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Copy vs. Design: Which is Most Important to Conversion?

To better understand some of the fundamental principles of conversion science, I’d like to offer a case study. Two websites, both owned by the same business, targeting the same demographic, getting about the same search traffic, but with different conversion rates.

According to Heliski.com owner Tom Jackson, www.heliskiingreview.com was “dated, awkward, wordy, but it’s working.” On the other hand, he said, www.heliski.com was “newer, looks better, better organized but way underperforming in lead gen.”

The question—why would the clunky older site outperform the shiny newer site? (Disclosure: Heliski is one of my clients).

Business goals and conversion goals

A primary goal for Tom’s business is have a visitor book a helicopter skiing trip through him. Even though he often saves his customers money on the total cost of a skiing outing, each trip earns him a nice fee. Trips cannot be booked on the site, so a conversion is to have the visitor call, request an information packet, to sign up for alerts or to request a custom package design.

Both sites were live during his last peak season.

Before I tell you how these two sites performed, let’s take a look at how they use design and copy differently.

Design from a distance

From a distance the two home pages couldn’t look more different. HeliskiingReview.com uses non-standard layout. Text is knockout white on blue, usually considered more difficult to read than Heliski.com’s black on grey.

HeliskiingReview.com

HeliskiingReview.com

Heliski.com

Heliski.com

Newer Heliski.com has the traditional BAH (big-ass header) and top navigation above the content. It uses a brochure style of home page layout popular with designers today that puts offers in boxes at the bottom of the page. This pushes these offers—what Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg call “conversion beacons”—down toward the bottom of the page, and often off of the visible page altogether.

For navigation, older HeliskiingReview.com uses three bright icons and well-chosen labels in an unusual place in the upper left. This is the first place the eye falls when a visitor comes to a page. The contrasting orange-on-blue icons coupled with the position works.

Lower on the page, the image of three skiers carving through virgin powder with a helicopter hovering above tells the story with beautiful imagery. A designer may scoff at the placement, but the copy turns the visitor into a scroller, and this amazing image delivers them to a bulleted list of benefits that lay below the image.

Somehow, it all works.

Copy that converts

The copy on HeliskiingReview doesn’t mess around. The value proposition is right there at the top, stated in plain language.

Differences in navigation and value proposition

Navigation and value proposition are very different

The newer site uses a more “image- or brand-oriented play, establishing its value proposition as “the ultimate heliskiing destination.” Unfortunately, you can’t heliski on the site, so this is an empty promise.

The body copy couldn’t be more different in approach. HeliskiingReview.com uses plain language with specific, value- and benefit-oriented points in easy-to-scan bulleted format. Specifics are almost always important for conversion.

A designer might say that the big star with “send me info” was “too TV.” However, it certainly does draw the eye to an important call to action.

HeliskiingReview.com has value-oriented copy

Heliski.com uses more puffery, asking “Ready for the ultimate adventure, indulgence and untracked powder?!” In trying to be persuasive, the copy succeeds only in being difficult to understand.

Tom’s target audience is wealthy, older men who already ski and want something more adventurous. There is probably little need to persuade them that it is an adventure. Plus, the statements are presented with no proof that the site is an authority. Contrast this with HeliskiingReview.com which declares, “10 Years of Experience.”

As Dr. Flint McGlaughlin of MarketingExperiments says, “clarity trumps persuasion.” In this case HeliskiingReview.com trumps Heliski.com.

Heliski.com tries too hard to persuade the reader

The in-copy links aren’t as benefit-oriented as HeliskiingReview.com, and the call to action with the most action, “sign up for heliski news” isn’t even a link.

The accidental landing page

Tom has accidentally designed the HeliskiingReview.com home page as a landing page. It is a page designed to weed out browsers and appeal to buyers.

Here are the characteristics that define it as such:

  • It has no ancillary navigation to carry the visitor away. All of the information needed to take action is provided on the page.
  • Clear calls to action appear on the page.
  • Proof and risk reversal are provided.
  • Imagery is relevant, not brand-oriented. It doesn’t feel like stock photography.

Heliski.com is designed to maximize engagement, with a number of content items for the visitor to dig into.

It turns out that engagement doesn’t pay the bills in this case.

Here’s a surprise: HeliskiingReview.com has more content than Heliski.com. HeliskiingReview.com focuses on the locations, offering packages for specific parts of the world. However, the Heliski.com “heliski finder” focuses on the operators who provide the trips. Apparently, the latter is less enticing to Tom’s audience.

A good set of personas would have uncovered this distinction.

And the conversion champ is…

HeliskiingReview.com had a conversion rate of 2.27% vs. Heliski.com at 1.99%. That’s 14% better. However, HeliskiingReview.com delivered much more qualified prospects. Tom was able to book trips for 15.29% of the HeliskiingReview.com leads. Heliski.com had a close ratio of only 1.33%. That’s 1146% more bookings and tens of thousands of dollars in sales.

Improving HeliskiingReview.com

I recommended that Tom optimize the HeliskiingReview.com site for search engines, and make this the entry point for his marketing efforts.

I then recommended that he use an email strategy to stay in front of tire-kickers until they are ready to book. The content found on Heliski.com may be the bait he can use in his email messages, but Heliski.com needs to do a better job of getting ready buyers to bite. It needs a good copywriter.

HeliskiingReview.com has some obvious problems that I believe could be dampening his conversion rate, especially on the money page: the lead form. Tom’s working on that.

Ultimately, I believe that with qualified search traffic and some gradual “serial” testing or split testing, he can have HeliskiingReview.com converting at 10%, 15% or more.

What the rest of us can take away from this

Too many designers are trained in a visual communication style developed by the brand and image marketers found on Madison Avenue, who cut their teeth in broadcast advertising. The web is different, and too many “web” designers are bad for conversion.

The designer who emphasizes that your site be “unique;” who seeks to use images to “evoke emotion;” who wants your pages to be “open and fresh” is not right for a business that lives or dies by online leads and sales.

The designer who talks about “drawing the eye to offers;” who wants to leverage “prime screen real estate;” and for whom landing pages are not an after thought is a keeper.

Designing for conversion is hard.

Don’t let your designer write your copy. Hire a direct marketing copywriter and trust them, until you discover that their copy doesn’t deliver results.

Tom’s greatest asset in all of this is that he knew his numbers: visitors, leads generated, calls and bookings. You should also know your numbers and watch them.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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