Aaron interviews Ben and Karl from Conversion Rate Experts (CRE)

A few months ago, I hired Conversion Rate Experts to work on my business. I have learned loads from them. So far they have grown our conversion rate by 124%, and have given me great insights into the thought process of consumers hitting this site...reminding me why they buy, and how ineffectively we were conveying the value of all the different components of our offering. 124% is a good start, and we still have a lot of things to improve upon.

Earlier this week, I interviewed them for this blog, so you can benefit from their advice too. The interview contains loads of tips you can implement today to grow your business.

Aaron: What made you guys start Conversion Rate Experts?

Karl: Several years ago, I started working with Ben, who had been working in web marketing for years. I have a Ph.D. in rocket science, and we discussed how we could take a scientific approach to increasing the conversion rate of our employer’s website. Within twelve months, we tripled the website’s profits, to $9.1 million.

At that time, we had just bought SEO Book, and claimed our free 20-minute call with you, Aaron. We asked for your advice, and you recommended we “Give away as much valuable information as possible”. We took your advice, and, a few weeks later, launched Conversion-Rate-Experts.com with a free report called Google Website Optimizer 101, which described some of the techniques we had developed.

The report went viral, getting on the homepages of Digg and Delicious. By the end of the week, we’d been featured on the Alexa.com home page as the third-fastest-growing website, in their “Movers & Shakers” list.

The following day we were contacted, out of the blue, by Google’s Tom Leung, who suggested we partner with them to offer consulting services. We said no at first (what were we thinking?!) but, six months later, we decided to go for it. Since then, we have had some fantastic successes for clients in some highly competitive industries—including weight loss, travel, gaming, technology and health and fitness.

Aaron: Lets say I have no idea who my customer is...but my boss wants me to give a report on the topic at the end of next week. What should I do?

Ben: Speak with your sales people—or customer support people. They understand your customers in much more depth than any web analytics report could give. They know what the customers care about, and what their major objections are. If you have no customer support people, consider temporarily adding a phone number to your website, just to give yourself an opportunity to speak with customers.

To show you the extremes we go to to hear the “voice of the customer”, here are a few of the things we have done to get face to face with real prospects:

  • Sold travel products in airports, from a stand that was rented for a few days.
  • Sold phones at a market. (We were in a hurry to gather objections for a new product, and the market allowed us to just turn up on the day.)
  • Joined a local slimming club. (This was by far the most embarrassing.)
  • Attended a local bingo hall.
  • Opened up Japan’s first-ever Nokia store.
  • Ordered antibodies through the post. (They’re still here on the desk—we don’t know how to get rid of them!)

Other great services include Crazy Egg, Kampyle, ClickTale…and of course, web analytics software. We created a summary of some of the services we use regularly.

Aaron: Testing…personas…consistency in messaging. What is more important for improving conversion rates?

Karl: Consistency in messaging should be a given. If your messaging isn’t consistent, you’ve got a “dog’s dinner” of a website.

Testing, too, should be a prerequisite; without testing, you can’t confidently be sure whether you have improved your conversion rate or not.

You definitely need to understand your visitors’ intentions and mindset. This should be done by real research, not just “ivory towers” guesswork. Many web marketers fall short at this point. They ask us how to increase their conversion rates, and the first question we ask is, “Why are most of your visitors leaving without spending a penny”…and they can’t answer the question! These people would struggle to create just one realistic persona, never mind five of them. Personas can be a useful way of considering different types of visitor, but as long as the personas are based on a real understanding of your visitors—otherwise you’re just sitting in an office, creating soap opera characters.

Aaron: What is the single biggest thing most sites screw up in the conversion process?

Karl: Most web marketers work on the wrong part of their conversion funnel. For example, they might over-obsess on their landing page, but forget that they don’t have a refer-a-friend program.

One of the first things we do is to look at the whole conversion process—from visitor to repeat customer—and look for the opportunities in the chain. We have an immediate advantage because we can see the website with fresh eyes.

Aaron: Did you ever make a mistake during the conversion testing process that surprised you and worked really well?

