Conversion for low-traffic websites

A bonus section of “Tools for UX and CRO: The Ultimate Guide for 2017”

This is a bonus addition to a series of articles. In the first part of the series, we explain why these techniques are the most reliable way to grow any business. The first part also contains an infographic that summarizes the whole series.

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Why conversion is hard for low-traffic websites

An empty store.
Tumbleweed can’t tell you how it feels: It’s hard to understand your visitors when you don’t have many of them.

Many of our readers have asked us how they can understand their visitors if they have low traffic.

If you are a startup or a small company, you are in a chicken-and-egg situation:

  • To afford visitors, you need a good conversion rate.
  • But it’s hard to improve your conversion rate if you have no visitors.

Low-traffic websites have two problems:

  1. How can you understand your visitors? For example, how can find out what’s stopping them from taking action?
  2. How can you measure what works? High-traffic websites rely on A/B-tests to measure whether their changes make a statistically significant difference.

Let’s tackle those two problems in turn:

1. The techniques you should use for understanding your visitors if your website doesn’t get much traffic

Some of the techniques in this series rely upon a website getting lots of traffic. Some surveys, for example, typically get a completion rate of 3%. We recommend that smaller businesses make the most of the following techniques, which can be carried out even if your website gets just a few visitors per day:

  • User-tests tend to be the most fruitful technique. Ask a friend—or anyone you can get your hands on—to participate. Once your website is refined enough, aim to user-test it on people who are from your target demographic and psychographic.
  • Watch session recordings of the visitors you have. Doing so will give you insight into how web visitors see your website. Plus, you’ll see your creation through fresh eyes.
  • Speak to salespeople (what we call “VOC Aggregators”)—people who have sold face-to-face the same type of product—or similar products.
  • Analyze competitors’ websites. Or, if you don’t have any obvious competitors, look at companies that are successful within adjacent fields. For example, if you sell B2B software, look at other B2B software vendors.
  • Add your phone number prominently to the top of every page. Even if you have no plans to encourage phone calls on an ongoing basis, it can help to get at least a few of them. In fact, you may be able to charm your early callers into becoming long-term user-testers.
  • Increase the incentives for visitors to complete surveys. The more you offer as an incentive, the higher percentage of responses you are likely to get.
  • Panel surveys tools like Google Consumer Surveys and Pollfish can be useful. You choose your target audience from the panel of users, type your questions, and then receive responses within hours. They work best for products and services that have broad appeal.

2. How to measure what’s working if your website doesn’t get much traffic

Many people with low traffic website believe that testing isn’t for them, because tests will take too long to reach significance, and ultimately it’s not worth the effort.

But that isn’t the case. Done correctly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be testing often on your site, and realizing all the benefits that go with it.

How many conversions do you need for A/B-testing? It depends on the following factors:

  • Your current conversion rate. The fewer conversions you get, the longer it takes to detect a doubling.
  • The increase in conversion rate that you’re trying to detect. A 100% increase can be detected about four times as fast as a 50% increase.
  • How statistically confident you want to be. If you wanted to be 99.99% sure that your new page wasn’t winning just by chance, you’d have to wait a long time.

So what should a low-traffic website do? Several strategies are effective:

