The Trap Of A Beautiful Website

3 CRO Takeaways After Having Hired My Own Agency to Build an Ecommerce Company

It’s an exciting and intoxicating experience to create a business brand from scratch. It’s fun to create the name, the slogan, the logo, the colors, the fonts, and make all the design decisions. However, decisions in this creative phase are often driven by feelings, passion, intention, and egos rather than actual financial models or facts about your customers and what moves them to buy.

So, you’d think a crack team of hardcore web analytics and CRO gurus could build an ecommerce website to sell salon chairs and turn it into an instant success story, right?

Well… maybe not instantly… hold that thought.

Salon Chairs Don’t Sell Themselves

Just over five years ago, I hired my own marketing optimization agency to build an ecommerce company from scratch. It made sense at the time… I could demonstrate my marketing (and CRO) chops while eating my own dog food and experiencing my agency as the client. And as my own client, I’d never hear “no”. Simultaneously, I could use said “chops” to create an additional stream of income and diversify my portfolio. No brainer.

We spent hours coming up with a site that would disrupt the salon equipment industry.  And it got a lot of attention as intended. It worked.

What we built was every marketer’s dream: a clean, innovative, and beautiful ecommerce site that received awards, attention, and ultimate approval from peers (and especially my mom).


It generated sales. But six months in, and it wasn’t generating the sales that we had expected.

1.  It’s not the proverbial button color

All those hours we invested in the look and feel.. We knew that wasn’t the answer but we did it anyway. We couldn’t help ourselves. We should have used those precious hours diving into who our customer is and what makes them complete a sale.

But instead of initially testing alternate designs, colors and buttons, our team did something a bit counterintuitive to many of today’s marketers: we picked up the phone!

Speaking with website visitors who began the process but didn’t make a purchase gave us more insight than raw data without the surrounding context.

The problem we discovered with most of our would-be buyers was that they assumed that our products — identically priced as our competitors — was out of their price range. Come to find out, the reason was because the ultra-clean look and feel of the site reeked of a high-end website. So due to the posh design, our prospects we’re deciding against us because of the perception of a price they could not afford, even though this wasn’t reality at all.

The beautiful site had to go. We replaced our agency’s bellcow website with an atrocious $300 template.

The new template was not pretty, but it was familiar. And the perception of the price of the common items was much more obtainable. Without changing anything else on the site, we got a 400% increase in conversions on our site — literally overnight.

You see, there are more salons in North America than there are gas stations – actually four times as many. Most people find that hard to believe. For there to be four times as many salons than there are gas stations, they can’t all look as posh as we initially think in our minds.

In fact, according to US News and World Report, the average stylist in North America make “just a hair” over $23,000 per year. In order to tap into this multi-billion dollar industry, I had to better appeal to the 600,000 plus hair stylists, many of whom are apparently living paycheck to paycheck.

So we’d like to think our designers got the design wrong. But the improvement had little to do with the literal color palette, buttons, layout of the page, or any of the items you typically first test. I could analyze traffic data and test button colors until the cows came home, but I would not have seen the bigger issue without having picked up the phone. My problem had everything to do with the overall perception that the theme created.

Tip: Think big. It’s not 1995 anymore. Consumers on the web looking to buy online know how to… well, buy online. If they want to buy from you, they’ll figure out where the button is. While you might be able to find some marginal increases, seldom is a button color a big breakthrough. Look for items that drive decisions – videos, ratings, trust seals, exclusive services or products, or different design concepts that communicate different value systems. If you’re a startup, start lean with a template until you determine the actual combination of elements that produce good results.

2.You can’t put yourself in your customer’s shoes

Many brands and agencies identify their average customer, and then think about ways to attract and convert that customer. For us there were two major flaws with this method:

a) We did not have one average customer.

In my days as a real estate marketing executive, all the data showed me that my average customer in my core development was a mid-40s married couple with two kids.

After digger deeper into the data and actually pouring over a few hundred closing docs, I realized we actually had a couple key client personas: young Millennial couples either purchasing their first home or getting ready to nest, and a retired couple in their late 60s looking to build their dream home.  Average those out and I got a profile that looked nothing like either of our actual targets.

Similarly, the idea of one “typical” Standish client had to be discarded, because we really had two.

The first was the salon owner on a tight budget looking to replace an existing chair. The second was an owner preparing to open a new salon and was seeking at least five fully furnished stations. Most of the time, we were dealing with these two completely different customers with contrasting budgets.

Had we kept selling to the middle, we would’ve missed all the fun happening at the edges.

b) You are not your customer and cannot “stand in their shoes.” They will never fit.

