Many times, marketers spend their time trying to push against a wall that is fixed and immovable. They throw effort, time, resources, money and personnel into a lost cause.
What happens as a result is that they lose out on other qualitative site improvements that could make a profound positive impact on conversions. If you stop doing something that’s a complete waste, then you can start doing something that will achieve notable improvements.
So much of online marketing advice, including conversion optimization, discusses the things that are within our control — A/B testing, user experience, checkout process, etc. This is obvious and appropriate. After all, we don’t want to focus on how helpless we are in the marketing arena. We want action, excitement and stuff to do!
But then there are the walls — things that we can’t control.
My opinion is that it’s also important to remind ourselves of those things that we can’t do anything about. Why? Not so we can wallow in our futility, but so we can better adjust our actions and attitudes about the things that matter.
This article is my attempt to sketch out some of those things that are outside of the marketer’s control. You need to know where the wall is so you can stop pushing on it.
No, you’re not screwed. There are issues that you can control, but these are the five things that you should stop wasting your time on.
Tough News No. 1: You can’t control the buyer’s position in the buy cycle.
The buying cycle or purchase cycle is the process a customer goes through as they consider and make a purchase.
Every single customer goes through a buying cycle. Some jump in at different points. Some skip steps. But every customer goes through it. Why? Because everyone buys for a reason. The purchase cycle attempts to outline those reasons.
When we understand the general purchase cycle, we can optimize for more conversions buy enhancing the customer’s journey.
Take a look at the standard buying cycle.
The cycle often begins with the awareness of need. When the customer realizes that they need something, they begin to consider options, and make adjustments that will put them in a position to make the best purchase.
Here are some of the questions that buyers are asking as they proceed through the cycle:
Different buyers will be at different points in the buy cycle. You don’t control where they are. It is what it is.
For example, let’s say your sell llama food on your website. (Hey, I just picked something random.)
- A customer lands on your site hoping to find out information about llamas and their diet. She is thinking about buying a llama for her daughter. She is in no way prepared to buy any llama food today.
- Another customer lands on your site hoping to get a quick order of food for his llama herd. He wants to buy some chow right away.
One of those visitors is going to convert. One is not. Do you get to control that?
Even though the buying cycle is called a “cycle,” it’s more helpful to think of it as a straight line moving toward a conversion.
Let’s take this example from Forentrepreneurs to visually indicate where different buyers might be in the cycle/progression:
Depending on where the buyer is in the cycle, they will either buy or not.
What can you control? The customer journey.
Thankfully, you can control the journey. Cycle? No. Journey? Yes.
If you want to better engage potential customers at every stage of the buy cycle, then you need to understand both where they are, and how best to engage with them.
At this point, I suggest that you engage in a marketing exercise known as the customer journey map. The customer journey map is a visual representation of your touchpoints with a customer, and how the customer’s intentions carry him on the path to conversion.
This may turn into an enormous graph, like this one from UX Matters.
On the other hand, it could be a simple one like this customer buying a car:
Customer journey maps take different forms, but they share a common intent. The goal is to know how to appropriately respond/interact with customers at any point in their journey.
Here’s how Forentrepreneurs traces out the potential responses to a customer at various phases on the journey:
Your particular journey map or cycle will differ based on your product and target market. The goal is to be able to make some positive engagement with the customer, regardless of where they are.
Avoid the trap of thinking, “Shoot, we can’t control where they’re at in the cycle! Ok. Forget it. Just make the site and hope some people will buy.”
That’s the lazy way out. You can control how the customer interacts with you at any given point in the cycle and, in so doing, you can gain more future conversions and/or leads.
Tough News No. 2: You can’t control the buyer’s past experiences.
Some people enter a buying experience with a history. It could be a bad history. It could be a good history. Consider these two scenarios:
- Buyer 1: I was scammed by a company who got me to pay for a $159 product that didn’t even exist!
- Buyer 2: I used my credit card to make a purchase once. Worst thing that ever happened to me! Total identity theft and royal pain in the ass.
- Buyer 3: I hate it when companies have long and complicated forms for checkout. I just want to give my credit card info as fast as possible and check out.
- Buyer 4: I once ordered a product that took six weeks to get shipped! How can I ever trust shipping information?!
Every buyer comes to your site with a different history of online shopping. Some will be negative. Some will be positive.
The brutal fact of the matter is that you can’t control past experience. You simply have to take people where they are, even though you don’t know what those past experiences might be.
How would you respond if you were only focusing on a given user in the examples above?
- Buyer 1: Scam victim. Prominently put phone numbers on the site, live chat, trust signals, a physical address, large hi-res pictures of the item, testimonials, etc.
- Buyer 2: Identity theft victim. Multiple trust signals and guarantees, testimonials, etc.
- Buyer 3: Abbreviated checkout form with no verification process.
- Buyer 4: Interactive shipping charts and tables with guaranteed shipping dates.
What the heck can you do? It’s impossible to optimize for every single experience.
