Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability, SEO, relationship marketing and consumer psychology.


Qualifying Your Visitors

There's a knock at your door.  It's a friend, and she's really thirsty.  You invite her in and proceed to find out what she'd like to drink.  You can go about this in several ways.

Option 1:  You can ask, "What can I get you to drink?"  She runs through a list of drinks she'd be glad to have, and you shake your head every time she identifies something that isn't in your fridge.  Gradually, you'll narrow in on the drink, if your friend is persistent.

Option 2:  You can ask, "What can I get you to drink?  I've got chilled water, milk, orange juice, diet soda, or I'd be happy to make you a cup of tea or coffee."  Now you've told her up front what you have, and she can make her selection.

You have just helped your friend "qualify" her choice, making it so much easier for her to get her needs graciously fulfilled by her charming host.  More than that, you have treated your friend with respect and removed any chance she'll feel awkward requesting something you haven't got.  You haven't wasted anybody's time.  Nobody winds up feeling disappointed in the exchange.

This is not just the nice stuff you do in polite society, it's what you have to do on your Web site.  Help them qualify easily, and you'll draw many many more folks deeper into your conversion process.

Qualifying is one of the five steps in the sales process.  It goes hand in hand with presenting:  by presenting schemes of the products or services you offer, you help your visitors qualify their needs and quickly get to the stuff that interests them.   Presenting and qualifying are iterative; you go back and forth between the two as you narrow the field of choices. 

To be frank, lots of Web sites out there are really bad at this!

Where and when do you start presenting and qualifying?  Right up front.  On your home page.  Smack dab in your active window, which is, after all, your prime conversion real estate.

Where Do I Start This?

So maybe you're groaning, "Another thing my home page has to do?"   Let's be clear about what needs to happen on the home page:

  • You have to let your visitors know they are in the right place
  • You have to communicate your Unique Value Proposition
  • You have to engage your visitors and get them moving deeper into your site

Your home page cannot and should not be a complete snapshot of everything you are as a business.  That would be information overload, which very quickly sends your visitor into Paralysis of Analysis.  And many of your visitors will find a lot of that information irrelevant to their needs when they first arrive.

But your home page must present qualification schemes, center stage, that let your visitor figure out if you've got the stuff he wants.  Don't hope he'll thoroughly check out all the side-bar or top-nav stuff. And for pity's sake, don't hope he'll use your onsite search engine this is the online equivalent of Option 1 above!  All these qualification tactics require your visitor to disengage from the active window.  Give him relevant information exactly where his eyes are going to look for it first.

How do you qualify? 

Well, this is a bit trickier.  Folks have different ways of categorizing information. 

This is one of the big disadvantages of onsite search engines.  Unless your stuff has unique identifiers (think books with titles, CDs with artist names) or unless your search engine is monumentally sophisticated, what you call your stuff may not be what your visitor calls your stuff.  And sometimes, the search engine doesn't retrieve what the visitor is looking for.

I went to Lands End once for a pair of twill trousers.  Catalog in hand, I entered the item's name in the search box.  I got a screenful of results, but none was the item I was looking for.  Only when I entered the catalog product number did the item show up.  It was on the site, it just wasn't identified in the standard search. 

The point of this digression is to reiterate:  DO NOT depend on onsite search to carry the burden of presenting and qualifying.  Folks will tolerate only so much disappointment and frustration using inefficient site search tools.  Don't make your visitors responsible for figuring out what you offer!  That's your job.

So think very carefully about all your stuff, something you probably do a lot anyway. 

Think about top-level categorization, sub-categorization and all your cross-reference categories.  By brand, by room, by function, by gender, by age, by best-selling status nobody knows your stuff better than you.   

Determine how your visitors shop your site by examining your Web logs for navigation path activity, keeping in mind personality types will influence how your visitors use your site.  Pages that experience significant drop-off rates mean you have problems, some of which may be because you've dropped the qualification ball.

Understand your visitors.  Figure out the questions they are going to ask about your business and your stuff, then find ways to communicate the answers through your qualification scheme.  Your resources for this information could include customer service representatives, sales and buying staff, feedback letters and online user or opinion groups.

Translate your thoughts and your data into sensible, multiple schemes that appear on your home page and help folks qualify their needs from the moment they land on your site.  Carry these qualification themes through your sub-category pages.

Don't Forget the 4 Types of Traffic

Remember our discussion last time about the buying decision process?  I talked about the four types of traffic that come to your site:

  1. First, you've got the to-die-for perfect visitors; they are the ones who know exactly what they want and come to you looking for features, brands, and model numbers.  Get them quickly to where they want to go without making them jump through unnecessary hoops!
  2. Then you've got the visitors who sort of know what they want. These are folks who have identified a strongly felt need, but they're still in the process of narrowing down their search criteria.  Help them quickly get to the relevant information they need to complete the decision process.
  3. Then there are the window shoppers, folks who aren't sure they want anything, but might buy if they saw something that interested them. They have no strongly felt need in mind, but one could be suggested to them.  Provide a comprehensive, benefit-oriented overview of what you offer.
  4. The fourth group aren't really prospects. They're lost or there by mistake. Quickly let them know they are in the wrong place, and be happy when they go away.

Effectively qualifying ensures you are far better prepared to meet the needs of each group, which does very nice things for your conversion rates.

Show me the Qualifiers

Who does a better-than-average job of this?  Check out Dell Computers.  Right on their home page they present a two category scheme:  qualify by product category (5 options) or qualify by how you are going to use the product (7 options).  Follow an option and see how they continue working through presenting and qualifying. 

Do I think Dell presents a perfect example of qualifying?  Nope.  Lots of folks out there, me included, don't think about computers based on where they use them; they think in terms of the applications they put on their computers.  So which computer is best for me if I'm looking for something that will turn my living room into a recording studio?  Or gives me an awesome platform for my gaming obsession?  See what I mean?

Another good example of qualification on the home page?  Click on over to RideGear.  The identity and UVP up front, a straight-forward method of qualifying needs by wheeled contraption in the active window, and back-up qualification schemes that include hottest items, new items, items by brand and items by general category.

This isn't just to do with products.  Look at the way the American Cancer Society helps qualify needs so visitors can get the information and support that satisfies them as the tag comfortingly and very humanly promises, "No matter who you are, we can help."  This qualification scheme takes into account the nature of the visitor's relationship to the topic and offers links based on the questions these visitors are most likely to ask.  Is it graphically sophisticated?  Nope.  But it does a very nice job of categorizing top-level needs up front.1

What about the visitor who arrives on an internal landing page?  Maybe this visitor arrives on a product page, but it isn't exactly the product she wants.  This is when your supplemental navigation schemes come in, allowing back-door visitors entry to the wealth of your site, drawing them into the splendid way in which you help folks find just the thing they were looking for!

Qualifying is a mandatory component of your site's conversion process, and you have to attend to it in prime conversion real estate.  When you intentionally plan for qualifying, you increase the relevance of your site to your visitors, you help them feel more confident using your online service, and you help motivate them further into your conversion system.  And the further in they get, the less likely they are to "drop-off."

So, what are you waiting for?  Get qualified!


1 Thanks to Nick Usborne, Copywriter Extraordinaire, for this observation.


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