I’ll never forget the time I participated in a focus study and I was asked the question, “if you were a mother of two girls, which of these boxes of cereal would you buy?”

My response: “well, I’m not a mother, I don’t have daughters, I don’t do our grocery shopping, and I don’t eat cereal… but if I *were* a mother of two girls, I’d buy the blue one!”

Likewise, I’ve never purchased and used an actual salon chair for professional reasons other than to be a better salon chair salesman. None of my employees have purchased or used a salon chair. Nor has anyone at my agency bought or used a salon chair. But oddly enough, everyone seems to become an expert when you ask them for their two cents on a web design or campaign idea.

“If I were buying on this site, then I would *totally* like version A better.”  Bullsh**!

Do yourself a favor and expunge the phrase “if I” from your vernacular. There’s seldom a basis to say “If I were shopping on this website then…” because you’re not the client. Your web visitors have already told you everything you need to know, but it’s up to you to listen. Favoring your own hunches and opinions over actual information and data is a recipe for getting an industry-average 1% conversion rate.

Take it a step further and implement better ways of listening to actual customer questions and preferences:

  1. Monitor chat conversations
  2. Listen to recorded phone calls
  3. Read social media and business listing reviews
  4. Call and talk to clients!

Tip: Stop over-generalizing about your clients by using your own subjective observations or preferences. Go for bigger conversion breakthroughs by talking to clients. Listen especially to the clients that did NOT buy from you.. they’re full of objective and insightful feedback on what they needed that you didn’t have. There’s your fix!

3. Don’t pretend to be someone that you are not

After comparing the user flow through our site between buyers and non-buys, we discovered something interesting. Those who purchased from us had a much higher affinity towards our “About Us” content than those who didn’t buy from us.

What we did not know was if viewing corporate information is a simple characteristic of people who are likely to buy, or if stumbling upon this same information actually caused a visitor to become more convinced to buy from us.

So we devised a test to get showcase this information more prominently. We also tested a “large corporation” tone with little staff information versus a small boutique with detailed profiles of our 8 employees. We were hesitant to embrace the “boutique” approach, but it was actually very effective. Our clients liked that we were the underdog and appeared to be working as hard as they were to get ahead. They also liked that they could easily talk to anyone on our team and feel like they knew with whom they were working.


This was part of a series of tests that led to a 25% increase in conversions and 15% increase in order value.

A lot of times I see this with new startups and smaller businesses. They are scared to say that they are a startup company with no staff or just a couple employees. They feel like their prospects will think that’s too small and not credible. But in fact there are a lot of buyers out there who are more comfortable working with smaller companies or a family-owned operations.  Some buyers enjoy supporting smaller businesses and or find that smaller businesses make more of an effort to earn the sale. Call in the “Underdog Effect.”

Tip:  Be honest, embrace who you are and use it to your advantage. Accessibility and transparency can often trump being a corporate behemoth.  Try embracing your startup or boutique. Conversely, if you are the behemoth, then embrace it and sell it’s advantages.

Then, test everything!

As you design and test your site, you may fall into a trap of testing low-impact items such as button color. Instead first focus on high impact items like value messaging and creating pathways that prompt the actions you want customers to take.

Through the process of launching and then relentlessly testing it over the next four years, my team and I learned valuable lessons about web design and conversion. We discovered that our clients put less emphasis on the brand elements and put more stock into a brand with which they were familiar, and moreover could TRUST.

Ultimately, our clients were hoping to find an affordable hair salon chair. They didn’t care about the symbolism behind our name or our stunning logo. The branding and logo to our clients were just… well… just a logo and colors on a header. These items were important to us but immaterial to our customers.

The solution is to understand the driving factors behind clients’ buying behavior. They are looking for a product that is unique and at the right price point. It sounds cliche… and it is… but few companies really do it well.

When you focus on the values of your customers and then designing a site that makes it easy for them to buy from you, you’ll see your conversions and your profits soar.

About Brice McBeth

Brice started his career at IBM as the Product Manager for one of the world’s first web analytics tools that eventually became Coremetrics. Brice consulted with many large companies such as MLB, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Orbitz to help improve their marketing performance. Viewing the landscape as the client, Brice realized there was a need for a better agency that specialized in conversions. Brice felt inspired to start Reap Marketing in September 2009. Brice eventually started his own successful, multi-million dollar e-commerce company,, where he has been able to put his ideas into play for himself and ultimately experience his own agency from the perspective of his own clients. He wrote about the journey in his book, Salon Chairs Don’t Sell Themselves and eventually created the Infinite Conversions Workshop™ program, a one-day workshop designed to get businesses kick-started with over 100+ ideas for optimization.



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