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Conversion Funnels in Web Analtyics

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I have a few quick notes of things I wanted to mention before I dive into more discussion of Form Abandonment and Conversion Funnels.

With the new year kicking off I have a whole raft of interesting speaking gigs coming up. This Thursday I’m going to be back in San Diego speaking at SemDirector’s (I guess I should now say Covario since they have changed their name) InflectionPoint 2008 Conference.

I’ll be on a panel discussing “Measuring Success in Search Interactive.” We’re going to be partnering with Covario (more on that soon) and I’m definitely looking forward to the Conference. The next week, I’m going to be talking web analytics (in an introductory fashion – a stretch for me) at the AAN Web Publishing 2008 Conference. In February, I’ll be at the eXl Pharma Conference on Search Engine Marketing (talking about structuring your SEM program), The Web Managers Roundtable in Washington DC (talking about Analytic Reporting!!) and then the SMX West conference (Measuring SEM programs). That’s three conferences in three days in three cities. Boy am I (not) looking forward to that!

So let’s talk about Form Abandonment. The main point of my last post was that looking at step drop-off is very far from being the main focus of good conversion funnel analysis. Today, I want to start talking about some of the other things that you should be looking at that may, in the end, be more fruitful.

I decided to start off with thinking about what happened before a visitor entered the Form. First things first, after all!

A conversion process is very far from being an island unto itself. And, to a surprising extent, you have control over when visitors reach a Forms process. The placement, sizing, wording and aggressiveness of “Calls-to-Action” on a web site make a big difference on when and from where visitors reach the actual process.

In our Functional Methodology, we make the distinction between many different types of pages in the sales cycle. "Convincer" pages are designed to win the customer. But they often are more focused on providing the necessary marketing information than on making the request for the sale. That’s why many sites also have a distinct class of pages we call "Closers." Their function is to ask for the sale. Naturally, some sites also blend these functions. And some sites have various types of Convincer pages – some focused on more informational ("Informers") or explanatory ("Explainers") functions.

There is a significant school of thought in web design that emphasizes the importance of the Call-to-Action. I actually tend to belong to that school of thought. But it CAN be overdone. When your site turns into nothing but a big Call-to-Action, you may be losing more visitors than you’re winning.

For many sites – especially in complex areas like Financial Services – the sales cycle cannot be shortened too much. You need to realize that driving visitors too quickly into a conversion funnel will raise drop-off rates and, at some point, provide diminishing marginal returns. It is a purely empirical issue when Calls-to-Action impair instead of enhance the efficiency of your site.

All of this just underscores the point made last time – Form Performance is not independent of the rest of site. By adding aggressive Calls-to-Action, you will almost certainly cause a decline in funnel conversion. Whether that decline offsets the increase in form starts is left to measurement.

I call the degree to which visitors are ready to enter the conversion funnel their pre-qualification rate. If you dump PPC or Ad Banner visitors directly into a Conversion Funnel, your pre-qualification rate is likely to very low. But as with almost any web statistic, no single pre-qualification rate is either inherently good or bad.

To measure issues with pre-qualification, you need to track the rate of Form Success against a set of variables that track what happened before entering the Form.

Some of the most commonly useful variables to look at include: # of pages viewed before entering the Form, # of visits before entering the Form, Time on Site before entering the Form, # of Pages and Time Spent on Convincer/Closer Pages before entering the Form (Functionalism provides a nice way to help you focus on how much time visitors spent on the pages that, presumably, matter) and the immediate page before entering the Form.

As part of this analysis, I’ll typically carve out the group of visitors who enter the site on the Form and the group of visitors whose first site action (after Entry) is to go to the Conversion Process. All other visitors form the third distinct visitor segment.

To measure pre-qualification, you should collect the form start and form completion rates by each of the potentially useful variables listed above for each segment.

You’ll be looking for places where there are significant drives to the conversion process that have markedly better or worse rates of Form Completion. In general, you’ll see very much what you’d expect. The more stuff (and the more sales stuff) that visitors looked at, the higher their level of qualification. But since there is drop-off at each step in a web-site, this increasingly level of qualification needs to balanced against fewer form starts.

Dramatically different levels of pre-qualification between relatively close steps often indicate places where you’ve been too aggressive in calling for the sale. On the other hand, where little difference exists between the various steps, you may not be using calls-to-action aggressively enough.

Most sites will find that they have a group of visitors who arrive on the site “Ready to Buy.” This group will proceed directly to the conversion funnel (that’s why we always try to segment them into a separate group) – and it’s why it’s almost always a good idea to have reasonable direct access to conversion from your landing pages. If you don’t segment out this group of visitors, you risk messing up the rest of the analysis. These visitors will make it appear as if the less content visitors view, the more effective the site.

Most sites will also find that they have a segment of visitors willing to buy but needing some amount of convincing. These buyers need to be routed to the appropriate place on the site – and the Convincer pages need to contain a good balance of content and Calls-to-Action.

For these pages, you’ll be looking to see if there is a clear sweet-spot (content that visitors must view to be pre-qualified – and the amount of time/pages before pre-qualification reaches a reasonable level). If you can find a sweet-spot, you’ll want to tune your site design to guide visitors to the right content in the right number of pages and THEN aggressively call for the sale.

This means that the behavior of visitors in your conversion process can tell you a lot about how to structure your site effectively. Strong differences in pre-qualification rates (held constant by referring source) can help pinpoint the type and amount of content your “willing to buy” visitors need. That’s a vital piece of information in thinking about your overall site structure.

By tuning the navigational flow of your site and the placement and nature of Calls-to-Action, you can significantly improve Form performance. Without ever touching your Form!

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