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The Essential Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) Handbook

For the last several years, conversion rate optimization (CRO) has been and continues to be a top priority for digital marketers. In 2019, it was ranked as one of the most important aspects of digital marketing over the last 12 months, landing just behind audience targeting and AI/machine learning. If you don’t currently have a CRO strategy in place, join your fellow marketers by making this a priority and reaping the benefits. Read this complete advanced CRO guide to have a better understanding of:


  • The importance of CRO
  • What makes a CRO program successful
  • Conducting user research
  • Determining what to test
  • Common reasons for not doing CRO
  • Examples of CRO
  • How we work with clients
  • The future of CRO

Investing in CRO Means Less Wasted Spend


Many advertisers invest money in more traffic in an attempt to gain more conversions or more leads. However, if you receive all of this traffic but no one converts on your site because your page isn’t functional, things aren’t organized, or users are having a bad experience, then you’ve wasted your spend. And that’s a big problem.


Alternatively, CRO allows you to optimize the post-click experience in order to improve the performance of your existing traffic. Optimizing the user experience to result in higher conversion rates is the most effective way to increase ROI.


In the example below, if you increase your conversion rate by just .5% you would see an annual increase of $90,000. That’s why CRO matters.



How to Make CRO Work for You


Having a CRO program is vital to making the right optimizations for the right users. There are three components that will ensure you run a successful CRO program full of optimizations, insights, and improved performance:


  • Research
  • Testing
  • Landing page building

Conducting User & Audience Research


To be certain you’re creating impactful optimizations and testing with a purpose, you need to be optimizing for your audience. Start by knowing who your audience is and how they’re currently utilizing your site or landing pages. Through the series of analyses listed below, you’ll gather user behavior information such as isolating pain points and areas of fiction, allowing for impactful optimizations to improve their experience and eliminate that friction.




You may have a wide range of pages that can be optimized, and you may not know where to begin. A platform such as Google Analytics can help you narrow your focus to the pages that are visited most frequently. Analytics will help you identify your target audience (i.e. gender, demographics, device). This information allows you to better understand why your users behave the way they do or why specific pain points exist. You’ll have a better understanding of where you should focus your user behavior research.

Using an analytics platform will also help you identify red flags like:


  • Are there large drop-offs in your purchase funnel?
  • Do some of your most visited pages have abnormally high bounce rates?

User Behavior


You can understand how users behave on your site through the use of heatmaps, form analyses, funnel analyses, and user recordings. There are many tools available to get this type of data, such as Google Analytics, Crazy Egg, Hotjar, and more. This information is most powerful when evaluated in relation to other insights, as discussed below.



User Behavior Maps


User behavior maps will give you information surrounding the activity on the landing page. You’ll learn which components of a page receive the most activity, if the entire page is scrolled through and seen, and which types of users are clicking on which components. These maps become the most helpful when you’re trying to understand how useful certain elements are to a page and how they may be contributing to the overall user experience. They will help you answer questions like:


  • Where are users spending the majority of their time on the page?
  • Is your call-to-action being seen my most of your users?
  • Are there too many distractions on the page pulling the attention of your users, causing them to miss the main conversion option on the page?

Examples from Left to Right: Heatmap, Scroll Map, Confetti Map


Form Analysis


Form analyses tell you where users are dropping off in the process of filling out your forms. In the example below, the form analysis from Hotjar is telling us that over 50% of users aren’t completing this form. The message field has the highest drop-off rate, and it’s also taking the longest amount of time to complete. Based on this data, we know form optimizations are needed to increase conversions, and reducing the number of fields and getting rid of the message field would be strong starting points.


Funnel Analysis


Funnel analyses help you better understand where your users are dropping off within your funnel. You can set up funnels in many different platforms such as Google Analytics or Hotjar, as seen below. In the first example, we see that over 41% of users drop off within the payment step of the funnel – this is the very last step before purchase so it’s crucial we understand why we’re losing such a large number of users at this stage of the funnel.


User Recordings


Lastly, user recordings truly help us identify where friction exists in order to isolate those pain points. These should give us answers to what we’ve learned from the heat maps, form, and funnel analyses. For example, in the funnel pictured below we’ve identified that 20% of users were dropping off at the address stage of the purchasing funnel. Because we don’t want to see large drop-offs within the purchase funnel, we were able to use user recordings within Hotjar to isolate the pain point. Below you’ll see the bright yellow warning after users fill out their address. That’s just it – this isn’t a “warning” per se. It’s suggesting there might be an error in the address entered but gives users the option at the very bottom to “Leave my address as-is.”



