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How to optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel: the new rules for the nonlinear customer journey

Despite all the time you’ve spent perfecting your conversion funnel, visitors still aren’t converting. You’ve invested in your site's design and navigation, you've increased your marketing efforts, and you’re following all the 'best practices' for conversion optimization.

But if you don't understand how real customers shop online, you're missing an opportunity to optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel to reflect each visitor's unique customer journey.

Last updated

18 Aug 2022

Reading time

12 min


In this piece, we cover:

So let’s dive in!

The nonlinear ecommerce customer journey: how real customers shop online

Without understanding how real customers experience your ecommerce store, your understanding of your conversion funnel's strengths and weaknesses is incomplete.

The traditional concepts of a linear customer journey and a linear conversion funnel don't always work in the real world.

In the real world, the ecommerce customer journey isn't a one-size-fits-all concept: each customer's journey through your funnel is unique—it's nonlinear, and reflects the personal experience of each customer as they move through your conversion funnel.

Visitors may enter and exit the funnel at different stages and with different objectives; they each have their own experience with your site in each step of the funnel.

By empathizing with your visitors and understanding how they experience each stage of your funnel, you can uncover what they love most about their buying experience, pinpoint blockers like usability issues or information architecture, and optimize your funnel for the real customer journey.

The ecommerce conversion funnel: what it is, and what it's not

An ecommerce conversion funnel (also known as the ecommerce sales funnel) is a series of steps a visitor takes from the moment they land on your site to the moment they convert (which, in the world of ecommerce, typically means they've purchased something).

Put simply, the conversion funnel is the step-by-step progression from visitor to customer.

Traditionally, there are five stages of a conversion funnel:

  1. Discovery: the visitor lands on your website

  2. Interest: the visitor views a product page

  3. Intent: the visitor adds a product to their shopping cart

  4. Purchase: the visitor buys a product (and becomes a customer)

  5. Engagement: the customer engages with the brand and ideally becomes a brand advocate

💡 Keep in mind: the line between marketing and sales often blurs, and many people discuss the marketing funnel and sales (or conversion) funnel interchangeably—but it’s important to account for the subtle differences between the two.

Marketing funnels generate leads: they capture a prospect’s attention and create awareness of—and build interest in—a brand and its products or solutions.

Conversion funnels generate sales: each lead is a potential customer. Their journey through the funnel (ideally) ends with a conversion, which could be a purchase, filling out a form, signing up to a list, or some other form of micro-conversion.

Is the ecommerce conversion funnel linear?

The traditional understanding of the ecommerce conversion funnel is that the process is linear:

  1. At the top of the funnel, a prospect discovers your brand

  2. They develop an interest in your product or solution

  3. They show intent to purchase

  4. At the bottom of the funnel, after they purchase, they engage with your brand

But this isn’t always how real-world buying behaviors work.

In reality, each person takes a unique route to buying; each customer's journey through the funnel is personal and nonlinear—and you have to apply your conversion funnel to the way real people shop in the real world.

Let's look at two hypothetical customers:

  1. Customer one sees an ad for a product on Instagram, asks for feedback or opinions about the product on Reddit, spends hours watching reviews on YouTube, and engages with the brand on Instagram to develop trust with them before they buy. Their journey: discovery → interest → engagement → purchase

  2. Customer two sees the same ad on Instagram, quickly scans reviews on the brand's site, then purchases with little deliberation or engagement. Their journey: discovery → intent → purchase

Every one of your customers has different shopping habits and experiences the ecommerce conversion funnel in different ways.

So, how do you make it work for everyone?

Boost conversions with an optimized ecommerce conversion funnel

Use Hotjar's behavior analytics and feedback tools to understand why visitors are dropping out of your ecommerce funnel (and optimize accordingly!)

How to optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel

Over-simplified, linear conversion models of the customer journey aren't realistic: not every buyer conveniently moves from 'intent' to 'purchase' right away. The personalized, nonlinear customer journey model is more useful, and accounts for people dropping in and out of different buying stages.

To optimize your conversion funnel for the nonlinear customer journey, focus on the complexity and diversity of each customer’s experience within the five traditional stages of the funnel, and consider how different customer segments might experience each stage.

💡 Keep in mind: when you think about different customers experiencing your conversion funnel in different ways at each stage, try to understand the internal and external factors (e.g. psychographics and personas and whether they're new or returning customers) that will influence their buying decisions:

  • Why are they shopping for a product or solution like yours?

