When we talk about conversion, we’re essentially talking about an exchange.
Let’s say, for example, you’re offering a piece of downloadable content to your site visitors. It’s “free,” in terms of the lack of money paid for it, but some other information is traded. So, for example, in exchange for this ebook, the visitor fills out a form with a certain amount of contact information. At the end of the day, it’s still a transaction.
But now — 11 years after HubSpot first came into existence — these transactions are starting to become diversified, and so are the reasons why we have them.
I’ll admit it: For many marketers, the motivation behind these exchanges used to be, “So I can sell my product.” Then, it evolved into, “So I can help my buyers.” But today, that doesn’t cut it anymore — not when information is becoming greater in quantity and more accessible, and not after communication methods have evolved to the point where they are now.
Now, the motivation has evolved from the point of, “So I can help” — a founding principle of the Inbound Methodology — to, “We’re changing the way buyers can be helped.” The form, for example, is slowly starting to date itself. While it serves an important purpose in certain use cases, it doesn’t always meet the needs of today’s buyers; for example, when they need information quickly, across different devices, or in the online ecosystem they’re using.
That means leveraging those evolved communication methods to create a tighter relationship between a given buyer’s behavior and the type of transaction she’s having with you. That’s why it’s time to make these exchanges more innovative, and build more than one linear conversion path to match increasingly diverse consumer communication and buying preferences.
Here’s what that looks like — and what happened when we tried it.
Think back to the time when on-site live chat first became available to customers. We like to think of it as a “1.0” version of buyers engaging on your website — one of the first options ever made available to get a quick answer to a question that didn’t require a phone call or email.
But the reason why we think of it as “1.0” is that, while it’s far from obsolete, reaching customers and prospects goes beyond chat — largely because options and preferences have expanded and evolved.
Buyers and marketers tend to view that phenomenon from different perspectives. For the former, it’s about having conversations with brands where and when customers and prospects prefer — largely because the world has changed, and 80% of internet users report suffering from “information overload.” But with that also comes a new level of options, which means that your organization isn’t the only one with leverage anymore — or the only one that can give buyers what they want. And more options = less patience in waiting for information.
The goal, therefore, is to get the best answer as quickly and easily as possible, from the platform they’re already using, whether it be Facebook, a company’s website, or something else.
Marketers don’t always view interactions with that audience in the same way. We tend to view things through the conversion funnel, which is a visualization of the customer journey, starting with the moment she discovers your brand — at the top of the funnel, or TOFU — to when she converts to a customer at the bottom of the funnel, or BOFU.
But in order to be successful, we can’t focus on strictly one POV. While it’s important to look through the perspective of the funnel at that journey (and the way we reach our audiences throughout it), we also have to examine what those efforts look like on the receiving end — in the buyer’s shoes.
When it comes to interaction between buyers and brands, there is no one-size-fits-all option — and even if there was, it would become commoditized very quickly. After all, that’s the historical pattern of human buying behavior.
To understand that, we have to look at this interaction and the funnel from both sides. Each part — the top, middle, and bottom — corresponds with a stage of the buyer’s journey: awareness, consideration, and decision. At the top, the visitor is conducting research and looking for answers to a problem. In the middle, she starts to consider if your solutions are the best for her, and at the bottom, she’s narrowing her buying choices and making a final selection. As marketers, the nature of our communication with the potential customer should vary at each stage.
But as leads are nurtured through the funnel, it’s important to send the right messages at the right time. Asking someone to book a meeting with you after only reading your blog post, for instance, is a communication mismatch, since the reader probably doesn’t know enough about you to want to have that conversation. Which brings us to the importance of viewing the buyer’s journey through the eyes of … the buyer.
On October 17, Google is slated to release an updated version of its popular Chrome browser, version 62, which will prominently display sites that do not use SSL — Secure Sockets Layer, the technology that encrypts your connection to a website so that hackers can’t intercept any of your data — as “Not Secure.” Here’s what that will look like:
That means websites that aren’t SSL enabled will receive penalty rankings, which lowers a site’s discoverability chances and, as a result, on-site conversion opportunities. If there are two otherwise equal sites, for example, that are currently both ranking for similar topics, if only one is SSL enabled, it’s going to be ranked more favorably.
