The world of online marketing is full of acronyms. For anyone still learning the lay of the land, all those letters can be confusing. But one acronym that every website owner can benefit from learning is CRO.

What is CRO?

CRO stands for conversion rate optimization. It’s the marketing discipline devoted to ensuring that more of the people who land on your site take the actions you want them to.

Every website owner learns fast that getting traffic is hard. And all the work (and money) you put into getting people onto your website is worth little if most of those visitors click away and never come back. CRO marketing is about increasing the number of site visitors that stick around, start a relationship with your brand, and make purchases—rather than leaving the site and forgetting you.   

CRO is a complicated practice though. Both because what a conversion means will vary depending on your business and goals, and because people are hard to predict. Figuring out what they’ll respond to—what will encourage them to take specific actions—isn’t a clear science. It requires guesswork, testing, analysis, and a strong digital marketing strategy. 

But getting it right yields dividends. By making the traffic you worked so hard to earn more valuable to your business, you make all your marketing efforts go further. And you ensure your traffic numbers actually lead to purchases—the only way for those site visitors to turn into profits for your business. 

What is a conversion?

A conversion is any action a website visitor takes that helps you meet your business goals. For every business, a purchase is one of the main conversions you seek. But there are a lot of other related actions that also count as conversions.

Some of the metrics you may want to track as conversions for your digital marketing campaign include:

A click 

The first step to sticking around your site is making the choice to visit a second page. Anytime a website visitor clicks on a link, it’s a meaningful conversion. It’s a smaller one than many of the other conversions we’ll describe, so some CRO marketing experts refer to small conversions like this as micro conversions. But they still matter. And a click is especially meaningful when it’s for a page that suggests an interest in making a bigger conversion, such as a landing page or product page. 

Product video view

If your eCommerce website includes product videos, a view is a good indicator of someone’s interest in the product. A product video view would still be considered a micro conversion for most businesses, but it’s a compelling one that helps you determine how many of the visitors to the product page show a real interest in learning more about your products. 

An email sign up

An email subscriber may not be as directly profitable as a new customer, but someone choosing to actively hear from you regularly is a big deal! As such, gaining new email sign ups is an important conversion to track for any business that does email marketing. 

Webinar and online event attendance

If you host webinars or online events as a marketing practice, each person that chooses to register and show up is demonstrating a willingness to spend time with you and an interest in the topics you cover. Since most businesses also require attendees to provide information to attend, such as a name email address, it shows they value your information enough to give up personal details as well. All of that points to someone likely to be a warm lead for your business, which makes event attendance another important conversion metric. 

Downloading an ebook or report

Similar to webinars, anyone that chooses to download a piece of high-value content behind a form, like an ebook or report, is showing a serious interest in the topics you cover. That makes it highly likely they’re in your target audience and interested in your products.

Filling out a lead form

Filling out a lead form is the first conversion on our list that demonstrates a direct intention to buy, or at least learn more about a product. For any website that includes lead forms, this is an important conversion to track. 

Adding an item to a wishlist or registry

If your eCommerce website offers the functionality to build a wishlist or registry, someone adding a product to their list clearly demonstrates their interest in that product. It means they either intend to come back and buy it themselves, or hope a loved one will do so for them. 

Adding an item to their cart

A visitor that clicks that Add to Cart button is definitely interested in buying your product. It’s not  a sure sale yet at that point—cart abandonment is an all too common issue for eCommerce websites. But any visitor that takes that step is close to the act of buying, making it an important conversion.

A purchase

The most obvious conversion action to track is a purchase. As the main goal you have for new visitors to your site, this is a crucial conversion metric to pay attention to.

An upgrade or add-on to a purchase

As good as a purchase is, there are conversion metrics that can improve upon it. If you offer product upgrades or push for a product add-on during the checkout process, that’s another important conversion. And one that can increase profits without having to increase customer numbers. 

Setting up a call

For products that require a longer sales process, the decision to set up a call with a representative of your company to learn more is a big step toward purchasing. 

Setting up a demo or trial

For software products, it’s common for customers to want to see the product in action, or even try it out before making a decision. Demos and trials are some of the most important conversion actions for companies in this category.

Scheduling an appointment

Many service-based businesses are based on selling time or expertise. In these cases, a new customer setting up an appointment for your services is the most important conversion.  And an appointment for an initial consultation to learn more is a close second. 

Making a reservation

For small businesses like restaurants, a reservation is a promise to show up and spend money at a set time. That makes it a key conversion to pay attention to. 

Creating an account

As nice as purchases are, when a customer chooses to make an account on your website, they’re signaling an interest in coming back and doing business with you again. And for many eCommerce sites, creating an account is a step that makes it possible to use features like the wishlist function and to leave reviews. 

Signing up for a rewards program

New customers are a big deal, but any business that’s been in it for the long term knows that loyal customers are the most important ingredient to success. When a customer makes the choice to sign up for a rewards program, they’re showing an interest in continuing to purchase from you in the future. That’s a big deal, and thus one of the most important conversions to monitor. 