Ben: We regularly carry out usability tests on our clients’ websites. During one test, the participant mentioned that he’d prefer the page to have a different background colour (the color to the left- and right-hand side of the page). We mentioned it to the client in passing, who then tested it. The client saw a 9% improvement in the site’s conversion rate, worth $400,000 per year. We were amazed that such a subtle change could make such a massive difference to a business.

Aaron: Many of the internet marketers that do email-based marketing are willing to lie to make a sale. It makes sense that get rich quick people are easy to monetize since they want to buy a dream. How does one compete with such a sales strategy in a field where competing businesses overtly lie?

Ben: Prospects are hungry for proof—and they’re surprisingly good at detecting lies. If you can show irrefutable evidence that your offering is best, you have an enormous advantage. SEO Book’s success is largely due to your integrity, and the high quality of your information. You might call it “white hat” conversion! And, as with “white hat” SEO, it’s the easiest way of building a long-term sustainable business.

Aaron: Sales optimization vs exploitation: some people push it too far, whereas most businesses are way under-monetized. Where do you draw the line between improving conversion rates and misleading people? Is misleading people ever profitable in the longrun, or do the people who do that need to keep starting over again and again.

Karl: The best approach is to offer people what they want—and then deliver it. Monetization doesn’t mean exploitation. We regularly ask this question to our clients’ customers: “What would persuade you to use us more often?”

You’d be surprised how many customers ask the company to offer more products or services to them.

Aaron: From my experiences, with Adsense and ad click based business models it seems like it would be easier to monetize people of limited topical knowledge and limited knowledge of the web. And some people who have been around forever feel they already know everything. Yet some models work best monetizing at the higher end. How does a business owner know what types of customers they should target?

Ben: There’s no one right answer. Some companies—such as 37 Signals, with their collaboration tools—target the lower end of the market, and some—such as Accenture—target the high end. It depends on which segments of the market are currently being neglected by vendors, and how you feel you can add the most value.

Aaron: If a person targeted the wrong audience for years, is it easy to later shift to the right target? How does one shift without losing market momentum?

Karl: Here’s a great way to identify your company’s opportunities: Quickly write down two lists:

  • List your company’s strengths. These are the things that you company is good at, and that competitors would struggle to compete with you at, because there’s some “barrier to entry”—whether that’s because of a skill you have, or an asset you have. For example, SEO Book has an enormous readership, a reputation for integrity and intelligent commentary, true expertise in SEO, many successful customers, and a large number of respected contacts in the SEO world. Any new competitors would struggle to compete with those things.
  • List your company’s opportunities, in terms of what people are willing to spend money on. The best way to get this is by understanding your customers. If you don’t know what they’d like to spend money on, ask them, in person or by survey.

By studying these two lists, you should be able to find opportunities that you are best-positioned to serve. The question to ask is, “How much money could be made from this opportunity, and could my company be the best in the world at providing this service?”

Often, you’ll find that your biggest opportunities are right under your nose.

Often, the answer is to narrow down the opportunity to a very specific focus. For example, rather than aiming to provide SEO services to everyone, maybe SEO Book could specialize in providing linkbait services to small businesses.

It can be scary to narrow down your focus, but it’s often the most lucrative strategy. To get a good understanding of how to focus and positioning can help a business, read the chapter “Positioning and Focus”, pp. 103–127, in the book Selling The Invisible by Harry Beckwith.

By the way, the above exercise isn’t just useful for businesses—it can be really useful for planning your own career.

Aaron: Do you ever use public relations as part of your conversion enhancing strategies?

Ben: Yes, frequently. We have managed to get our clients into magazines such as TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Press mentions can lend loads of credibility to a product or service—and they can’t be used by competitors.

While working on a weight loss website that generates $5 million/year, we noticed that the company had a fantastic press testimonial that wasn’t prominently displayed on their website. By moving this information “above the fold”—and reformatting it—we managed to create an overnight 67% increase in sales.

Aaron: How important is social proof of value to sales?