But here’s where that really plays into the conversion path: even prior to this rollout, Google flags sites that are not secure and ask for personal information, like credit card numbers and SSN. The changes on October 17 will cause Google to flag all forms, including those used by many B2B brands for lead generation purposes, as not secure. That presents an even greater need than ever for alternative conversion paths, like chat. And while creating diversified communication options to match consumer preferences is crucial, limiting them to forms will now have greater SEO implications, too.
To be clear, these changes and favorability for SSL-enabled sites don’t apply to on-site live chat. The security for those communication tools is typically managed on the back end by the provider of this technology. But in any case, it presents another case for off-site chat platforms like Messenger and WhatsApp becoming even more helpful, immediate resources for communication with customers.
Today, we still have blog posts and gated content offers at the top of the funnel, and we stand by the idea that creating blog posts that are relevant, evergreen, and helpful remains a viable tactic for attracting visitors. But now, there’s also so much more content at the top of the funnel, and it’s in more places. People discover brands and content through more than just searches for information, and they often have their first encounter via social media.
That’s just one reason why conversion paths need to diversify beyond the traditional blog post > offer > form path. If someone first consumes your content on Facebook, rather than a blog post, the last thing she wants to do is navigate away from the platform to fill out a form.
Another reason has to do with what happens after the form submission. When an inbound lead is routed to our sales team, a rep will call or email the lead to offer some advice and hopefully schedule a meeting. But what about buyers who want to cut to the chase and call the sales team directly instead of vice versa? What about people who don’t want to take a phone call at all?
We’re living in what I like to call the “post-now” — where forms still exist, but they’re joined by things like messenger apps, bots, and on-site chat. From the buyer’s perspective, these forms of communication provide alternatives when they prefer not to make phone calls, and quicker exchanges for those who want an instant solution.
Both of those considerations are imperative today — many consumers choose shopping methods based on how quickly they can procure products, and the extent that they just don’t want to talk to anybody. This ad for online ordering platform Seamless speaks volumes about these changing consumer preferences:
— Sean Joseph Zepps (@SeanZepps)
December 16, 2014
That brings us back to the marketer’s role. To meet the buyer’s POV, you need automation — in a way that is scalable across your audience, with limited human involvement, that results in a quick solution.
So we wanted to know:
How do we combine the buyer’s and marketer’s perspectives to nurture leads on their terms — where they want to have an exchange, and in a way that’s most convenient and comfortable for them?
The answer, we hypothesized, was providing multiple additional conversion path options:
Given that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for this interaction, there’s also no simple answer to this question. For each section of the funnel, there are some paths that are more appropriate than others.
On this level, messaging is a heavy-hitter — and within that, you have multiple layers, like Facebook Messenger, on-site chat, and other messaging platforms, like Slack or WeChat. Then, there are bots, which aren’t about starting the conversation, but more about automating it in a way that’s managed on the back end, to determine which human might be needed to respond to a particular question, problem, or request for information. Buyers should be able to ask questions during their initial awareness phase and get a quick response, which can be enabled by this technology.
The bot layer might be the most fundamental. It’s where you determine, “Does this person communicating with me need help?” We like to think of it as Tier I, where you can quickly determine if an inquiry needs to be escalated and allocate time to the people who really need human help. Before this automatic escalation technology was available, distributing resources for this type of exchange was trickier — often times, prospects had complex concerns or reasons for communicating that HTML forms simply couldn’t address. Here’s what that looks like when someone uses Messenger to request customer support from HubSpot:
HubSpot Academy uses a bot called Mumbles to support buyer inquiries in a similar manner:
On-site chat functions in a similar manner, but we caution against limiting your messaging options to just that. Remember what I said earlier about the buyer who doesn’t want to leave Facebook to interact with you? Forcing someone to go to your website to message you restricts possible conversion paths for those who discover your content on social media — an off-site platform.
We think of the content that attracts the visitor in the first place to be a crucial part of the conversion path. It’s at the very root of the inbound methodology: attract readers with quality content, and lead them down the conversion path.