  • Test the biggest, boldest ideas. When you have low traffic, it’s especially important to test big, bold ideas that are more likely to move the needle significantly. Test things that your visitors care about. Overcome their main objections. Highlight the things they love. Change the offer, or at least how it’s presented. Test things that might double or halve the number of conversions, but are unlikely to make no difference.
  • Measure “micro-conversions.” Imagine conversion goals as a spectrum. On the right-hand side of the spectrum is what you ideally want—something like net profit or lifetime customer value. Such metrics tend to be untimely, meaning that you’d take months or years to measure their true value. On the left-hand side of the spectrum lie metrics like click-through rate or engagement rate. Such “intermediate” metrics are much larger in number, and can be measured instantly, but you can’t be confident that they correlate with overall long-term success. The less traffic your website gets, the more you need to rely on “intermediate” metrics towards to the left-hand side of the spectrum.
  • Test on major pages. Maybe this one is obvious, but test only those pages that almost all of your customers see, like your main landing page or your checkout funnel. Or you can go one step further up the funnel: If you run online ads, you can experiment to see which ad messages get the highest click-through rates. Ads get loads of impressions—because typically fewer than 10% of viewers click through—so you can reach significance more than ten times quicker. The same goes for TV ads, provided the ad has a trackable URL (which it should).
  • Combine similar pages into one test. If you have ten landing pages, and you want to test the call-to-action button, then apply the same change to all of those pages and include them in the same test. Some companies have many more landing pages than they need, maybe because they wanted to make each landing page bespoke to a particular keyword. We often consolidate such pages into one, and then optimize the heck out it.
  • Reduce the statistical significance at which you’ll declare a winner. It has become the norm to declare a winning test at a statistical significance of 95%, but that’s not to say you can’t use a different figure. It would be a shame to conclude that “If I can’t have 95% confidence, I won’t run an A/B-test at all.” That’s like saying, “I’m a perfectionist. If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all.” Most marketing decisions are made without any measurement, so don’t rule out the possibility of ending a test at, say, 90% confidence—or even 85% confidence—especially if the alternative is just to launch the page and hope for the best. Sure, your chances of declaring false positives increases slightly, but the benefits of being able to test more ideas usually hugely outweighs the slim risk of promoting a page that was actually losing.
  • Fixed-period testing. Many A/B-testing tools now monitor your tests on an ongoing basis, and tell you when there’s a winner. In addition, though, you may choose to specify a maximum duration for each test, after which you’ll make a decision regardless. If the control was winning at that point, you may choose to promote it. If the challenger was winning, and you’re confident that it was based on a research-driven hypothesis, then you may choose to promote it. If the challenger was based on a risky hypothesis, you may choose not to take the risk. Either way, this approach is more rigorous than how most early-stage companies make decisions.
  • Temporarily increase the amount of traffic to the page being tested, even if it means sacrificing some profitability. If the new page wins, the traffic may turn out to be more profitable than you had expected.

You can estimate how long an A/B-test would take by using a calculator like this one.

In the previous section, we recommended you carry out user-tests to understand your visitor. In addition, regardless of whether you carry out A/B-tests, we highly recommend you use user-tests as a way of measuring the performance of pages. In fact, if the A/B-test-duration calculator shows that your all of your tests would take more than six months, we recommend you use only user-tests, and return to A/B-testing once your business has grown.

User tests have many, huge advantages over A/B-tests:

  • They are quick to carry out. A user-test can take less than ten minutes.
  • They allow you to gather qualitative insights. A two-month-long A/B-test may tell you which page performed better, but a ten-minute-long user-test tells you why.
  • They provide insights that are granular. An A/B-test will only reveal which page is better—that’s just one fact about the whole page—but a user-test will reveal which parts of the page work.

Work on high-traffic pages—or find people who have

Improving low-traffic websites is like working in the dark: You have to work blind, without feedback, so you need to know what you’re doing. Low-traffic websites are a bad place to learn the craft of conversion rate optimization; it’s easier to learn by working on websites that get lots of traffic. With high-traffic websites, you get exposed to a firehose of feedback.

If you want to become great at conversion rate optimization, you would benefit from finding an opportunity to work on a high-traffic website. If the low-traffic website in question is yours, and you can’t afford to take a sabbatical working on a high-traffic website, then you may want to hire someone who has, and then skip this section.

Feedback firehoses are valuable for two reasons. In the short term, it allows you to iterate and improve what you’re working on. But it also hones your craft. The top performers in many fields of endeavor are those who have, at some point in their careers, been exposed to firehoses of feedback. Most successful movie comedians, for example, developed their comedy intuition by performing night after night in front of live audiences, getting instant feedback on every word, movement and gesture they make. Most successful bands began their careers playing in front of live audiences, learning—on a second-by-second basis—what audiences liked and disliked. So if you want to become great at conversion, seek out opportunities to work on high-traffic websites. Ideally, you want to work in a company that’s big enough to have loads of traffic, and agile enough to allow you to move fast. In doing so, you’ll quickly develop a knack of knowing what will convert—and what won’t.

Then, when you’ve learned the craft, you’ll find it much easier to grow a low-traffic website.

The only way is up

The techniques described in this article are invaluable. We know no better way to grow startups and early-stage companies.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take heart in the knowledge that every successful company has had to pass through this stage at one point. And things will only get easier.


This is the final article in the series that began here.

Now that you know what each of the techniques does, try to identify which combination of them will give you the insights you need.

As in many fields of creativity, it helps to have a spirit of experimentation. Don’t give up because your first attempt did not reveal insights.

Try, fix, try again, fix, gather insights, makes changes…

…and get one of those graphs that goes off the scale.

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