How to launch a new website without killing your conversion rate

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"We need a better website." 

It is a phrase that can be heard frequently at meetings in ecommerce businesses across the world. It sounds like a simple idea, but switching to a new website, or migrating to a new ecommerce platform, is likely to be one of the biggest capital expenses any 21st century online business could make. It is inevitably a huge investment of time, management resource and money.

Launching a new website is also the kind of exciting project that naturally comes with high expectations that the effort and expense will be worth it, with improved efficiencies and sales. However, all too often though, the reality is somewhat different.

So what are the most common problems, and how can they be prevented?

Do you really need a new website?

Before you start, the first question is whether a new website is actually required. Improving your current site may be less exciting, but it is also far less risky.

A brand new website that replaces your existing one with another, with new look and feel, navigation and functionality is called a ‘Radical Redesign’. In 2014, Marks and Spencer reportedly invested over £150m in a new website but on launch the website immediately suffered a 8% loss in sales. It took the company many months to understand why the website was failing to and get sales back to their previous level.

Less risky is an ‘Evolutionary Site Redesign’, which comes about naturally through gradual improvements, where the impact of each change is carefully measured and gains are made in a more predictable way.

So, it is important to consider carefully what the right approach is for your business’ circumstances. If you opted for a radical redesign approach, the below considerations can save you time and money.

1. Strategy stage: The business case

At this stage there is usually some awareness that your website is underperforming, and that competitors with newer platforms seem to offer more exciting features. It is important, however, to make a financial case to weigh up the cost of updating your current website versus commissioning a new one.

The expectation is likely to be that your new website will convert visitors into customers at a much higher rate. However, the quality of information available is low and the number of assumptions being made is high, so you should conduct a thorough review of your website’s weaknesses using tools like conversion funnels, heatmaps, usability testing and even customer surveys.

2. Early stage: Functional specifications

Once the business case for a new e-commerce website has been agreed in principle you need to write functional specifications and identify suitable web development partners. At this point it is hard to imagine that sales might be lower than at present, but you can take the following steps to avoid the potential pitfalls that might impact the conversion rate of your website.

  • Don’t be overly-influenced by competitors’ websites. The way to stay ahead is to focus on your customers’ needs, not what others are doing.
  • Don’t base your functional specification based purely on industry ‘best practice’. One-size-fits-all techniques may not be right for your website as your visitors are unique.
  • Don’t just base your functional specification on what the business ‘believes’ about its website visitors. Conduct rigorous research around how real visitors behave and what they want.

3. Middle stage: Design and development

Once the project is underway you will have an approved functional specification, and perhaps signed off wireframes. It is an exciting stage of the project, expectations will be high, and many people will be anticipating a new features and hooks that visitors are going to love in time for peak season.

However, this stage in itself presents a number of potential pitfalls. Designers and developers are now running the show and may take decisions without much regard to the users of this new website – making a website look good is not the same as building one that converts well. Similarly, there may be insufficient thought put into the taxonomy of the product categories and copy and content.

The time to make large-scale changes has passed, so the central question this stage is “How can I be sure that this website is going to deliver, without holding up the go-live date?” To answer this question and protect conversion rates you should:

  • Get the wireframes and mocked up pages reviewed by actual users of your website.
  • Make sure copy is professionally written, with the website visitor in mind.
  • Review the value proposition messaging.
  • Analyse the sales performance of categories and sub-categories to ensure that they are in the correct position within the new navigation.
  • Perform a look-to-book ratio analysis to see which products require more attention to make them as compelling as others.

4. Final stage: Ready to launch

Chances are, the fast-approaching live date approaches will be later than expected and relationships may be fraught as team members can’t agree on priorities. Everyone will be excited to see how the new website performs, but compromises will have inevitably been made along the way caused by deadline and budget constraints that could impact overall customer experience.

At this stage, there’s no more time to make changes so the main focus should be to ensure funnels are correctly configured so that the customer journey in the old and new sites can be analysed properly. Try using metrics to benchmark such as Revenue per Visitor (RPV), Bounce Rate for key landing pages (BR), Exit Rate (ER), Basket Abandonment Rate (AR), Add to Basket ratios for your bestsellers (A2B) and Conversion Rate (CR). Segment these metrics by new and returning visitors, by your five most popular traffic sources and by device type, and if the new site doesn’t meet expectations, at least you’ll be able to quickly spot why.

5. Live stage: Website launched

If conversion and sales go up after launch, there is jubilation. If the numbers are all heading south, however, it’s a real anti-climax and people start pointing fingers and asking difficult questions.

The funnels you set up may tell you that visitors are dropping out at checkout stage or there is an issue with page load speed, and you can do something about it. If the reason is not so clear, blind panic and grasping at straws is not the answer, but instead every minute needs to be focused on understanding the conversion problem and its root causes. Look at Voice of the Customer tools, like on-site polls and usability testing with real visitors and develop valid hypotheses to test to fix the problems.

The reality is that there is a very real risk that a new website project will damage your conversion rates, and that will in turn require even more investment and effort to even get back to previous levels. Our experience is that in the majority of cases you will gain a greater and quicker return on investment by continuously optimising your ecommerce website, and going for evolutionary re-design rather than the radical redesign.

Dan Croxen-John is CEO of AWA Digital and the co-author of new book, E-commerce Website Optimisation, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. For more information go to www.awa-digital.com

About Dan Croxen-John

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