Conversion rate optimization: scent trail or primrose path? 

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Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) is the practice of creating a pleasing user experience for a website, email, or landing page visitor with the goal of increasing the percentage of visitors that convert into customers. (And we all want more customers, right?)

The key is success comes in using good CRO techniques that lead the visitor down a "scent trail" and not a "primrose path."

The scent trail and good web design and conversion rate optimization

Think about how and why you use the Web. Chances are it’s when you’re looking for something specific such as a product, service, information, or advice. And when looking for that particular something, which sites annoy you and which do you most appreciate?

Do you enjoy sites with pop-up windows, “click here to enter” pages, blinking banner ads, or flash animations that have dozens of transitions before you ever see the first bit of content? Or, do you engage with sites that load quickly, are well designed, and makes the path to information you’re seeking obvious and accessible?

Visitors on the web are task-oriented. They aren’t “surfers” so much as they are on a mission. They’re following an information “scent trail.” If your site quickly and easily facilitates that search, providing answers to questions and the information people seek, there is a likelihood they will return. If not, access to millions of other sites is just a mouse click away.

Bizzuka CEO John Munsell provides this advice:

“Engagement involves creating a design that visually makes an impression consistent with the messages that brought them there; one that directs them efficiently to where they want to go and creates a navigation process that is logical and helps people accomplish their task quickly...

“The design must make a good first impression and get a message across that says, ‘We’re professional (visually appealing), we’ve got the solution to your problems (consistent marketing messages), we’re eager to help you (obvious access to search, contact ,and FAQs), and here’s where you’ll find what you need (intuitive navigation).’”

John’s instruction is consistent with a principle taught by CRO expert Bryan Eisenberg. In an article dating all the way back to December 2004, he cites a Xerox Palo Alto Research study that indicated humans track information in a manner similar to the way animals follow a scent.

“People… engage in what [Dr. Ed Chi] calls ‘hub-and-spoke’ surfing: They begin at the center, and they follow a trail based on its information scent… If the scent is sufficiently strong, the surfer will continue to go on that trail. But if the trail is weak, they go back to the hub. People repeat this process until they’re satisfied.”

Email marketing: cox message leads down primrose path

When using email marketing, the subject line and body copy should share similarities. If the message includes a link that sends readers to a landing page, the information contained there should be consistent with the email and lead them further down the path.

The subject line gets your attention, the email generates interest, and the landing page provides more information and a call to action. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

The problem is that, sometimes, we lead people down a primrose path that ends in frustration rather than to the information they were looking for.

Such was the case with an email I received from Cox Communications some time ago. The subject line said, “Enter to win a trip to Scotland from Cox!”

I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland and if I could do it on Cox’s dime, that’s fine with me.

To my surprise, the email itself contained nothing about the trip but focused instead on Cox OnDemand movies. When I clicked the link associated with the message, I was taken to a landing page that also said nothing about the trip.

Instead of a Scotland getaway, Cox led me down a primrose path that left me feeling somewhat aggravated and unfulfilled. Cox had piqued my interest with an offer to enter the contest in the hopes of winning a trip, but delivered a message that only pitched its services. It added insult to injury by following suit on the landing page.

I don’t mean to bash Cox undeservedly. I’m only citing this incident as an example of a poor marketing practice that I’ve seen repeated time and again, most often in the case of Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads that appear on Google and other search engines based on keyword searches.

Certainly you’ve experienced this. Click the link associated with the ad and you expect to be taken to a page that provides more relevant information, and that contains the keywords used in the search. Instead, you end up on the home page of the advertiser’s website, not to a landing page associated with the content of the ad itself.

What Cox did with its email subject line was start me on a scent trail, then immediately threw me off in the body of the email. Being the hound dog that I am, I continued to try and find the trail by visiting the landing page. When that proved futile, I went back to the email message (the hub) thinking there must have been something I overlooked. I hadn’t.

The moral of this story is, use good conversion rate optimization methods (such as the scent trail metaphor) to help people find the information they’re looking for instead of leading them down a primrose path.

