Imagine you could increase your website's sales volume by 20 to 30 percent without spending an additional dime on traffic acquisition. And now imagine how much you could grow your business if your margins allowed you a higher cost-per-click (CPC) or cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) ad spend to acquire customers while turning a profit. This is the power of conversion rate optimization.

If you've never optimized your website's conversion funnel, there's a good chance you are paying more to acquire a customer than you should. In fact, it is common to see 20 percent to 30 percent increases in sales volume after optimizing your conversion funnel, and it's not unheard of to see triple digit improvements in some cases. The idea central to conversion optimization is to make better use of the traffic you're already paying for. You can accomplish this by looking at your sales conversion funnel to identify points of friction that can be smoothed out, either by better engaging users or by removing bottlenecks where people are getting stuck. The most critical step in the process is to define your customers and to experience your website through their eyes. Once you're in tune with your customers and able to empathetically identify possible issues, you begin to hypothesize what problems may exist and what would solve those problems.

Once you define your hypotheses and create test scenarios, you can use split A/B testing tools like Optimizely or Unbounce to randomly serve different versions of pages within your conversion funnel, allowing you to test your theories. As time passes, the tools collect more data and run more tests. You begin to better understand what types of changes your customers are going to respond to, and your test design improves. While much of this is specific to your own customers, there are a few fundamental concepts that can drive better testing from day one:

1. Understand Your Customer
Every demographic is different and the ideal conversion funnel would be designed to anticipate the needs and challenges of that group, so you can keep them focused on your goal of completing a sales transaction. A relatively new approach to interface design called User Centered Design (UCD) addresses this need by providing a set of conceptual frameworks for stepping through the process of understanding the customer. With UCD, you would begin by creating a "persona" and then define the scenarios and use cases of how the customer would interact with your system. This will guide you through the process of digging a bit deeper than you otherwise might have and result in the sort of insights that will yield better design decisions.

A persona is a one-page card that concisely defines the typical user in your demographic. In this exercise, you would define the user's age, profession, occupation, emotional needs, and frustrations. The second step is to create a set of Scenarios that describe the Persona's external context and what motivates them to interact with your website. For example, if you are selling printer cartridges, you might describe how they just drove all over town looking for replacement cartridges and came home frustrated that no one had the right size. You would then define a set of use cases to state exactly how they might interact with the website based upon a deeper understanding of why they visited the site in the first place. For example, they may go directly to the search field and type in the printer model number rather than navigating your catalog in search of cartridges. This understanding would drive a very different user experience--and likely higher conversions--since it better engage the user in immediately solving their problem.

2. Pay Attention to Page Flow
Look for problems in the flow of your conversion funnel to see if there could be functional issues or some cause for confusion. A great way to test for this is to sit down with a few of your customer prospects and ask them to navigate the website. Give them the goal of purchasing a certain product and then stand back and watch where they get stuck. Sometimes, this is as simple as button placement on the page. Or, you might be asking for too much information, such as requiring users to create accounts in order to buy your product. More concrete roadblocks include not accepting the method of payment that is preferred among your target demographic. It might also be simply a matter of convenience: To make it easy on customers, look for opportunities to reduce pages and steps in your funnel and deliver the customer to the goal point as quickly as possible.

Another great way to identify problems is through the proactive use of a Web analytics tool to identify bottlenecks in your intra-page flow. Using tools such as Google Analytics, you can define conversion funnels that map the sequence of pages that a visitor is intended to flow through, from the initial landing page all the way to the transaction "thank you" page. By properly tracking and visualizing the conversion funnel, you can easily see where you may be disproportionately losing too many people at a certain stage of the funnel. This can help you figure out which pages or interaction events you should be focusing your optimization efforts on.

3. Hone Your Message
The words you choose in your titles, product copy, and especially the semantics of things like action buttons can have a significant effect on user engagement. Much of effective selling comes down to understanding the needs of the prospect and connecting with them emotionally to motivate action. Presumably, we already understand the prospect’s needs from the user-centered research described above, so now its time apply emotional motivation. The core emotions you need to address in your conversion funnel are fear, desire, and complacency.

To address fear, consider how you can leverage your brand's authority as a market leader if you are one, or how to leverage social proof to decrease suspicion if you are not. Showing the logos of well-known partners or clients can be an effective way to leverage brand credibility of others when you're just getting started. To address desire, emphasize how close you are to solving an important problem. And for complacency, consider how you may demonstrate scarcity of your product, such that they have a motive to act now. Amazon does this effectively without appearing manipulative by alerting customers when stock is running low and letting them know they can have the book within 48 hours if they order now, but it could take longer if they do not.

4. Take a Tactical Approach to Design 
Graphic design is visual communication and can also be a method by which to more effectively engage a user. Simple layout decisions, such as removing the navigation bar, limiting the number of options between which users must choose, and the use of negative--or empty--space  around an object can all help hone the user's attention on the intended item of interest. Making action buttons larger and placing them above the page fold can also have substantial impact on the user's likelihood to take the intended action. The sorts of tactical design choices are the visual equivalent of the salesman knowing just what to say--and what not to say--at the right moment.

Color is another effective component of visual design. It not only has the ability to draw attention to something, but carries with it the ability to elicit deeply associated emotions and thoughts. Blue and green have been historically important to the survival of the species, since they are associated with food and water. For this reason, blue and green are universally regarded as calming and soothing. Orange is generally regarded as an exciting color, which elicits action and is one of the best colors for converting buttons. Other colors, including red, carry cultural meaning and need to be applied with recognition of the specific audience you are addressing. In western cultures, red is associated with warning and alert. In the Middle East, it is associated with evil. And, in China, it is a lucky color, eliciting the opposite emotion.

The fundamental key to success with conversion optimization is to understand your customers and to commit to a philosophy of ongoing testing and improvement to zero in on precisely what works with them. It is a process, not a one-time tactic, but the impact to your return on ad spend can be significant.