Always be testing should be the mantra of every ecommerce store. Incremental improvements on your homepage, product page, or click-through-rates have a snowball effect on your bottom line. Today’s guest post is from, Sean Ellis, CEO of Qualaroo and founder of GrowthHackers.com. Sean has held marketing leadership roles with companies including Dropbox, LogMeIn, Uproar, and Eventbrite. He literally wrote the guide to conversion rate optimization. Read on to hear what Sean has to teach you about optimizing conversion rates to find sustainable ecommerce growth.

Growing an ecommerce business is hard. But what if I told you that the answer to your growth challenges is right in front of you? Conversion rate optimization is critical for any business, but none more so than in ecommerce—where each conversion improvement results in immediate improvement in sales.

But CRO can also be a frustrating, fruitless practice, leading many ecommerce managers to abandon it in search of other opportunities for acquiring new visitors. In my experience, CRO is the most powerful lever you have to improve your ROI and overall site performance. It has the ability to turn unprofitable traffic into profit centers, and delivers sustainable growth that compounds itself over time.

Below I’ve shared the insights I’ve gained over my career for finding meaningful growth through CRO and making the most of your site visitors.

Insight #1: Guessing is Expensive

While it’s natural to make assumptions and draw conclusions, attempting to read your users’ minds is expensive, time-consuming, and just bad practice for running a CRO program. If you’re running tests based on hunches—stop. You could be doing more harm than good.

Guessing is expensive. It often results in fruitless tests, frustrated team members, and a lack of faith in CRO with your team—and for good reason. When guesswork is leading the way, you’ll end up with more dead ends and tests that ultimately fail to deliver meaningful results.

The most valuable insight I can offer is that a winning CRO program requires an ongoing process of systematic optimization of the things that truly matter. Your tests should be driven by what the data and your users say, otherwise you’ll simply be spinning your wheels.

Insight #2: Your Visitors Hold the Keys to Unlocking Growth

In order to drive growth from your CRO efforts it’s important to realize that your analytics will only get you part of the way. Reporting can tell you what happened, but it can rarely tell you why. In order to find and prioritize the tests that will unlock growth, you need to use a combination of qualitative as well as quantitative data.

Start by looking at your analytics and find where people are dropping out of your funnel. When you find friction, ask visitors to those pages what is causing problems. You can do this through surveys—both on-page and email—as well as customer interviews and usability testing screencasts. Ideally, you want to capture real purchase scenarios and gather insights without taking the person off task.

By taking both steps, you identify the best opportunities for improving the performance of your website, satisfying more visitors, and improving the immediate and long-term return on your website traffic.

For example, if cart abandonment is an issue for you, take the opportunity to ask your users what’s preventing them from checking out as they’re exiting the site. It could be anything—from an unwillingness to create an account to a last minute concern that you failed to address, you’ll never learn this from analytics alone. Just ask your visitors why. It’s much faster than running a dozen time consuming tests to figure it out.

Insight #3: Expect the Unexpected

Often times you’ll uncover issues you had never considered, and these unexpected insights can often result in big wins. For example, when Norwegian CRO agency KingsPoint addressed cart abandonment issues on a client website, they simply asked exiting site visitors “What stopped you from completing your order today?”

In addition to more expected answers such as cost and shipping particulars, they found that Safari users were experiencing a JavaScript issue that actually prevented them from checking out. This insight ended up saving that client an estimated $60,000 in potential lost sales.

And while that’s a dramatic example, the fact is that by talking to customers you’ll learn about the things that really matter to them. Once you have those understood, you can systematically begin to optimize your site to eliminate those concerns. From shipping cost and sizing information, to mobile compatibility, trust issues and more, your customers will let you know exactly what it is that is holding them back.

Insight #4: Optimization without Prioritization is Dangerous

Once you have some actionable insight, use it to set your testing priorities. How should you set your priorities? The smart folks at Wider Funnel suggest the P.I.E. framework, described in step three.

First, look at pinch points in your funnel and the top feedback from your qualitative research.

Second, come up with a list of hypotheses and tests that you can run to validate/invalidate those hypotheses.

Third, use the P.I.E. method to prioritize tests:

  • Potential: What is the potential of this test? Will it result in potentially large wins or incremental gains?
  • Importance: How important are the pages or flows where the tests will be run. Are they part of the main customer experience or on secondary pages with limited traffic?
  • Ease: How easy is it to test and get results back? Can your test be deployed via an Optimizely deployment, or is it going to take eight weeks of development to build and test an alternate user flow?

Four, based on the above, script out your first five to ten tests you wish to run. And put a plan in place to get the program off the ground.

Five, put a process in place for determining winners, capturing results, and discussing next steps with the team.

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Insight #5: Growth is a Compounding Force

Just like the magic penny that doubles every day for a month, optimizations that appear like small wins to start, yet show incremental gains over time, can still have massive upside. While it’s great when those big wins happen, it’s important to understand that there are rarely silver bullets. Instead, a combination of thoughtful changes to solve smaller changes can ultimately lead to ever-improving return. Growth, just like money saved, compounds on itself over time.

Whether you hit big wins or rack up a series of small gains, building your CRO program on priorities backed by insights, and executed systematically, is far more likely to result in the kind of real improvements that become a flywheel of growth.

Here’s what that flywheel of sustainable growth looks like:

  • Doing a better job of meeting buyers’ needs not only means more conversions, but it also means more repeat customers and more word of mouth referrals.
  • Higher conversions not only mean increased revenue, but they also mean a better return on your marketing investments.
  • A better conversion rate means you can spend more than your competitors to acquire customers, shutting them out of growth channels.
  • More positive ROI channels mean more visitors, more sales, and more capital to invest back into growth.

While this doesn’t mean you’ll never have to run another test, it does mean you’re well on your way to developing a repeatable, manageable testing and optimization strategy that helps you build sustainable growth even in the face of new competition and changing visitor needs.

When it comes to ecommerce growth, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet, or a one size fits all CRO plan. While this can make designing an optimization program frustrating, it’s important to understand that you already have the most important resource for unlocking growth right in front of you—your users. Using insight about what they want and need, and what’s preventing them from converting, combined with a thoughtful testing process, can unlock wins from your CRO program—and sustainable growth for your ecommerce business.