Utilizing these tools to analyze your user’s behavior is crucial in optimizing your website or landing pages successfully. Without it, you’ll be testing blind with no confidence in what will truly have an impact on performance.


User Feedback


Analyze verbal or written feedback specifically from your users or testers through the use of surveys, polls, or user testing. User feedback is beneficial for a number of reasons.


Polls & Surveys


By creating on-page polls or surveys, you gain a better understanding of things that may be getting in the user’s way of converting. Serving a poll to users who are mid-checkout and spending longer than average at this stage might help you understand what’s preventing them from moving forward. For example, you might learn that a promo code is broken and that’s the reason you’re losing many customers at checkout.



In addition to identifying these barriers or pain points, polls can also help you create motivation. You can now create content using the voice of the user. Understanding how your customers speak about the product or service allows you to create content using their words, making the content more relatable to future users. This minimizes jargon and industry-speak, bringing clarity and motivation to the overall user journey.


User Testing


User testing is more about identifying friction since this is conducted through a third-party platform such as Usertesting or TryMyUI. Therefore, these tasks will not be completed by your actual customers. With user testing, you can determine larger frustrations that heatmaps can’t tell you. In addition, you’re able to hear the frustration in their voice as they explain the steps they’re taking to complete the tasks.



Congruence Analysis


Take a look at the entire user journey. This begins with the ad you’re paying to serve all the way through to the post-click experience. Congruence takes a deeper look at the pre- to post-click journey to ensure its seamlessness. From a search perspective, users feel more confident and trust in a brand if they’re receiving the same messaging and offers from ad to landing page.

Think about it; there was something in the ad that motivated them to click. In the previous example, it could have been the “Extra $20 Off First Bundle.” Reinforcing that same messaging will hold their attention and increase the likelihood that they pursue the brand. From a display or social perspective, the need to reinforce that the users are in the right place is stronger because the intent isn’t there. If this great deal below motivated a user to click the ad, frustration will develop quickly when they see the brand names don’t match and the Valentine’s Day special isn’t reinforced to them.

The users will be attracted to the visual displays and messaging of display and social ads. Therefore, we must ensure the same visuals, themes, and messages are present on the landing page. Without a CRO program in place or with little emphasis on CRO, it’s very easy to overlook this simple concept.


Competitor Analysis


It is important to understand what your competitors are doing and it’s important to take into account the entire user journey. Knowing how the competition is capturing customers and understanding their post-click experience may present opportunities for improvement to your own experience. While it’s beneficial to analyze your direct brand competition, the primary focus is to see who is directly competing with you in the auction. You want to analyze the ads and landing pages of those companies appearing right next to you on the search engine results page. How do their ads and landing page experiences compare to yours? What have they done better than you and where are you excelling?


So how do you analyze the competition? After developing the list of competitors to focus on, you have options. It’s always a great idea to look at your top performing keywords and do a quick Google search (*QUICK TIP: Use Incognito mode if you’re having trouble getting competitor ads to show up). This may provide some of the information you need to move forward. However, if you’re not in the target location of the ads, you won’t have much luck. Utilize tools such as SEMrush to find competitor ads and landing pages.


There are a few ways to use SEMrush as a competitive analysis tool. The first and most basic way is to do a domain search of your competitor’s domain. Once you’ve input your competitor’s domain, you can find sample ads from your competitors as well as landing pages connected to the ads. This is a great way to quickly gauge the congruence of the competitor’s ads and landing pages while also analyzing where their traffic is actually being sent.


The next area you can check for competitor ads is under the “Display Advertising” tab. This tab will show you competitor display ads as well as when they were first and last seen to make sure they are still relevant.

Questions to ask yourself when looking at the competitor’s ads include:


  • Are users being delivered a very specific ad and then taken to the homepage?
  • Are users seeing the keyword searched in the ad copy and on the landing page?
  • Do the colors and imagery of the display ads match the landing page?
  • Do the call-to-actions in the ads match the call-to-action on the landing page both in visuals and copy?

