CRO Marketing

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

Ecommerce conversion funnel

The nonlinear ecommerce customer journey: how real customers shop online

Without understanding how real customers experience your site, 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

Is the ecommerce conversion funnel linear?

The traditional understanding of the ecommerce conversion funnel is that the process is linear: first, a prospect discovers your brand; then, they develop an interest in your product or solution; then they show intent to purchase; and 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 conversion funnel for the nonlinear customer journey

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.

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, 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, 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.

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 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.

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 to make sure visitors aren't abandoning their shopping carts):

  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. At this stage the offer should be even more urgent and time-sensitive than it was in the intent stage.
  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).

5. The engagement stage

Traditionally, the engagement stage is 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.

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 site 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:

The qualitative data advantage for optimizing the nonlinear 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.

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

An example of a Hotjar scroll map (left) and move map (right)

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.

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

Hotjar SessionRecording
Hotjar’s Session Recordings in action

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.

3. Surveys: get user feedback from real customers

An example of an on-site survey on's showroom page

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.

Final thoughts

You can't truly optimize your ecommerce conversion funnel if you don’t know how your 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!)


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