Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is having a moment in the sun with startups and others. And it's long overdue. Why? Because CRO takes a resource you already have (the traffic to your website) and helps you do more with it, at little additional cost.

CRO is central to establishing a powerful marketing flywheel of momentum that can drive growth for your business. And, as the cost of online advertising continues to rise, CRO will only become more and more important.

Still, although the concept of CRO is gaining momentum, not everyone understands quite what it's about or why it matters.

Consider collecting water as an analogy: If you're thirsty and you're trying to capture water from a source, you're likely to use two things—a funnel and a bottle. If your funnel is broken, you have holes or gaps that let water escape before getting to your ideal destination (the bottle). If you have a perfect funnel, no water escapes, making your collection perfectly efficient.

To fix the problem of a faulty funnel, you have a couple of options: Pour more water through the funnel, or fix the holes so that you're not pouring water all over the ground.

The first option (pouring more water through the funnel) is analogous to purchasing more traffic. Yes, more water will reach the bottle, but you have to pay for that water, and a lot of it still ends up wasted. Conversion rate optimization, on the other hand, is an attempt to find and patch the holes so that you're not spilling so much water in the first place.

That analogy mirrors what's actually happening on your website in your conversion funnel. Those leaks are caused by slow load times, friction in your user flow, unclear calls-to-action, and literally anything else that might cause a user to give up before reaching the ultimate conversion point.

Most people intrinsically get this basic idea, but CRO can be a hard sell in an organization. It takes a different mindset, lots of people working together, and a rigor that is sometimes missing from marketing organizations.

If you're trying to sell CRO to a group of people who don't quite get it yet, it's important to get across that conversion rate optimization is not about quick fixes, and it's not a one-and-done approach. Rather, it's the result of a culture of conversion optimization. In other words, CRO is a priority for everyone: Each team member seeks to consistently and systematically tear down the barriers that keep users from converting.

Here are six effective ways of building a CRO culture in your business.

1. Understand that there's always room for improvement

First and foremost, you have to get the whole team to acknowledge that no matter how good your company is at what it does, there is always a better way. That can be hard, because people get attached to doing things a certain way; but the market is always changing, and customers' needs are evolving right along with it. What worked really well in the past might not be as effective now, and what's effective now probably won't always be.

2. Stop guessing and start measuring

The best optimization plans are strategic and data-driven. Hunches are a great place to begin your investigation, but each decision you make should be informed by both quantitative and qualitative understanding about your users.

Before changing anything, observe how users are interacting with your site. What's your current conversion rate? Which pages seem to function best, and which one clearly needs to be optimized? That information will be invaluable once you begin testing, and the importance of this step can't be overstated.

3. Forget about tricks and "best-practices," and commit to truly understanding CRO from the ground up

It might seem counterintuitive for me to shoot down "best-practices" lists in what seems a lot like a "best-practices" list. Still, you can't really expect to see huge gains from simply following someone else's list, and I hope you'll see this list as more of a suggestion for ways to approach CRO than a list of quick-fixes.

Every business has unique needs and challenges, and real optimization begins with a strategic approach based on those specific statistics and numbers. "Microconversions," such as changing button color or making your call-to-action red, might slightly increase conversions, but they don't address real problems, which means they'll never really move the needle on your business.

To truly make gains, you'll need to educate your entire team about what CRO really is and isn't. Lay the foundation with a comprehensive yet basic guide (we humbly suggest the Beginner's Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization.)

4. It's all about data, data, data

With the sheer volume of great tools on the market, there is no reason not to inform your decision-making with actual data about your users and how they interact with your site. Make it every department's mission to gather and scrupulously record data that can later be used to make improvements to your site.

You have three types of tools to consider: analytics, user surveys, and user testing.

  • Analytics: This is the most basic tool in your software toolbox, and you're probably already using it to track and report what happens on your site every day. Options include Google Analytics, KISSMetrics, Mixpanel, and, among others.
  • Survey: Analytics can only tell you so much. If you have a specific question, surveys might be exactly what you have been looking for. Hearing from users in their own words can be instrumental for getting to the root of some problems. Your options include Qualaroo,, Survey Gizmo, and Survey Monkey, among others.
  • Testing: Sometimes you need to observe how users are interacting with your site. User testing software allows you to observe user-site interactions and site functionality, as well as conduct A/B testing. Depending on your need, you might implement heat mapping or click density tools such as CrazyEgg. Multivariate and A/B testing tools allow you to test and compare different iterations. Among those tools are Optimizely, Unbounce, and Visual Web Optimiser.

5. Stop trying to convert every user, and start optimizing conversions for the right users

Some sites use tricks and anti-patterns to convert the highest volume of users possible, but that isn't CRO. Promising something you can't deliver as a means of getting users to convert will only hurt your reputation: Dissatisfied users never return, and they tell their friends to stay away.

The goal of conversion rate optimization should not be to convert every visitor to your website. Instead, focus on your must-have experience, and do everything you can to deliver what users do want. You want to convert the right kind of users: those who love your product and so help you grow because of it.

6. Finally, understand that optimization is cyclical

Just as there's always room for improvement, change is always just around the corner. CRO is the easiest way to ensure you are not left behind. That's why I refer to a CRO culture: When done right, it's something that's ongoing and informs every decision that's made for your product or website.

* * *

In short, anyone who promises huge gains from quick fixes, small tweaks, and micro-conversions is relying on the blanket application of "best-practices," which can never truly address your site's unique challenges and opportunities.

An approach that is holistic, cyclical, strategic, data-driven, and tailored to your unique users and website—and part of your business strategy from the ground up—is the only way to build a true culture of optimization for your business.

Have you built a successful CRO culture at your company? Share your best tips in the comments, and I'll be sure to include them in future articles about the topic.

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Why You Need a CRO Culture in Your Business... and How to Build It

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image of Sean Ellis

Sean Ellis is the founder of and CEO of Qualaroo, a technology company that helps marketers better understand the needs of website visitors and improve conversions. He has held marketing leadership roles at breakout companies, such as Dropbox, LogMeIn (IPO), Uproar (IPO), Eventbrite, and Lookout.

Twitter: @SeanEllis