Take advantage of the information you can find about your competitors. Understanding the experiences they’re delivering will further help you stand out against the competition.


You’re Ready to Start Testing


Testing is ultimately where you’re going to apply and learn from all of the insights you’ve gathered. Testing allows you to address the areas of friction and pain points you find through your analysis, and will allow you to determine if your solutions are successful. So with that said, how do you decide what to test?


Start with the pain points and areas of friction you uncovered within the user behavior research. You’ve likely uncovered a lot of information through the use of analytics, user behavior, congruence and competitor analyses. Now it’s time to develop the solutions and test. How can you eliminate these pain points and improve the experience?


When you’re analyzing your data to determine what to test and where to begin, it’s also important to pay attention to how your customers are using and interacting with your website or landing page in relation to: functionality, accessibility, usability, content, processes, and layouts.


Functionality, accessibility, and usability are three of the most fundamental aspects of an online experience. Check out what the Persuasion Pyramid looks like below. If a site isn’t functional, accessible, or usable, finer details like messaging and imagery suddenly become much less important. When users are scrolling through a page or interacting with different elements on your site, everything should work as intended and be easily accessible—regardless of device or browser. Because these concepts seem fairly straightforward, they’re often overlooked or not given as much time and attention.

Source: https://www.bryaneisenberg.com/how-to-optimize-your-mobile-landing-page-for-conversions-hulu-com/persuasion-pyramid-copy/


Content, processes, and layouts play a large role in motivation and usability. The messaging should be clear and consistent. It should also meet users’ expectations. It’s important to speak to your target audience with the right messages at the right times. In one real life scenario, we saw an increase of 170% in conversion rate for demo requests simply by cleaning up the CTA language and unifying the messaging across the site. Click here if you want to see the full case study.


If content or the order of content doesn’t make sense, users won’t be motivated to continue looking at the page—or the rest of a site for that matter. Likewise, if a page layout or process (like filling out a form or checking out) is confusing or overwhelming, users will lack motivation to continue forward. It’s important to make every aspect of your site clear, concise, and intuitive so that users have to think as little as possible. Our team saw a request for information conversion rate increase by 46.13% by streamlining and simplifying the conversion process.. Although long forms can be intimidating, clients are typically leery about removing form fields because they feel they need all of the information they’re asking for. So in this case, we broke the form into two steps, making the initial ask simple so users were more likely to complete the final step. Check out the rest of the case study to see the details.


Lastly, when it comes to deciding what to test, it’s commonly asked if the focus should only be on bigger tests or if it’s beneficial to test smaller changes as well. Some clients prefer to move fast and test larger, more significant changes, while other clients would rather move slowly at a safer testing decibel with more minor elements: big vs. small. Some people believe you’ll never learn anything or you’ll never see an impact from testing small. However, we’ve seen that this isn’t the case. While there may be steadfast rules surrounding testing, whether you should “go big or go home” should be based on a myriad of factors. Two things to consider are:


  • What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
  • How much traffic are you working with?


First, determine what problem or friction your users are facing and then design a solution to fit their needs. If they have a radical problem, they may need a big solution. For example, if you see significant drop-off throughout your entire checkout process, test a new checkout flow and process all together.


However, if they only have a small problem, they may only need a small solution. For example, if you notice that the bulk of users are clicking on an element with no correlating action, you should implement an action that speaks to that element.


Second, high traffic volume allows you to have a large testing sample size, which means you can have more accurate results regardless of whether you’re testing big or small. With high traffic volume, you can also detect small impacts with stronger accuracy. Low volume traffic has a higher chance of delivering inconclusive test results because the sample size does not have the power to detect subtle variations in behavior. This in turn means that you may have to consistently perform bigger, more impactful tests to produce clear results and clear key takeaways.


To sum this up, test to solve an overarching problem for your users rather than focus on “big” or “small” testing. A big test can cause a lack of conclusion just as much as a small test can cause a big impact.


