger and bolder persuasive landscapes.

Train to Increase Your Conversion Rates

New Services

We've been busy bees over the holidays.  Check out our services page - new services have already been launched and more are coming!

New Publications

You'll also want to keep an eye on our publications page.  We've been working on creating resources that will help you put many of our principles into practice more easily and more efficiently.  We're just about to release several of our newest products, including Which Sells Best?: A Quick Start Guide to Testing for Retailers and The Conversion Experts Handbook.

How to Begin

As marketers in today's landscape, we must walk a different path. No longer will our product-centered, mass-market habits serve us well. The interconnectedness of emerging media means we must focus on the customer and create persuasive systems that have at their core an understanding of human motivations. Our unfolding experience economy makes this demand on all of us.

Waiting for Your Cat to Bark? presents Persuasion Architecture as a set of big principles. Sometimes, the scope can seem daunting ... it can feel like sitting in front of a great big feast of roast elephant with your little knife and fork. How, you sensible want to know, do you go about eating an entire elephant?

A perfectly sensible answer? One bite at a time!

The very first steps

My loyal readers are familiar with the phases of Persuasion Architecture, but everything we have been working towards since 1998 is synthesized in our new book. So, quite shamelessly, I encourage you, as your very first step, to acquire Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?.

Second step? Read it!

Then you're ready to take your knife and fork to that roast elephant.

Uncovery is essential

Don't mistake me. It would be great if you could revisit your business objectives and design - or redesign - from the bottom up (or all in one big bite, as it were). But undertaking the task in smaller, discrete bites will definitely produce results. Sometimes budgets limit how much folks can tackle at any given time. Sometimes folks just need to be convinced the process works!

If you can focus on only one element of Persuasion Architecture, focus on uncovery. Uncovery provides a foundation, without which any attempt at persuasion crumbles. The goals of uncovery are to identify the value of the business and articulate it in a way that matters to the customer, so you can create the best merger between selling and buying for your situation.

Uncovery is the only piece in Persuasion Architecture that can stand alone. You can turn directly to optimizing an existing scenario once you have completed uncovery. But no other step in Persuasion Architecture can take place in the absence of uncovery.

Know your audience

Toward the end of the uncovery process, you start creating personas that give insight into the customers' buying processes and help you understand each customer's individual needs, wants and desires through detailed narratives.

Invest some time thinking about your personas ... what they would find relevant, how they will approach you, what they need from you. Even if you simply toss around persona ideas, you will benefit.

Take it for a test drive

With the information you've learned through uncovery, plan a small, simple scenario. It doesn't have to be complicated - a pay-per-click, a television or banner ad, an e-mail. You can revisit material you've already developed, or start your little scenario from scratch.  Flesh out the narrative. Execute the structure and persuasive elements of your scenario. Develop it, take it out for a test drive, then evaluate your results.

A system for continuous improvement

Because Persuasion Architecture is a meticulously planned process, the attention to detail allows the persuasive system to become self-identifying. During uncovery, we explore objectives and assumptions. During wireframing, we are creating the strategy that will allow us to reach our objectives. During storyboarding and prototyping, we are planning the tactics to implement our strategy, and during development, we are executing.

Once we actually experience how customers interact with the system, we can go back to revisit anything from the underlying assumptions to the actual tactics - they all are connected to each other within this process.

People often ask us, "How do we know this will work?" and "How do we know we'll be collecting the right data and making the right assumptions?" It's the process that works; it's only partially reliant on talent. If a business can commit to being a part of this process, it will work. And if mistakes get made, as they inevitably do, you'll know exactly where they are. The mistakes are always self-identifying.

When our clients understand the Persuasion Architecture methodology, they are much more confident about proceeding. After all, it's an intuitively sound process. It has to work. By the time uncovery concludes with the creation of personas, those who entered into the process with trepidation are complete believers. We suspect that's because very few people have ever given this much thought to their persuasive systems before.

Finishing-having a perfect persuasive system-isn't as important as having something. If you start applying these principles to your business, even in incremental stages, we guarantee you will see better results-not just by percentages but by multiples!

The good news is Persuasion Architecture is an extremely practical methodology. Even when applied in smaller, less-than-ideal pieces, it will still improve any persuasive system. Tackling these principles one at a time is a perfectly reasonable way to start.

Everyone here urges you: please, do try this at home. The only wrong response to Persuasion Architecture is no response at all.

Volume 133: 06/21/06

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