  • Who are they shopping for?

  • What drove them to your brand; to your website?

  • How do they interact with and experience your site?

  • How do they behave on your site in the moments before they convert?

  • What are their unique barriers or blockers? What causes them to exit your funnel without converting?

Getting to know—and empathizing with—your customers will help you understand why they behave a certain way on your site and give you the insight to improve their customer journey (and increase conversions).

The 5 stages of the traditional ecommerce conversion funnel (and how to apply them to real life)

As we've said (on repeat 😅): each visitor's journey through the funnel is unique. Let’s dive into the five traditional funnel stages with the nonlinear customer journey in mind:

1. The discovery stage

In the discovery stage (also known as the awareness stage), visitors are just becoming aware of who you are, what you offer, and what problem you can solve for them. The discovery stage has the highest volume of leads, and it’s up to you to successfully guide them through the rest of the funnel.

Look at the discovery stage from a nonlinear perspective. You can already see the customer journey's diversity: visitors can find you through several different avenues as a result of your content marketing efforts, like social media, ads, a trade show, or SEO-optimized content.

This stage is a goldmine for gathering data on how visitors find you and how they interact with and experience your site. You can also use this stage to gain deeper insight into your referral sources and their relationship with your conversion rates at later stages of the funnel.

Here are a few ways to optimize the funnel at this stage:

  1. Survey visitors on how they found your site: notice any trends? Which of your marketing initiatives is paying off at the discovery stage? Use visitor feedback to learn what's working, what's not, and double down on your best marketing strategies.

  2. Craft an omnichannel marketing plan: engaging with people across various channels helps you understand who your audience is and what channels they use to discover new brands.

  3. Account for each person’s journey: there is no one 'right way' to reach your customers; different people will find you from different sources. Use qualitative and quantitative data to learn more about your visitors' unique experiences.

🔥 If you're using Hotjar in the discovery stage: direct feedback is key to understanding how visitors experience the nonlinear conversion funnel. Place an on-site survey on a high-traffic landing page to learn how they found you and what brought them to your online store. This data can help you discover popular referral sources and better understand your customers' unique objectives and reasons for choosing your brand.

💡 Pro tip: don't know what to ask? We've got over 70 examples of survey questions to get you started!

2. The interest stage

In the interest stage, prospective customers are sizing you up—they’re getting to know you and your products. They might take a look at your homepage, visit your social media pages, look for social proof, and browse your site and products.

Here are a few ways to optimize the funnel at this stage:

  1. Ensure seamless and intuitive navigation: how easy is it to navigate from page to page on your site? If a user encounters issues or blockers along the way—like website bugs, a slow-loading page, or broken elements—they're more likely to drop out of the funnel before they convert.

  2. Make sure product categories reflect searcher intent: can visitors find what they're looking for? Can they filter categories to find the right product? Are any products miscategorized? How can you make it easier for a visitor to convert?

  3. Create valuable content that answers visitors' questions: hold your visitors' interest and answer their questions (i.e. build trust and remove blockers!) with video reviews, case studies, how-tos, and blog content that solves a problem for them and brings them one step closer to converting.

3. The intent stage

In the intent stage, your visitors show clear signs of being ready to buy: they might add an item to their shopping cart or wishlist with the intent to review it later for purchase.

Here are a few ways to optimize your conversion funnel for the intent stage:

  1. Create a seamless add-to-cart experience: which elements inspire visitors to add a product or service to their cart or wishlist? What’s standing in their way? Ask (use an on-site survey!), reflect, then optimize.

  2. Personalize the journey with targeted email messages: personalized emails build intent and keep visitors moving through the funnel. Send or invite your visitors to participate in an external link survey to dig deeper into their unique customer journeys. Turn your data into targeted emails that deliver relevant content to draw visitors further along the funnel.

  3. Offer personalized discounts related to wishlist items: make prospective customers an offer they can't refuse. Offer time-sensitive discounts or promotions related to items in their cart or on their wishlists to create a sense of urgency that inspires them to buy.

🔥 If you're using Hotjar in the interest and intent stages: chart individual visitors' journeys from page to page and analyze your ecommerce site with session recordings. Identify blockers like confusing navigation, broken links, or slow-loading pages that might get in the way of moving your visitors further along the funnel.

💡 Pro tip: watch for behavior like rage clicks or u-turns, which could indicate a visitor's confusion or frustration.