Building Landing Pages That Convert


Running a successful CRO program may mean that you have to build new pages in order to see desired performance. There are a number of reasons why you might build new pages, and a few are listed below. If you do build new pages, know that it’s incredibly important to test them prior to implementation. And as mentioned previously with testing, there should be a specific purpose or goal behind creating a new landing page to ensure the desired outcome is achieved:


  • You’re sending paid traffic to your home page
  • You’ve had the same landing pages for years
  • There’s a lack of engagement or very high bounce rates
  • Users are indicating frustration or confusion

Common Excuses Marketers Give for Not Doing CRO


According to the State of PPC 2019, 43% of brands and 60% of agencies have a structured process for A/B or multivariate landing page testing. 66% of these brands and 81% of these agencies said they are happy with this post-click process. Since the majority of marketers at both brands and agencies today claim they are pretty happy with their CRO processes, why aren’t more marketers doing it?




Budget falls among the main reasons marketers aren’t doing CRO. Some advertisers have very tight budgets that don’t allow for this additional spend. However, here’s a tip that may put you ahead of your competition. Take a piece of your advertising or marketing budget and invest it into CRO. As a result, you’ll begin to see better conversion rates, which will free up more of your budget to spend on getting even more traffic than before. This traffic will result in even more customers and because of your CRO efforts, the investment should quickly pay off.


On the other hand, as the search landscape continues to grow, it’s likely we’re going to continue to see costs per click (CPCs) increase. One easy way we recommend combating these rising costs is through CRO – the sole purpose of this being to increase conversion rates and get even more in return from the money going in. As a result, conversion rate optimization should mitigate the impacts of the rising cost in CPCs.


Not Enough Time or Manpower


Some marketers or advertisers don’t have a CRO program because they don’t have enough time or manpower. With an agency, CRO can be a minimal time investment while having the benefits of getting insights that may positively impact other marketing channels. If you are a brand, investing in 3rd party tools like Optimizely, Unbounce, Hotjar, and VWO will make testing and analysis easier and save time. For testing specifically, using these types of platforms makes test setup easy through the use of a visual editor, while still allowing for development capabilities if need be.


Not Enough Traffic


If you don’t have enough traffic to perform statistically significant tests, know you’re not alone. It’s still important to understand your users and perform research in order to make data-driven decisions. If you have no idea how your users are interacting with your site or what your users are saying, you could be missing out on discovering quick wins or huge opportunities.


Lack of Design Resources


You don’t need a design team to perform CRO. Through the use of third-party tools, you can accomplish your CRO goals. Tools like Unbounce, VWO, and Google Optimize allow you to build and test landing pages using a visual editor and templates. They eliminate the need to have the design or development skills required to create something from scratch.


Don’t See the Value in Testing


You can pay to get a lot of traffic to your site, but that’s not going to guarantee you more conversions. If your form is broken, your users don’t understand how to get through the checkout funnel, or users miss a crucial step, you’re wasting your money. CRO helps you find those pain points, address them, and increase your conversions as a result.


Future of CRO


CRO is an essential element of your digital marketing and it will continue to be important for years to come. Our State of PPC survey confirms its importance every year. Whether you’re new to CRO or a veteran optimizer, here are five main thoughts for you to bear in mind as you contemplate your future marketing plan.


The following will continue to become more important than ever before:


  • Consider the bigger picture of your marketing efforts. Don’t put different channels into silos and make sure to share learnings across each of them.
  • Data, tracking, and attribution will need to be as clean, clear, and precise as possible. More platforms and technology equals more opportunities for inconclusive results and problems.
  • Work to understand your target audiences in ways that will allow your efforts to be more personalized and refined. Digital competition will only continue to grow, and it will become easier to get lost in the shuffle. Secondarily, this will help you ensure that you continue to meet and keep up with users’ expectations as trends and UX change.
  • A strong understanding of new technologies, automation, and machine learning will be key to stay ahead of the curve and keep on top of performance. There are always pros here, but there are cons too. It will be important to make sure these things are helping your results, not hurting them.
  • No matter how the elements of CRO evolve over time, don’t overcomplicate the core elements of it. Testing. Analysis. Landing pages. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis or become too overwhelmed, which can be easy to do. Related to this, don’t lose sight of your goals. (And if you don’t have any or if you don’t have clear ones, please create some. They will help you stay on track.)

Let’s Wrap It Up


Have you learned one or two new things about CRO? We hope so! And if you’re not already doing CRO, we hope you’ll take action and get started right away with the help of this guide and our CRO beginner guide. Our team is passionate about CRO and what we do, especially as it relates to PPC, and we want everyone to get out there and start optimizing!


If you learned a lot about CRO in this guide, check out our latest State of PPC report to hear more from industry experts.