Why CRO is Important

Developing a CRO strategy can be crucial for your business. You probably found it obvious while reading through that list that every item on it that’s relevant to your business is valuable. But just in case you need some further convincing that conversion rate optimization is worth focusing on, there are a few main reasons it’s important.

Traffic is worthless without conversions.

Gaining traffic is hard. The only way to get traffic fast is with paid ads. The traffic you don’t pay for directly—the type that comes from channels like organic search and email marketing—requires playing the long game and making a long-term investment. For both types of traffic, you’re spending a lot in terms of time, money, and effort.

High traffic numbers may look nice on the surface. But on its own, traffic is a vanity metric. If thousands of people visit your website each month, but few of them ever take action or come back around, what are those visits really worth? 

For website traffic to have any value for your business, it has to lead to conversions. And the more visitors that take an action, the better off your business will be. Conversion rate optimization is how you get those numbers up and make the traffic you earned actually mean something.  

Conversions are how you move visitors down the funnel.

If you’re new to marketing terminology, the sales funnel is the image used to describe the full purchasing process of a customer. 

Top-of-the-funnel activities are those that relate to awareness—when a customer’s first learning about your brand. When they’re in the middle of the funnel, they already know who you are, but are taking actions that show more of an interest. And when at the bottom of the funnel, they’re close to making that purchasing decision.

While some customers make impulse purchases, many more go through a longer process when making a purchasing decision that includes doing research and considering different options. That’s especially true for high-cost items, but also often the case for smaller purchases. In order to capture those customers and get them from the point of first learning about your brand to actually making a purchase, you have to move them through the funnel.

Each conversion is a step in that process. When a new visitor clicks to see another page on your website, that’s a top-of-the-funnel conversion. When they download an ebook, that is a middle-of-the-funnel one. And when they add an item to their cart, set up a call to learn more, or make a reservation, that’s a bottom-of-the-funnel activity that shows they’re very close to handing you their payment info.  

All of these conversions matter and understanding the ways they’re connected can help you take actions that increase sales and profits. 

Business profits are directly related to conversions. 

Even the micro conversions that occur at the top of the funnel have a role to play in helping your brand increase profits. Interactions with your website are how customers get to know more about your brand. It’s how they learn who you are, what you sell, and why you’re trustworthy. 

And even if an email signup doesn’t immediately translate into money, it means that person will see you in their inbox regularly. That keeps you on their mind, and ensures they’ll hear about all your sales and specials. 

A purchase is the ultimate conversion, but even before it gets to that point, every conversion plays a role. Any money your business makes is directly tied to conversions. Improving conversion rates is how you increase profits. 

What Does CRO Entail? 

Conversion rate optimization includes a number of different best practices, but each of them can be divided into a few main categories.

Understanding your audience.

In order to improve conversion rates, you need to get inside the heads of the people that you want to convert. Unfortunately the field of conversion rate optimization doesn’t have a lot of fast and hard rules you can follow. One business might find that making all the call-to-action buttons red increases conversions, while another sees a drop when they do the same thing. 

That’s because you’re dealing with different audiences, or sometimes the same audience at different moments in their lives when they’re in different headspace. The only way to increase conversions on your website is to learn to understand your specific audience, their typical behavior, and the reasons behind it. 

Analyzing the buyer’s journey.

The buyer’s journey is essentially another way to refer to the funnel we talked about before. It describes the series of steps a customer takes to reach the point of sale. It will be different for each customer, but reviewing your analytics to see what some of the common journeys are will help you understand what your customers care about and the type of actions that most commonly lead to a sale.

Reducing friction.

A little bit of friction can make a big difference in conversion rates. Including additional fields a visitor must fill out for a download can make them decide the extra effort isn’t worth it. A check-out process that includes extra steps or takes more time than customers are used to can lead to cart abandonment. Steps that take mere seconds can feel like enough of an impediment to cause consumers to give up on an action they were about to take.

A key part of the CRO process is recognizing things that create friction and removing them from the process, as much as possible.  

Testing out hypotheses.

While human behavior is hard to quantify, to the degree possible, a good CRO strategy is based on data. In practice, that usually means coming up with a hypothesis and then running a test to see how it changes user behavior. 

You can set up A/B tests on a blog headline to see which one drives the most readers. You can see how changing the color of a CTA button influences clicks or downloads. And if you suspect shipping fees contribute to cart abandonment, you can test out shipping deals to see how reduced or free shipping changes the check out rate. 

Every test you run produces data you can use to better understand what your target audience responds to. You can then apply the insights you gain to your web design and marketing efforts moving forward.

CRO Gets Results

Conversion rate optimization isn’t simple, but it’s a field worth investing in to make sure your website is doing its job effectively. Once you learn a number of different CRO techniques, you’ll be able to better attract potential customers and improve your existing traffic. When you get conversions up, you increase the return on investment for all your marketing efforts, and see a rise in profits as a result. 

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.