Conversion rate optimisation 101: What CRO is (and isn’t)

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO) is a growing topic of conversation, especially for brands looking to elevate the digital experience for their audience. However, its importance and impact can be lost on those who are not familiar with this digital channel and how it differs from an experience at a shop down the street.

Implementing CRO into your website strategy can sound a little dry and robotic, but in some ways, it’s similar to how a business owner might set up a cute shop window that is homely, warm, and, most critically, obvious. It’s hard to deny that the way a brick-and-mortar store arranges their wares is a huge determinant of moving customers along the real-life conversion funnel of seeing a store, wandering inside, and ultimately purchasing a product – much like CRO.

Understanding the user journey

Granted, there are certainly many valid points of comparisons between CRO and real-world shops, and it’s a great way to bring someone unfamiliar with the concept up to speed. However, there is one critical difference: CRO doesn’t keep the eggs at the back. Now, let us explain what we mean by this. 

The user journey at a brick-and-mortar

Think about your last trip to the supermarket. When you enter the store, you’re presented with all sorts of goods — items that are on offer, interesting samples, alcoholic drinks — but there are always a couple of essential items not immediately accessible. To find, say, milk or eggs, you’re often required to meander through aisle after aisle, where you’ll find yourself steadily filling your basket with items that were nowhere to be found on your shopping list when you first arrived. Of course, this is a clever, intentional decision made by shop owners, but the internet is a very different beast to the world of brick-and-mortar.

The user journey online

Imagine, for instance, if all the various supermarkets were forced to set up their goods in a single-shared space, jostling for floor space and customer attention with their primary competitors. No longer could they bet on their customers wandering around looking for milk and eggs, filling their basket with extra goodies along the way. Instead, you could walk right through the door and declare aloud that you are looking for eggs. Suddenly, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco and a great many others would be locked in a winner-takes-all sprint to get your custom.

On an internet shaped by high speeds and powerful search engines, the consumer experience is much closer to the hypothetical supermarket setting we’ve just described, than anything you might wander past on your highstreet. As such, a brand’s online presence must reflect the online reality within which they exist.

This means the aims of our designs are often inversions of the thought process found in traditional stores. We look to simplify the user journey, creating websites that are capable of meeting the user’s needs in the shortest amount of time possible. Whilst doing so, we also need to ensure that we’re not compromising their browsing experience or making incorrect assumptions about their intent that could lead to frustration. It’s important to remember, as well-noted in a recent Think With Google study, “consumers are shifting their thinking from, “Who does it best?” to “Who does it best now?”

The difference in data

Of course, these aims are complicated by another difference between a website and a brick-and-mortar: data. 

Collecting customer data in-person

Consider the amount of information the owner of a shop has at their disposal when interacting with their customers. They’re able to take notice of how customers traverse the shop-floor, clock where they look, observe the expressions on their face, and engage, organically, in a conversation about each visitor’s needs. All of this is information that can be used to both respond to a customer’s needs in-the-moment and help enhance the layout of the shop in the future.

Collecting customer data online

Online, none of this customer data is (immediately) available. To approximate the wealth of data that can be gathered almost effortlessly in real-world commerce, CRO turns to dedicated research. Whether it’s combing through a site’s analytics, running on-site surveys, or pouring over heatmaps and viewing session-recordings, searching wherever we can for precious kernels of data can help us better understand the user experience.

Making the most of your data

From there, we can spin our findings into hypotheses and design solutions, which can then be presented to actual users.

The difficulties of leveraging data at a physical storefront

This is an area where online stores have the upper hand over their physical, in-person counterparts. Trying to gauge the impact a reorganised shop window is having on sales will always require leaning on a risky amount of gut instinct. Sure, you can compare sales data gathered that week to the week before, but your numbers will be muddied by all sorts of external factors that might lead you to miss the forest for the trees. 

You can ask customers for their opinion, but they’re going to be hard-pressed to say whether or not the rejigged shop window caused them to purchase 15% more Coca-Cola. Even if they could somehow give you a reliable breakdown of cause-effect, having this conversation with enough customers to form a relevant sample is a daunting prospect.

How data is used in CRO to build solutions

In contrast, the online world allows us to secure comparatively massive amounts of data, without worrying about the interference of externalities. A/B testing allows us to simultaneously place our (proverbial) eggs in two different parts of the (proverbial) supermarket, and sit back and see the aggregate impact of this choice across thousands of automatically recorded sessions.


While there are many similarities between a brick-and-mortar shop and a website, there are certainly a great many differences too. This is the role of CRO as a discipline and how it operates. It challenges the perception of why things are in the place they are to improve the user’s online experience, and keeps a brand’s online presence strong, efficient and unique in a highly competitive environment. 

To extend that egg metaphor one last time — in an online environment that increasingly encourages consumers to expect both speed and quality, brands who insist on keeping their eggs at the back of their store will end up with rotten eggs and a rotten conversion rate. 

If you’re interested in learning more about CRO, or how you can implement this into your current digital marketing strategy, please get in touch with our team.

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