From the September 2009 issue of Entrepreneur

By most standards, a 10 percent online lead-conversion rate is nothing to sneeze at. Many companies thrive on much less. But Ajay Goel figured his business, JangoMail, an e-mail marketing platform, could do better. And to figure out how, Goel listened to the critics.

"Our whole business depends on us successfully converting online leads," he says, "and we got accused all the time of having an old-school, '90s-looking website that was not very visually appealing. I definitely think that affected us."

So Goel decided to start fresh. The JangoMail site was redesigned with pale lavender graphics, an interactive "Ask Us" feature and plenty of scannable icons. It is now "very Web 2.0-ish," Goel says.

And it made an almost immediate difference: Within a month of the relaunch, JangoMail's online lead conversion rate tripled to 30 percent.

Site aesthetics--the overall sensory appeal of a company's online home--is just one factor that reliably determines how successful an e-business is at turning visitors into customers. That reliability is hard to come by: E-commerce is still in its infancy, and filled with trial-and-error experiments. Think of the internet as a field laboratory, in a constant state of flux and full of educated guesswork.

All the more important to know the tactics, tools and features that have consistently worked for entrepreneurs.

The initial hook. "Everybody loves a deal," says Adam Glickman, founder of condomania.com, a safe-sex e-tailer. He and other entrepreneurs who make a living on the Web agree that offering visitors purchase incentives on the home page--such as first-time-buyer discounts or free shipping--is the best way to get quick conversions.

"We do everything we can to get them to buy then and there," says David Gass, founder of Business Credit Services, a Las Vegas firm that helps fledgling companies access financing. What's more, visitors usually are willing to provide valuable bits of basic info for your database to get an incentive.

Site functionality. Businesses that greet online visitors with a cumbersome and counterintuitive website are spinning their wheels. On the other hand, sites that move visitors along at the their own pace, with the ability to deliver customized landing pages and content, and to answer questions promptly, tend to do best with conversions.

"It's about offering lots of channels for follow-up through web pages and e-mail," says Jay Bower, president of the Crossbow Group, a digital marketing services firm in Westport, Conn. User interfaces and dynamic content pegged to specific customer personas is a powerful lead-conversion tool, he adds.

Be sure to post toll-free phone numbers and e-mail addresses on every page, as well as fields for visitors to submit questions, says David Lively, whose Ohio consulting firm, The Lively Merchant, specializes in retail sales. Glickman says retail sites should also allow visitors to calculate shipping costs early in the purchase process so that they aren't ambushed at the conclusion of the transaction.

The ability to send automated responses to visitors who have reached the shopping cart is also critical, Lively says. "You want to be able to send auto responses that correspond to the exact point where a customer exits the shopping cart before purchasing, a communication that says, 'We saw you were considering purchasing so-and-so product. If there are any questions we can answer about that product.'"

Site aesthetics. All that functionality amounts to little unless it comes in a visually appealing package. These days it's tough to get by with a wallflower of a website. Consider investing a little extra for a unique, appealing and clean site that fits your company and brand identity.
 

How to Hold a Hot Lead

Make the essentials accessible. The company phone and e-mail should be prominent on most every page of a site, says Jay Bower of the Crossbow Group. Sites with a shopping cart should also provide ready access to privacy policies, return policies and shipping info.

Don't demand too much information. "Only ask a customer or prospect for information you really need," advises retail sales consultant David Lively. "Long forms are a source of frustration."

Let them buy first, join later. It's important to give customers an opportunity to open an account, but only after the close, says Dave Nevogt, owner of e-tailer PurePointGolf.com.

Remember: Less is more. "It's a Facebook-driven world right now," says Bower. You don't want a site that looks text-heavy.

Function well with any browser. The best sites accommodate all visitors similarly, whether they arrived via Safari, Explorer or Firefox.

Be original. Don't use a common template. Dare to differentiate with a site that looks and feels like no one else's, says David Gass, who heads Business Credit Services.

Keep the site fresh. Regularly update your content, graphics and so on, and don't be shy about trying new stuff on your site (a blog or video, for example).
 

Aesthetics also weigh heavily on the content side. While it's worthwhile to include detailed, text-heavy content deeper in a site's architecture, cater to short attention spans by taking a less-is-more approach on the home page, initial splash pages and with product and service descriptions, Bower says. But be sure to provide visitors a chance to drill down for more details, particularly if there's complexity to what you're selling, says Dave Nevogt, owner of e-tailer PurePointGolf.com.