Who knows, had Cox gotten their message right, I might be enjoying the Scottish Highlands now.

Now I want to provide some guidelines about how to get your email marketing right through the use of landing pages.

The marketing communication feedback loop and conversion rate optimization

Before we dig down into how to use landing pages, we first need to realize that communication, especially marketing communication, is a two-way street. It's not uncommon for marketers to think that if we broadcast a message, we have effectively communicated. That is not the case. 

Communication takes place when a feedback loop has been established. A simple version works like this:

  • An information source produces a message and encodes it for transmission using one or more channels.
  • The recipient decodes (interprets) the message received from the transmission, and then sends a response to the sender.

When that happens, the communication loop comes full cycle, and it's the sender's turn to continue communicating.

 Let's apply that to a marketing campaign.

 1. We formulate the message, adapt it for transmission through various channels (video, email, social media and so on) and then send.

 2. The recipients (our customers and prospects) see the message and respond. 

For the sake of example, let's say that we send an email broadcast announcing a new product or service designed to get the recipients, many of whom will be current customers, interested in learning more or, even better, making a purchase. Contained within that message is a call-to-action, which is consistent with the action we want the respondent to take.

What happens following the click-through is critical because it will either lead a person down the "scent trail" or along a primrose path.  

Does it take the respondent to a page on our website that features the product or service? Or, does it take them to a special landing page that contains the means by which the person can take the desired action?

Landing pages defined

For clarification, here's how Wikipedia defines the term:

 In online marketing ,a landing page, sometimes known as a 'lead capture page', is a single web page that appears in response to clicking on a search engine optimized search result or an online advertisement (or, in our example, an email message). The landing page will usually display directed sales copy that is a logical extension of the advertisement, search result, or link. 

In one sense, every web page is a "landing page" because it happens to be the one the person lands on. What I'm suggesting is that you create a page expressly designed to inspire action and continue the communication that will lead to the ultimate action - making a purchase.

Landing page examples for conversion rate optimization

To give you a better idea about how landing pages work, here are some helpful examples.

Predictive Shield

This is the top section of a more extensive landing page advertising a cyber security product called Predictive Shield. It contains two calls to action: "Learn More," and a phone number.

predictive shield button

 When you click the Learn More button, another page pops up containing a form to download the product brochure.

predictive shield lead magnet


This landing page, from landing page software provider Unbounce, invites people to take a free course on, what else, landing page conversion.

unbounce landing page

Landing page best practices for conversion rate optimization

What makes for a landing page that increases conversions? Here are a list of best practices gleaned from the Unbounce website:

 1. Ensure the primary headline of your landing page matches the source (ad, email, link) visitors clicked to get there.

 2. Make your call to action (CTA) big and position it above the fold.

 3. Make sure the landing page has a single focus.

 4. Use video. It’s been shown to improve conversion by up to 80%. 

5. Use real testimonials for authenticity.

 6. Use A/B split testing to determine the version that receives the highest conversion rate.

 7. Simplify your copy using bullets.

 8. Segment by traffic source. Send your PPC, email, social media, organic, and banner traffic to separate landing pages for better message match and to determine which channel performs best.

 9. Show your phone number so people know you are real and can interact with you on a personal level.

 10. Finally, don’t send inbound traffic to your homepage. Use a landing page!

Landing page platform providers

By now, I hope I have convinced you to incorporate the use of landing pages into your email marketing and other marketing channels, as well. Here is a list of companies that make landing page creation easy:

  1. Unbounce - Easy to use landing page creator that does not rely on I.T. support.
  2. Leadpages - Mobile responsive landing page creator.
  3. Instapage - Build and test landing pages in minutes.
  4. Wishpond - Build your own landing page creator tool that requires no coding.

Related resources

Finally, here are some related resources where you can learn more about increasing conversion rates using landing pages, especially as it applies to email marketing:

Contact us today to learn how conversion rate optimization can improve your website’s performance.