4. The purchase stage

At the purchase stage, your visitors officially turn into customers. Congrats!

To increase the number of visitors that reach this stage, you might need the help of an enticing offer (unique to each visitor) or an abandoned-cart email—and of course, a seamless checkout process.

Here are a few ways to optimize your conversion funnel at this stage (and reduce cart abandonment rate):

  1. Create a seamless, headache-free checkout process: make sure your customers can easily navigate from a product page to the checkout page without encountering blockers or issues that will turn them away. Guide them through the checkout process with clear calls to action (CTA).

  2. Offer discounts unique to each visitor: now is a good time to offer last-chance discounts and promotions for items in visitors' carts or wishlists.  Consider tailoring the experience to your website visitors by upselling or cross-selling products relevant to their shopping cart.

  3. Offer multiple payment options from a variety of payment platforms: they've made it this far; you don't want a visitor dropping out of the funnel at the purchase stage because you only accept one method of payment. Offer multiple payment options (and increase your chances of getting multiple conversions).

🔥 If you're using Hotjar in the purchase stage: learn how to improve the checkout process for your visitors by using session recordings and heatmaps, and find out why visitors are abandoning their carts by placing an exit survey on checkout or wishlist pages.

Use what you learn to optimize your site to improve the user experience (UX) and create a seamless checkout process.

💡 Pro tip: analyze your heatmaps and session recordings to answer questions like:

  • Do customers see important navigation cues?

  • Are they clicking on key elements like links, buttons, and CTAs?

  • Are customers getting confused by non-clickable elements?

5. The engagement stage

Traditionally, the engagement stage  plays a key role in customer retention. It's your opportunity to turn a one-off customer into a repeat customer and brand advocate. But in real life, visitors may engage with your brand at any stage of the funnel.

Here are a few ideas for building a strong relationship with each visitor, before and after they convert:

  1. Encourage visitors to follow and interact with you on social media: build trust and authority, and cultivate a relationship with your visitors and customers by offering valuable, relevant content—and maybe even offer free samples or trials that are only available to your followers.

  2. Add visitors to your email lists: get prospective and existing customers to subscribe to content related to the product or service they're interested in, and keep them engaged by sending related offers and content.

  3. Create valuable content that informs and engages: solve customers' problems and build trust and authority with shareable video content, testimonials, how-tos, and blog posts.

🔥 If you're using Hotjar in the engagement stage: use ecommerce post-purchase surveys to engage with customers after they convert, so you can find out what works well—and then repeat it! You can also use on-site surveys to engage with customers who dropped out before converting, to find out what doesn't work—and learn how to fix it.

💡 Pro tip: invite visitors to participate in an external survey, where you can dig even deeper into the customer experience (CX) with a series of open-ended questions.

Boost conversions with an optimized ecommerce conversion funnel

Use Hotjar's behavior analytics and feedback tools to understand why visitors are dropping out of your ecommerce funnel (and optimize accordingly!)

How to analyze your conversion funnel

Traditional website analytics tools like Google Analytics (GA) are a great way to track ecommerce metrics and traffic sources. You can also use GA events and event tracking to measure your funnel’s performance.

But does the data you get from traditional analytics reflect the real-life customer journey?

As we explore above, the customer journey is anything but linear. We can’t box real-life purchasing behaviors into a neat little package (or funnel). While useful, quantitative data can pull us away from the reality of each person’s unique journey through the funnel.

As each customer’s journey through the funnel is nonlinear and personal to them, you need other ways of measuring their intent and experience. The way you measure your conversion funnel needs to reflect the experiential reality of each unique customer journey.

Qualitative data can help: it gives you insight into how visitors experience and interact with your ecommerce business and why they behave a certain way while they shop—so you can better understand their unique customer journeys.

And this is where Hotjar comes in:

Why you need qualitative data to optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel

When the customer journey doesn’t resemble a linear funnel (and, we repeat: it rarely does), the qualitative insights you get from behavior analytics software (like Hotjar! 👋) can help you understand how each customer is experiencing your funnel.

Behavior analytics tools can enhance quantitative data and help you answer questions about how your customers behave on and experience your site, like:

  • Which page elements are frustrating them and causing them to drop off?

  • Which page elements are capturing their attention and leading them further along the funnel?

  • Which problems are they encountering that derail them on their buyer's journey?

Understanding your customers' behavior on your site will help identify pain points or blockers they experience in their customer journey. You can then make data-based decisions about how to optimize the journey for them—giving them the experience they deserve and making their trip through your sales funnel a much smoother one.