Tech tools. Technology--including tools online visitors can use and others an e-business deploys behind-the-scenes--can dramatically affect lead-conversion, Bower says. He recommends versatile CRM systems that can segment visitors, manage prospect and customer data, score leads and serve up content to visitors based on their profiles. "These [systems] can have a direct and immediate impact on ROI in almost every case, and you can purchase them for not a lot of money."

Choose your tech features wisely. Goel relies on one that provides his salespeople with alerts for each action a prospect takes during a site visit. That lets them communicate directly with prospects in real time, if necessary. Glickman recommends a shopping feature that tells visitors exactly how much more they must spend to reach the next volume discount threshold.

And in the heyday of YouTube, don't overlook the power of video, Gass says. "It's where the internet is heading: well-done video that not only can save someone a lot of reading but that also standardizes your sales pitch, so the message you're conveying is consistent and exactly how you want it."

Capturing customer information. Special online offers are designed not just to get visitors to buy but also to solicit information you can use to continue communicating with them, online and offline. "My theory on that is the more you give, the more you get," Nevogt says.

This is where a CRM system can help an e-business to convert leads most efficiently by targeting its strongest prospects.

Don't be shy about asking visitors to supply one or two bits of information, "but be respectful of their time," Bower says. Also, Glickman says, "be respectful and mindful of the different customer segments visiting your site."

Internet shoppers fall into three "universal personas," he explains, and a site should cater to each. There's the hit-and-run customer who wants to get in and out with as few clicks as possible; the visitor who needs hand-holding; and information-seekers who want to learn as much as they can about a product or service before committing. Visitors end up self-segmenting when they choose a particular path through your site.

Follow-up communications. "Windows of opportunity, especially in the online environment, close very quickly," Bower says. Thus the first rule of follow-up: Strike while the iron is hot. Send the prospect an e-mail within minutes or hours of a site visit--preferably with content tailored to the visitor's actions on your site, Goel says. That can be done automatically, and it sets the stage for a series of e-mail communications to the prospect--marketing offers, product announcements, newsletters and the like.

Just as critical is person-to-person follow-up with prospects within a day or two of a site visit, Bower says. All communications should correspond to where prospects are in the decision-making process, he says. "Going for the kill immediately can backfire." It also helps to put someone's name--the president of the company, for example--on those communications, not just a generic "do-not-reply-to" address. "As soon as I started putting my name on our e-mail communications, the unsubscribe rate went way down," Gass says.

Informing, educating, guiding and problem-solving. Whether you sell generic widgets or provide a highly specialized service, your efforts are more likely to bear fruit if your prospects perceive you as a benevolent authority in your field.

To that end, Lively says, a well-written, informative and regularly updated blog not only can boost credibility, it can also hold visitors' interest and reengage them in the shopping experience. Video tutorials, demos and testimonials can serve the same purpose, Goel points out, as can posting positive mentions of your company in the media.

These are some of the lead-conversion techniques that work for e-businesses in the current Web world. As Nevogt points out, most of them come with one big caveat: "There's no guarantee that what works today will work tomorrow."

The Mystery of Metrics
Finding an appropriate lead-conversion benchmark for your business can be elusive: Metrics differ significantly from marketplace to marketplace and business to business.

"It depends greatly on the products or services you're trying to sell, the kind of prospecting you do, the quality of the leads you're getting and how simple or complex your product or service is," says David Lively of The Lively Merchant.

Jay Bower, president of the marketing agency Crossbow Group, says even the way lead conversion is defined is highly subjective and specific to the business. "One firm's 'A' lead is another's 'C' --a tire-kicker," he says. "And conversion can mean taking any kind of action, a request for information, or a sale."

Because metrics and conversion goals are so individual, most experts recommend that business owners find a web marketing expert with expertise in their specific area to help formulate an appropriate conversion target.

Bower says he does apply a rule of thumb to some of his firm's clients, however: "We tell companies that if they aren't converting 10 percent or more of the traffic to their site," he says, "something is wrong with either the offer, the conversion path, the creative or a combination of those."

David port is a denver-based freelancer who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.