But now, the content itself has also become diversified. Take the customers we mentioned earlier, for example, who first engage with a brand when they consume its video on Facebook. As we noted, it would be inconvenient for that person to navigate to a third-party site to fill out a form, which is why we’ve put conversion communication mechanisms in place within Facebook, like Messenger. It hasn’t replaced the process of reading a blog post and clicking a CTA at the bottom — it’s merely adding more options for users.
That’s why we think of video — which is something that about a quarter of marketers have named as a top priority this year — as its very own conversion path.
The same concept applies to freemium tools — the products or services, usually digital, that are made available for free, with the option of adding premium features or functions for a charge. Again, there isn’t an exchange of money at this stage, but there’s still the beginning of a transaction with a user discovering your brand by way of a helpful tool.
Even if there’s less information exchanged here, with something like a freemium tool, you’re providing greater context to users about the value of your product and brand. It goes back to the idea of helping instead of just selling — you’re learning more about the consumer in a way that enhances and improves her experience.
We’re past the point of attraction and discovery here, when strangers and visitors start to become leads. Now, they’re aware of your brand, and the communication has to evolve to match their potential consideration of your product.
In this stage, you can continue to provide valuable content and tools for your leads, though it should be more advanced than what led them to discover you in the first place, such as personalized emails or specific product pages. And within that content, you should make it easy for them to book a meeting with you.
For something like that, we use the HubSpot Meetings app, which creates a personalized link to your schedule that you can share with anyone. After that person clicks the link, it allows her to choose from your available times. It can be shared in your email signature, sent directly to an individual, or embedded on your website.
The key here is that, again — just like in the TOFU stage — the path meets the contact where she already is. In this case, the option to book a meeting makes it easy for her to take the next logical step in her buyer’s journey without abandoning the content platform for a third-party site.
At last: We’ve arrived at the decision stage. This is where leads become customers, and the conversion path should provide contacts with the information they need to make a choice.
We’ve observed that, at this stage, the availability of immediate communication becomes the most crucial. And that makes sense — contacts typically have already done their consideration and research. They’re ready to buy, and they’re ready to do it — now.
Why the emphasis on instant solutions? At the decision phase, the buyer has become even busier, even more committed, and even more impatient. So, buyers need the right, immediate mechanisms to purchase. At the bottom of the funnel — when they want to talk to someone right away — a form is far from the best way to do that.
And remember the folks who don’t want to talk on the phone? Their immediate needs to be met here, too.
Think about how you purchase products these days, even after a lengthy decision-making process. When was the last time you completed that transaction over the phone? Now, we see a process that looks more like this:
I want Product X > Here’s my credit card number
However, you still have to take into account users who would rather work with another person who can answer their questions during the transaction — but still don’t want to get on the phone. In that case, the process looks more like:
Chat with human > I want Product X > Here’s my credit card number
Here’s where on-site chat (either automated, or with a live sales rep) can become particularly helpful.
Again — providing a range of communication options is key. Maybe some customers don’t want to enter their payment information into a chat box, which is why there should still be options throughout the funnel — particularly at the decision stage — to call sales directly.
Cool, huh? Naturally, we wanted to try these new conversion paths out ourselves — and we had some intriguing results.
We looked at five of our conversion paths:
Then, we looked at how many customers were closed after each respective transaction. To answer that question, our formula looked something like this:
So, if we wanted to know how many customers closed after digitally booking a meeting with us, the formula would be:
(Some fine print: the transaction preceding the close does not necessarily indicate the only transaction that the customer had with us. So while a customer may have closed within 90 days of booking a meeting, it’s entirely possible that she previously engaged with us another way.)
The 90-day conversion rates for each path were as follows:
So, people do still talk on the phone. That is — when they want to.
But not far from that transaction was chat, coming in second place, confirming our hypothesis that more and more people want to close their transactions digitally.
I wish we could say that the results surprised us, but — if we’re being completely transparent — they didn’t.
From the very beginning, we hypothesized that customer preferences had been changing over time, and that we needed to match the ways we sell with the ways people want to buy. That meant implementing options.
We’ll continue testing, but looking forward, we plan to not only keep a close eye on these evolving preferences, but also, to figure out a way to make it even easier for users to discover and engage with us. And we’ll publish our results along the way for the good of the entire marketing community.
What are the different conversion paths you’ve been testing? Let us know about your best experiments in the comments — and hey, we might even feature it on our blog.
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