Steal from digital: How conversion rate optimisation (CRO) works in the real world

If you’ve ever used Netflix, you’ll have noticed that the hero image for movies and series changes on an almost daily basis. One day you’ll see the main actor’s face, the next a key scene from the show. This isn’t random. Netflix has invested millions into understanding what makes us tick and what makes us click.

This testing is made possible by one thing: data. Netflix can monitor every interaction a user has with the site, analysing millions of data points to change the service accordingly. The ultimate goal? To keep us on the platform for as long as possible.

Because of the amount of data involved, it can be tempting to think of things like A/B testing as online-only, but with a bit of lateral thought and application, brands can take inspiration from digital marketing techniques and apply them to physical interactions.

This series will look at a variety of these techniques from shareability to data, and assess how to apply them to the real world of experiential events.

First up: conversion rate optimisation.

Conversion rate optimisation: what is it?

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO) is a process by which you encourage more people to take a particular action – to ‘convert’ from potential customers, supporters, subscribers or advocates for your brand to actual ones.

Conversions can be significant – macro-conversions like requesting a quote, making a purchase or subscribing to a service – or relatively minor, like creating an account or signing up for email newsletters.

The term is often used to describe elements of website design, email marketing and e-commerce, but it has a broader significance in marketing as a whole – and it’s been applied to some serious retail innovation in the last few years.

What’s made this possible? Tech. It’s now finally possible to track people’s movements through a store in depth and detail comparable to tracking what they do on a website. Retailers can map the most common routes customers take around the store, the points of friction where they slow down, their engagement time with particular displays or product ranges, and their most common points of purchase.

This data allows retailers to optimise the internal layout of their stores, their product positioning, and the exact placement of the incentives and engagements they offer – including experiences like in-store product demos.

CRO innovation in retail

In-store CRO isn’t just about layout, however. And with the well-documented struggle of the high street, there are a raft of concept stores aiming to revitalise business by doing things differently. JOANN – a leading craft and fabric retailer in the US – has created a space that goes beyond the transactional. “Our stores have naturally evolved to become much more than a place to buy things,” says CEO Jill Soltau: “Customers come in to find inspiration, learn from our team members, and share creative experiences with others.”

That’s why their flagship store doesn’t just sell things – it provides learning opportunities that are selected based on web trends. If “birthday shirts” is trending, the store lays out electric cutting machines where customers can learn to make DIY personalised shirts and take them home.

A similar technique has been adopted by a little firm called Amazon. While ‘the everything store’ has always been firmly online, it’s slowly venturing into the bricks and mortar retail space. Its latest venture in New York – Amazon-4 Star – uses its online insights to improve the physical retail space.

Amazon knows that their USP is personalisation, its customer reviews and its sheer range. The latter is difficult to replicate in a store with limited size but the company had circumvented the issue by adding a ‘Most Wished For’ section. Its online reviews are replicated in-store, with each item sitting next to its Amazon review, and the physical store uses online data to suggest things locals might want to buy with their ‘Trending in New York’ section. Any retailer with a solid set of data on what people buy and when can tailor their space toward these trends. The seasonal aisle in a supermarket’s a basic example, but things can go further, with products and displays rotating week by week based on customer feedback and reviews.

Apple take the principle a step further, into the realm of experiential marketing. The ‘Today At Apple’ sessions, which temporarily turn Apple stores into theatres, workshops and event venues, put the company’s tech into practice. They capitalise on Apple’s pre-iPhone reputation, as the brand of choice for liberal artists, creatives and cultural trendsetters, leaning heavily into sessions about creating movies, music, photo suites or apps, along with live performances, and they specifically pitch toward children at their Kids Hour events. If your brand has that kind of strong link to a practical application of what you’re selling, that’s the kind of hands-on experience you could be offering.

These trending items will change as online popularity does. The store, based in trendy SoHo will undoubtedly be used as a test bed as all good conversion rate optimisation projects should. If it works, expect to see more.

Amazon and JOANN have set up a series of tiny touches to ensure they do things differently. But each of these things is specifically designed to aid conversion, using online insight to drive real-world action.

What doesn’t work

Not every insight from digital marketing will translate directly to the physical retail environment. Some are outright incompatible and will lead retailers in the wrong direction. These include concepts like:

  • Linear mapping. People move around retail spaces, bouncing to and from products and sections. There isn’t an A-to-B-to-C customer journey that everyone takes. Even IKEA doesn’t expect you to file through every department in a given order.
  • Sole visits. Physical stores are social spaces, browsing places: people seldom come in, buy something and clear off in the abrupt manner they might online. Micro-conversions are going to be different in these circumstances, and involve encounters with products that lead to customers making a discovery.
  • Conversion over profit goals. Physical stores have greater costs and constraints than e-commerce businesses, and so have to prioritise the sale over the signup, and certainly over the abstract goals like reach or brand awareness that some CRO advisors will set as priorities.

Optimising the retail environment means being the best shop you can be, and then going further – beyond a place where things are bought, and into a place where people are encouraged to buy. It’s the experience that makes the concept store viable – coupled with cast-iron analytics that identify where the displays, foot-flow and points of purchase have to be.


To see some Fizz in action, check out our work

Image credit: House of Fraser concept store in Aberdeen, by EG Focus