Ben: Social proof can be extremely persuasive, particularly when other forms of proof are scarce. For those of your readers who don’t know what social proof is, it’s often known as “herd behavior”; when people are unable to determine how to behave, they will tend to imitate the behavior of others. Marketers often use social proof by demonstrating how other people are using their services. Here are a few examples of social proof:

McDonald’s “Over 99 Billion Served”

The Elvis album entitled “One Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”

Aaron: Many customers who like a product or service do not give feedback about it. How do you encourage them to do so?

Ben: Most companies don’t have this problem: they just don’t ask for feedback, because they’re scared to hear it. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and they genuinely wanted to know what you thought of the meal?

Karl: However, sometimes your best customers are also your busiest customers, so you need to reward them for sparing some time to give feedback. In these cases, you may consider rewarding them for sparing the time.

Aaron: Throughout my blogging history I have seen an amazing correlation between controversy and sales. Do you ever suggest clients make a ruckus to gain exposure and increase their sales?

Karl: We haven’t done so, but mainly because it’s more a traffic technique than a conversion one. The client would need to feel comfortable with “riding the storm of controversy”, which tends to scare a lot of people.

Aaron: What type of traffic converts best?

Karl: Existing customers convert very well, as do visitors from refer-a-friend programs.

Aaron: Is search traffic the best type of traffic to test conversion principles on? What other sources are worth testing aggressively?

Ben: We test on whatever traffic the website is currently getting—but avoiding, where possible, traffic that is transient, such as one-off campaigns.

Aaron: Do you prefer to do straight A/B split testing, or to test changing many variables at once?

Karl: We recommend clients start with A/B split testing, because it’s less complex. Multivariate testing is just carrying out several A/B tests simultaneously.

Aaron: When does it make sense to do incremental changes? When does it make sense to blow things up and start from scratch?

Karl: It’s a case of “baby steps” versus “giant steps”. If you’re confident that your giant step will be a winner, then it’s often worth testing, especially because large improvements can be detected much faster.

Aaron: If someone clones one of your products and makes it free how do you counter that from a marketing standpoint?

Karl: This is a question that many industries, such as the music industry, are currently facing.

It’s important to bear in mind that people pay for SEO Book’s training program because of the following: the community, the mentions in the world’s press, the popular blog, the fact they know and like you. Those things can’t easily be cloned.

Kevin Kelly wrote a great article about this difficult subject. The article is worth reading, but here is a summary of it, as it pertains to SEO Book:

Immediacy: people will pay a premium to have first-access to something. For example, people would pay extra to have early preview copies of new content on SEO Book.

Personalization: people will pay to have something that’s personalized for them (even though the personalization doesn’t need to be extreme). For example, people would pay more just to have someone tell them which parts of SEO Book’s training program they should focus on first.

Interpretation: people will pay to have something explained to them. For example, Google Website Optimizer is free software, but many clients pay to have help in setting it up.

Authenticity: people will pay more just to know that their copy is authentic (up-to-date, legal, free of erroneous information, etc.)

Accessibility: people will pay to have instant access to a hosted service, rather than having to look after and manage it themselves. With SEO Book, people would rather have access to the continually updated membership site rather having to constantly have to keep all the training videos up to date on their own computer.

Embodiment: people will often pay more to have the product in a “real” format. They may prefer to have SEO Book’s courses available in a printable format, so they can read it by their bedside, or they may prefer to attend an Elite Retreat session, so they can see you and your colleagues speak in person.

Patronage: sometimes people want to pay the product creator, because it allows them to connect.

Findability: sometimes, the main service a company makes it to raise the awareness of a product. For example, many people wouldn’t be aware of the SEO Book training program if it weren’t for all the channels (blog referrals, search rankings, affiliates, etc.) that direct visitors towards the seobook.com website.

Aaron: What were your biggest personal business hang-ups, and how did you get over them?

Karl: We tend to be perfectionists, and our blog readers often complain that we don’t publish enough. On the upside, our reports tend to get loads of attention when we publish them. If you would like to learn more about conversion, I’d suggest you view the free reports on our website, and sign up for our free newsletter.


Thanks for the great interview guys!

