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Improving websites has always been an internet marketing essential and since the arrival of Kiril at Attacat, it’s something we have been focusing on even more. His passion and expertise in what we describe as “conversion rate optimisation” (aka “website thinknig”) has really got my grey matter stirring and changed the way I think about improving websites quite dramatically.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: j-william

A Common Website Tale

For many years we have been producing detailed reports on clients’ websites. These reports highlight numerous ways of improving the usability and the general ability for the website to persuade visitors to become paying customers.

These reports have always been greeted with huge enthusiasm by the clients. Typically they get circulated to everyone with an interest in the website including all senior management and it wouldn’t be uncommon for the CEO to pick up the phone to tell us what an eye opener it has been.

However in so many cases, 12 months + on, the same unchanged website still exists. The problem lies in the fact that the reports highlight so many issues (sometimes hundreds).

Even though the reports included a short list of the most critical changes our clients would conclude that there was nothing for it but to go away and do a complete redesign of the site from the ground up (“what’s the point of making the critical changes now if we are rebuilding anyway”).

Total redesigns need to be avoided wherever possible.

The Website Mountain

Complete rebuilds feel like mountains to be climbed. Complete rebuilds get put on the “next budget year” list. Things on next budget year lists often get superseded by “higher priorities”.

Where the redesign does progress, there is a perceived need for the new website to be so perfect that the development proceeds at a snail’s pace. In the worst cases, redesigns get bogged down in extreme “scope creep” (that horrible process of every stakeholder saying “oh could you just change that”).

While all this is going on, site visitors continue to bounce off your website. The return on investment on all the work that has gone into identifying and solving issues remains at a big fat zero.

When the new site finally does launch, so much time has elapsed that it’s not uncommon for the key issues to have been forgotten and superseded by “important” requests from “important” people. The end result being that the new website ends up being little better than the old one.

Bite-sized Chunks

There is a better way. A much better way. The philosophy is similar to that espoused by “Lean Start-up” protagonists – disciplined focus on the easiest solutions to the biggest problems faced by customers, all the time with fast iterations. So rather than a major change occasionally (i.e. complete rebuilds) you should focus in on making small (but significant) changes frequently.

It’s not about identifying issues. It’s about identifying your BIGGEST issues. The ones that are having the most impact on reducing your site’s financial performance. The process of identifying the issues (which includes effective use of web analytics, low cost user testing and surveys) is scientific, yet surprisingly low cost.

It’s also not about perfect solutions. Instead the focus is on coming up with the cheapest to implement change we can make to improve this big problem. The argument being that even a small improvement on a big problem will lead to a significant overall improvement.

It does involves testing and measuring of changes. Through this approach you ensure that you quickly find out if you are going down a blind alley and can switch focus back on to the main routes. You also find out what really makes a difference so you can make more informed opinion about future changes than you would be able to do in a complete rebuild situation.

It’s also a continuous process, not a start, stop one. Once changes are made, the cycle begins again immediately to identify the next biggest problems and set of easy to implement solutions. So rather than a new website every three years, you have one that evolves continually. Can you remember the last time Amazon did a major redesign? No? That’s because (give or take!) they haven’t, they have continuously evolved instead.

Such an approach brings rapid return on investment and will inevitably take you much further forward than the “total rebuild” and it will do it for less cost and less time.

In today’s world there are so many free and low cost tools available that such a continuous evolution is a state of mind that even the small business can afford. Sure an SME probably can’t afford to be running several tests a day as Amazon probably does, but certainly there is no reason why a monthly, or worst case, quarterly cycle shouldn’t be affordable to any company that sees their website as a serious sales channel.

In the relatively short time we have adopted these practices with our clients, the returns have been impressive. One small change for example being worth £1 million a year yet identified and changed for less than £2500. Looking back it was obvious, but without the disciplined process, the obvious would likely have been missed for several years to come.

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