Keys to Conversions

Domenic Merenda
Few of us would ever buy a car from a salesman with dirty clothes, disheveled hair and a toothless sneer. So why do so many webmasters expect their surfers to sign up on websites that look, well... ugly? Many websites seem to give little or no thought to design flow or usability. But changes seemingly as innocuous as a fresh color scheme or smart banner placement can produce a dramatic change in conversion ratios.

Shifting the creation process from designer-centric to user-centric requires a change in thinking. Personal preferences should be set aside. Instead, the designer has to think from a surfer's perspective.

"Unfortunately, it is all too common nowadays for site owners to request a design that is what they think webmasters want, and the surfers are secondary," said David Navarro, owner of Aftershock Media. "Honestly, to me, a lot of the elements of design revolve around color choice. Despite what some would have you believe, color has a very large impact on a person's feelings when they visit a site."

Navarro doesn't believe in relying on flashy methods to entice a surfer to click. Rather, he prefers to stick to the basics.

"People want 'out of the box' ideas, and so it seems more and more that designers start 'out of the box,'" he said. "I often find it best to climb back into the box and stick with the methods that have always worked."

Fresh Ideas Convert
But Josh Hendershot, president of FormulaDesigns, sees it another way. "Fresh ideas are what converts in this industry," he said. "New paysite themes people haven't seen before are what bring the surfers in, so we applied those to our designs. We come up with ideas that people haven't experienced before. We go out on the edge to produce something amazing, and it works."

Hendershot believes experience as a webmaster sets his user-centric designs apart from the pack. "I submitted galleries for years before I started up FormulaDesigns, and through that experience, I learned what kind of presentations convert and what kind of presentations don't," he said. He's also sought outside talent to help understand his customer's target audience.

"To better tap into the minds of viewers, I hired a mainstream designer who has done a lot of work on fliers, magazine ads and brochures," Hendershot added. "The mainstream feel to his designs tend to attract a larger audience of people because the designs incorporate elements that the audience is used to seeing in their everyday life."

Christian Steiner, CEO of Pink Frog Studios, looks at the total package before beginning the design process.

"The key to great conversion rates is ensuring that the site feels complete. Outstanding design is hollow without quality content, and vice versa," he said. "We take a look at the content beforehand and then tailor the color schemes, banners and graphics to fit best with the pictures or movies."

Scott Sherman of agreed with this strategy. "The No. 1 factor that will make you the most bang for your buck is placement," he said. "Position your ads so that they compliment your content. This will keep the surfers from just brushing over them. Over the years, I've had many ideas and requests for various forms of ad placements within the designs I've created. The most common request has been for creative 'above the fold.' Most people look at this phrase and decide a banner at the top is all they really need. However, in my own personal experience, I've discovered ads within the actual content body of a page convert at a much higher click-through ratio than banners with placement at the top of the page."

Sherman also has found that graphical presentation isn't always king when it comes to getting surfers to click. "Another tip would be to use text ads," he said. "On most of my sites, the text ads pull somewhere around a 3-5 percent click-through ratio, which is almost two points higher than the graphical ads."

Andrew V., president of Blue Design Studios, stresses the importance of having a quality design that is pleasing to surfers.

"Your design is a major advertising vehicle; it is your pitch to surfers as to why they should join your site and not one of the thousands of other sites out there," he said. "A design that converts must have an immediate impact on surfers. It must flow well and be convincing enough so that when the surfer hits the join page, they already have their credit card out."

Like Hendershot, Andrew cites the industry experience of his designers as being a key factor in the success of his company. "Years of experience running a leading design studio as well as sending thousands of signups to various programs provide the vast knowledge base on which our tours are designed," he said.

The bottom line from top designers? Above all, remember to separate the surfer's desires from the designer's preconceived notions. And never put form above function. The best-looking site might be a work of art but a truly poor conversion performer. Surfers should always be funneled toward the action they're supposed to perform: signing up for an account, giving their email address for future newsletters or referring a friend to the site. If they're left gazing at the scenery — or, even worse, recoiling from it in disgust — your wallet will suffer.

Domenic Merenda serves as the vice president of business development for Edge Productions, an adult media consulting firm.

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