Published: March 3, 2009 by Aaron Wall in interviews


March 3, 2009 - 9:58pm

Great though I've not had something catch my attention like this for a while. Will need to read on exactly what it all is because I previously thought of Conversation Rate Optimization as creating numerous pages with the same products but with different layouts and styles.

Then monitoring them in lots of different ways. That sounds too easy for something Cambridge had to come up with and get all this hype so I was and still am missing something.

I'm not totally sure where the magic lays in this?! You mention magazines. Is that not just marketing or is it a when is marketing not marketing type of question!

Yes lots to learn


March 3, 2009 - 10:13pm

I actually found pretty funny the fact that everyone is saying that SEO and the whole internet marketing stuff isn't rocket science and the conversion rate guy actually have a Ph.D. in rocket science.


BTW great interview Aaron.

March 5, 2009 - 9:06am

I think about the SEO technique for a long time,We can improve our website by a few simply setting,For example,the title,keywords and descriptions of our website.Actually,I have done.It's funny,but I try to find other technique,I'll work hard on it.

Liu jun

March 4, 2009 - 9:50am

Fascinating and useful interview. Thank you, Aaron. It's content like this that makes it impossible for me to even think of any site other than yours (and, perhaps, Danny's SEL) for learning about search and search engine marketing.

March 4, 2009 - 3:33pm

No need to thank me. Ben and Karl are the smart ones...I just interviewed them. :)

March 5, 2009 - 6:28am

The thanks was also for asking great questions, Aaron. It takes a lot of skill to be a good interviewer; you really put yourself into the shoes of common folk when you do these interviews :-)

March 5, 2009 - 4:19pm

It doesn't hurt that I just hired them and they did great work with us ;)

miami web desig...
March 4, 2009 - 1:47pm

Great interview Aaron. Good point about not letting the fear of having aless than perfect post stop you from blogging.

March 4, 2009 - 3:44pm


It is great that you have put Conversion Rate in the spotlight. I wonder about what do you think who in the online marketing eco system should own the Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO): SEOs, web analytics vendors, web content vendors, or CRO specialized providers.

We believe that SEOs have a unique opportunity to take an ownership of CRO opportunity. A market perception, existing client base, and skill set are all on their side.



March 4, 2009 - 4:51pm

I think conversion is a discipline unto itself...analytics are a part of it. Like SEO, it touches on lots of other marketing disciplines and principals.

I tend to consider the field of SEO to consider things like branding and public relations...which is a pretty broad definition. Someone who approaches the web from a conversion perspective likely has a similar approach.

March 4, 2009 - 7:39pm

Fantastic interview. Great to hear that they increased your conversion rates by 124% that's a pretty penny. :D

Aaron, you asked them some great questions helping us understand their line of thinking when it comes to this rare discipline. They are one of the few hubs for Conversion Rate Optimization. Top notch interview.

March 5, 2009 - 12:37am

Hi Aaron, Good interview.

Great improvements on seobook's conversions!

I suspect the recent addition of the seobook.com hover ad is a part of that process.

If you are interested in some feedback on that, I can offer that it does not engender user affinity (at least from me) when it launches with every visit.

Also, the subscription form apparently does not accept a repeat subscription, since I had opted in a long time ago and, just recently, I opted in again (with the repetition of the hover ads), but did not receive the email offer.

Anyway, I'm not suggesting that the hover ad be discontinued, but you may want to consider having it set so that it doesn't launch every visit otherwise you may risk repelling more frequent visitors.

I use hover ads on a number of sites and set them to re-launch at different frequencies based upon traffic patterns.

Keep up the great work.

March 5, 2009 - 1:40am

There is a link on the ad to permanently close it...a link on the slideup and the popup to do so to each.

March 19, 2009 - 5:48pm

....After getting smacked around from you, Aaron, on my last venture I've come to realize I fell behind in this area. I started to think like a rich jerk and didn't actually realize it. ....ick yuck scary. Thanks for the interview.

I really like the slide up sign up box. It's obvious and inviting without being annoying. Did you track conversion rate change to that element alone? what were the outcomes?

March 19, 2009 - 7:30pm

We implemented slide up, pop up, and improved sign up graphics all around the same time.

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