💡 Pro tip: don’t settle for either quantitative or qualitative insights—instead, build your analytics dream team by combining data from Google Analytics and Hotjar.

Quantitative insights (from GA) let you know what’s happening on your website, while qualitative insights (from Hotjar) fill you in on the how and why—so you can see the whole picture of your customers' journey through your funnel and optimize the user experience for them (and boost conversions for you).

3 tools to optimize your ecommerce funnel for the nonlinear customer journey

Here are three tools to help you understand user behavior on your site and optimize your conversion funnel for the nonlinear customer journey:

1. Heatmaps: analyze and optimize your landing pages


One way to optimize your ecommerce sales funnel and enhance the user experience is to analyze your landing pages with heatmaps.

Heatmaps highlight the sections and elements on your page that work for you and the ones that work against you. You can see popular (red) and unpopular (blue) interaction spots representing your visitors’ clicks, taps, and scrolling behavior in aggregate.

By analyzing heatmaps on your landing pages, you can identify ways to improve the user experience and help draw your visitors further along the funnel.

👉 A real-world example: with the help of Hotjar’s Heatmaps, UX design agency Turum-burum found the main call to action (CTA) on their product pages was often missed by users on devices with standard resolution. After optimizing their pages, Turum-burum’s conversion rate from cart to checkout page spiked by 36.6%.

👉 If this was your ecommerce site: use Hotjar’s Heatmaps to track how users interact with elements on your landing pages—especially your product page CTAs. Are they performing as well as they should? What needs to be optimized to improve your click-through rate (CTR)?

2. Session recordings: identify and remove blockers to reduce funnel dropoffs


Seeing how real customers experience your site will help you understand the intent-rich moments in their journey—which are part of your nonlinear conversion funnel.

Session recordings show you how individual users navigate through your site from page to page. Recordings are a powerful tool for monitoring your funnel, showing you how users interact with different pages and elements, and giving you valuable insight into their experience and actions.

Find out which behaviors took place before a visitor dropped off, what pages they were scrolling through or getting stuck on, and where they clicked—or what they missed—just before they left. Watching a user interact with and navigate through your site in this way will help you identify blockers like bugs or broken elements that may be causing them to exit your funnel before they convert.

👉 A real-world example: conversion rate optimization (CRO) agency The Good used session recordings to identify distinctive customer personas—each with a unique journey through the funnel—for their client Swiss Gear.

After identifying specific pain points for their personas, a round of A/B testing, and a site redesign, mobile user bounce rates on Swiss Gear’s site decreased by 8%, and time-on-site increased to 84%.

👉 If this was your ecommerce site: use session recordings to inform A/B tests—how do users respond to changes you make to your site? Which pages are they more responsive to? Use what you learn from analyzing session recordings to optimize the conversion funnel for your customers.

3. Surveys: get user feedback from real customers


Sometimes the best way to figure out what’s going on with your visitors is just to ask them!

On-site surveys give you insight into what real customers are thinking—in their own words—as they move through your conversion funnel.

To find out what does work  use a post-purchase survey to learn about the user experience from customers who've just converted, and ask them what they liked about their experience on your site. You can also find out if they had any problems or experienced anything that might have stopped them from buying.

To find out what doesn't work → place an exit-survey on high-exit pages—or low-converting pages—and ask your visitors open-ended questions about why they're leaving your site, and how you can improve it for them.

👉 A real-world example: Dave Powell, E-commerce Conversion Manager at TomTom, used Hotjar Surveys to inform site changes that resulted in a +49% conversion rate increase for landing pages.

👉 If this was your ecommerce site: use milestone surveys to capture your visitors' thoughts and feelings in different stages of your sales funnel. Qualitative insights from surveys will help you better understand visitors' actions and buying behavior to learn what works—and what doesn't—and optimize the customer journey for them.

Final thoughts

You can't truly optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel if you don’t know how your website visitors are experiencing the funnel as they move through it.

Unscramble the riddle of low conversion rates, and understand your customers' unique journeys through a combination of quantitative and qualitative analytics data. Learn what visitors love (and hate) about their experience on your site, their barriers to converting, and how they ultimately decide to make the move from visitor to customer.

Boost conversions with an optimized ecommerce conversion funnel

Use Hotjar's behavior analytics and feedback tools to understand why visitors are dropping out of your ecommerce funnel (and optimize accordingly!)