Best Practices Are Worst Practices (When Optimizing Conversion Rates)
The content optimization industry has been experiencing steady upward growth in recent years and will continue to do so. It is a young industry, and there are still a lot of misconceptions around it. According to Verified Market Research:
“The Global Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) market was valued at USD 771.2 Million in 2018 and is expected to witness a growth of 9.6% from 2019-2026 and reach USD 1,932.2 Million by 2026.”
As with most marketing practices that involve rigorous testing and research there are many misconceptions and “best practice” methods floating around providing misleading information to your agency.
The largest issue facing best practises for CRO is directly related to the idea that CRO can be a standardized process. The CRO industry is still in relative infancy. As it continues to grow there is an increasing need to discuss the fact that CRO should not and cannot be a standardized process.
A Prelude to CRO Best Practices
Conversion rate optimization (CRO) was first conceptualized out of necessity due to the aftermath of the dot-com bubble that occurred in the early 2000s. E-commerce marketers were left with a desperate need to improve the performance of their websites. As competition grew on the web, website analysis tools and an awareness of website usability prompted internet marketers to produce measurables for their tactics and improve their website's user experience.
By the year 2004, many new tools had emerged allowing internet marketers to test website design content and variations to validate which copy, layouts, offers and images performed best. The emergence of these “best performing practices” proliferated further in 2007 with the emergence of the free Google Website Optimizer.
Nowadays, conversion and optimization are key aspects meshed into marketing and sales initiatives. A research study conducted among internet marketers uncovered that 59% of respondents thought that CRO was "most crucial to their overall digital marketing strategy.”
Due to the high importance of CRO, many “best practices” have emerged as industry trends and standards that many businesses fall into adhering to as their only guide. Many involve misconceptions that not only lead to poor brand differentiation but to improper optimization that is hurting your website and your business as a whole.
Best Practices Explained
Though it may seem non-explanatory, what is the definition of a best practice? It is important that we first define the term in order to discern the main issues surrounding best practices for CRO. Merriam-Webster describes a best practice as:
“A procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.”
To be clear, there are some situations that require industry best practices to be followed to ensure proper rules, regulations and guidelines are properly implemented such as medical fields and law practices etc. Recommending a blatant disregard within certain industries for existing methodologies would be irrational.
However, it is very important to use a critical eye as to whether or not they are appropriate beyond the fact they're already in use, none more so than in sales and marketing. Industry experts will agree, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all best practices in conversion rate optimization.
All of that being said, let’s take a look at why best practices in CRO fall short.
Why CRO Best Practices Fail
At a glance, it may seem that best practices, by definition, are instrumental in creating a baseline method to implement CRO in your organization. However, the concerning portion of this definition is: “a standard suitable for widespread adoption.”
The issue facing this statement is the idea surrounding “what works for them, will work for me.” Just because “Company A” had success with a certain initiative does not mean that “Company B” can plug-and-play the same process and expect the same outcome.
Finding best practices is all about taking the time to research what you are planning to do and discerning the best methods for your agency to get it done. Establishing your own best practices for your own area of expertise or business is a crucial aspect of making everything work smoothly and efficiently. As marketing industry leader Neil Patel explains:
“Reading about best practices, tests that won, and A/B testing success stories is great. Testing stuff on your site is great. However, blindly following best practices or believing that you’ll experience the same results can do more harm than good.”
To make things worse, many site owners don’t even bother testing the methods they read about in best practice guides. There is a general blind trust attributed to best practices due to the over-saturation of “quick fixes” and “how to’s” that exist on the internet.
In psychology, this mentality can be described as the availability cascade. Which is to say:
“The development of certain kinds of collective beliefs. A novel idea or insight, usually one that seems to explain a complex process in a simple or straightforward manner, gains rapid currency in the popular discourse by its very simplicity and by its apparent insightfulness.”
This mentality can prove to be very concerning in the sense that all best practice statistics, upticks and percentages tend to blind us to the fact that it is not your website that these results are being pulled from.