What can you control? The user experience.
Obviously, you can’t adjust a site for just one buyer. You have to consider the entire spectrum of potential past experiences. Here’s my advice: Focus on creating the best user experience possible for the ideal buyer.
Who is your marketing persona? What is their past shopping experience?
Since you can’t pick multiple and conflicting experiences to address, then perhaps you can select one experience or an amalgam of common experiences.
Then, create a user experience that takes that experience into consideration. You’ll probably want to create trust signals, add testimonials and perform other optimization moves that will make the experience as trustworthy as possible.
Tough News No. 3: You can’t control all the forces that shape an industry or niche.
Stuff happens in the industry that you simply can’t control.
For example, let’s say that you sell gas-powered lawnmowers. Suddenly, the oil industry implodes and gas shoots up to $10 a gallon. Suddenly, nobody wants to buy gas mowers. (They want to buy those pushing things with the twirling blade deal.)
- Do you control OPEC? No.
- Do you put oil embargos in place? No.
- Did you break the pipeline? No.
- Did you personally deplete all sources of fossil fuel? No.
Every industry and niche has its boat-rocking impacts. You need to know your niche as best as possible so you can be prepared to respond to the issues, because that’s the only thing you can control.
What can you control? Content that deals with current issues.
The general idea here is that you must respond to major changes. As a conversion optimizers, we need to respond in a way that acknowledges the impact and seeks to help customers.
The best way you can do this is through content.
Let’s go back to the gas-powered lawnmower site. If the bottom falls out of the oil industry and nobody wants to buy gas, maybe you can publish a thought-leadership piece:
“Why now is the best time to buy a gas-powered lawnmower.”
In the article, you can discuss the rock-bottom mower prices, the ability to make a wise purchase, proof that the oil industry will rebound and gas prices will drop again, etc., etc. Gather quotes, assemble statistics, create infographics and publish a masterful piece.
In your niche — all those online gas lawnmower sellers — the article will make a splash. People will tweet about it, argue about it, and generally create a hubbub that will drive traffic and sales to your site.
This kind of thing actually happens regularly in various industries and product/service niches.
Content is your friend. If you can generate content that is a hot topic, you’ll get more attention and, ideally, sales.
Tough News No. 4: You can’t control Google’s algorithm.
Sorry, but those guys in Mountain View don’t care who you are or what you sell to whom. They’re gonna change the algo, and you’ll be screwed.
It happens all the time. Google tweaks a little something and, suddenly, all the online llama food sellers are punished by losing rank or getting penalized.
Can you do anything about this? Not unless your name is Matt Cutts.
What about other types of changes? Remember the “results not provided” fiasco that Google suddenly dropped on us? It was like the virtual bottom dropped out of the organic search optimization industry.
What are we to do?
What can you control? Your response.
We go back to our theme of response.
When we started getting “results not provided,” smart marketers redoubled their efforts, got smart and started hitting it harder than ever before. It was a response that the industry shakeup required.
The same thing happens with algo changes. If Google drops an algo bomb, then you need to clean up the rubble. (And maybe not rely on Google as much.)
Tough News No. 5: You can’t control the conversation on social media.
Many people in your audience trust social media recommendations more than they trust your best marketing efforts. Social media buzz has enormous sway, and its ripple effect — spreading to potentially thousands of people — can wreak havoc on your brand, or it can usher you into a land flowing with milk and honey.
The fact is, you can’t control the conversation on social media. I’ve seen Facebook ads that get shared on Facebook, and rack up hundreds of spiteful comments, f-bombs galore and a veritable tribe of brand haters.
Social media fiascos are the worst nightmare for some companies. Although you can impose some sanctions on your business’s social media usage, you can’t control what other people say about you.
What can you control? Your presence on social media and your reaction.
Social’s influence is growing. Although its promise as a conversion channel is limited, it’s potential as a trust signal and word-of-mouth marketing platform is enormous. If you allow your social presence to become eroded by silence, you’ll suffer the consequences.
“Conversion” is, by definition, a two-way process. Although there is conversation about you (which is out of your control), you can place yourself into the middle of that conversation.
Here’s an example of how Whole Foods responds to complaints:
But be careful. Cutting corners with auto-responders is a bad idea.
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Stay civil, stay professional but, by all means, be part of the conversation!
The Good News
Those are the five things that are completely out of your hands. But look. That’s just five.
How many millions of other factors are there in the buying process? And how many of them can you control?
A whole freaking load of them.
The good news is that we can control a lot of the buying process. Admitting that we can’t control the above factors is the best way to respond to them. When we realize that we can’t control them, we can turn to adjusting other buying experiences factors that we can control.
It’s useless to attempt to affect behavior or experiences that we can’t change. On the other hand, it’s extremely useful to adjust the experience in more effective ways.
The primary issue is this: You can respond.
You have control over most of the buying process. For the limited medley of things that are beyond your control, you have the power of strategic, innovative and powerful responses.