It is easy to attribute the success factor of another company to your own and attempt to follow suit. The misconceptions behind following suit with CRO best practices will indefinitely lead to the loss of time, money and valuable resources.
Here are some reasons why we are so easily persuaded by CRO best practices:
It Has Already Been Tested
As previously discussed, simply because something has been tested on one platform, many factors come into play that will usually mean this tactic will not work the same for you.
For instance, the results from whichever best practice you wish to emulate will be completely different based on the industry, design, colour scheme, headline, conversion action, customer or niche etc. We have no way of knowing if the best practice tests that were conducted were broken from the get-go. The test may have measured too many variables, have no underlying hypothesis or have any baseline data.
Because Testing is Time Consuming
Testing various changes on your site can often be not only confusing but also time-consuming. However, if you choose to rely on the tests of other people and get it wrong, you will have ended up spending more time than you would have by initially split-testing your own methods.
It is always worth putting the effort into testing your own methods first, to determine your own internal best practices that work for your business. Just because someone calls something “best” doesn’t always mean it is.
What Can You Do to Optimize Conversion Rates?
So what can you do? At the risk of providing yet another “best practice” guide, there are some tips to help your business begin to create your own data that will steer you in the right direction when optimizing your website to convert.
Set Aside Preconceived Notions, Listen to Your Customers
A key takeaway from a case study shared by Conversion Rate Expert, Kevin Woodbury surprisingly found that people within the demographic he was targeting, did not care much about the length of a landing page, but how engaging it was. Most of the best practice guides Kevin had seen indicated that lengthy landing pages would severely hurt conversions.
This idea was further bolstered by Eric Siu, CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain:
“First, put aside any preconceptions that you may have about the best ways to boost your conversion rates. Listen to your customers by interviewing them or incentivizing them to participate in surveys. Their opinion is the only one that matters.”
There is no silver-bullet method for this. You have to take the time to do the research into your customer base to properly gauge what they are looking for. In this case, longer landing pages weren’t an issue but that doesn’t mean it’s the same for your target market.
Before testing, you must understand your users and their problems. Guesswork will not provide the best results. User research is imperative to get the most accurate data to go off. Working out the precise reasons why visitors aren’t converting will allow you to implement the most advantageous solutions. Do this consistently and you’ll never struggle with low conversion rates again.
Research Your Own Best Practices
As already discussed, you must take the time to find out what works for you. Once you realize that there are no universal CRO best practices, you will find out that there are only your own best practices.
However, be careful not to fall into trusting your own assumptions and best practices forever. Trends will change, industries adapt, users change their perceptions of what is trustworthy or reliable. Getting too comfortable, even with your own methods, can orchestrate a continuous pattern of ineffectiveness.
As marketing industry leader Neil Patel stated in a case study for HubSpot:
“Test against your assumptions. Successful optimizers learn to second guess their assumptions. Then, they test their assumptions to see if they’re accurate or not. Often, the very things we think are correct are actually roadblocks to success.”
Remember that conversion rates will vary depending on your particular industry, service, product and audience. Which is why you should always test, test, test to determine what works and what doesn’t. “Best practices” should only be treated as guidelines to help you provide you with a data-driven direction, however, they’re not certain for every agency.
In conclusion, leadership advisor of Fortune 500 companies and boards, Mike Myatt sums up best practices perfectly:
“Several years ago I began using the term next practices in an effort to focus people forward in their thinking. Don’t utilize your competition's practices, but rather innovate around them and improve upon them to create an advantage that can be leveraged in the market. Be disruptive in your approach and don’t fall into the trap of doing something in a particular fashion just because others do it that way – think “next” practices not best practices. Best practices maintain the status quo and next practices shatter it.”
Realizing that there are no real best practices when optimizing conversion rates will free up time and resources to test various methods that work specifically for your site. As previously stated, conversion optimization is always ongoing. Even the most widely held best practices will not substitute for a deep knowledge and understanding of your users and accurate testing of their behaviours.