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Conversion rate optimization 101: the user-centric approach to CRO

Whether you own an ecommerce website, manage an online marketing team, or are responsible for your brand’s SEO efforts, you’ll know how vital conversions are to your business. Conversion rate optimization practices maximize your potential for drawing in customers.

This 10-chapter guide dispels a few myths about conversion optimization, shares tips from 20+ conversion experts, and gives you a free, three-step CRO plan to help you gather the high-quality data you need to improve your conversion rates over and over again. It all starts here in Chapter 1, with an in-depth introduction to user-centric CRO.

Last updated

31 Jan 2024

Reading time

11 min



Use Hotjar on your site to see what's really happening, identify problems, and increase conversions.

What is conversion rate optimization or CRO?

Conversion rate optimization is the practice of increasing the percentage of users who perform a desired action on a website. Desired actions, also called conversions, can include purchasing a product, clicking ‘add to cart’, or filling out a form. Successful CRO strategies aim to increase conversions by focusing on the customer experience.

Why you should take a customer-centric approach to CRO

You’ll notice many conversion rate optimization strategies concentrate heavily on percentages, averages, and benchmarks. While improving conversions is the ultimate goal of CRO, taking a purely numerical approach won’t get you very far—the more you look at spreadsheets full of data points and actions, the less you consider the individuals behind them.

A holistic approach to CRO puts people front and center by trying to understand what drives, stops, and persuades them to convert. 

That said, let’s dive into six easy steps to kick off your customer-centric CRO strategy.

CRO quick start guide: 6 steps for success

We can’t say it enough: the winning approach to CRO involves understanding your customers and using the insights you gain to build an optimization strategy that improves your business and the user experience. We explain how to do this in practice in the CRO program chapter of this guide. But for now, let’s take a look at the steps and tools that will get you there.

📝 Note: Hotjar provides an entire suite of customer-centric analytics tools you can effortlessly access from one platform (one of them is Hotjar Feedback, that red button to the right of this page—click to let us know what you think of this page and help inform our CRO efforts!). Throughout this piece, we’ll use our tools as examples of how to conduct a truly user-centric optimization process.

When our users have a better experience, it benefits our conversions and ROI as well. Hotjar helps me identify bottlenecks and deliver the experience people want when they visit our website.

Piriya Kantong
Former Senior Online Marketing Analyst, Gogoprint

Step 1: identify important conversions

Conversions—or the specific actions you want more users to take—look different from business to business and will vary depending on your goal. If you run an ecommerce site, a conversion might be a completed purchase; for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, it might be signing up for a free trial.

Once you identify the desired action you want to target, it’s time to optimize the rate at which visitors complete said action—in other words, your ‘conversion rate’.

Calculate your conversion rate

To optimize your conversion rate, you’ll first need to know how to calculate it. It’s pretty simple: divide the number of conversions (desired actions taken) by the total number of visitors and multiply the result by 100 to get a percentage.

For example, if your web page had 18 sales and 450 visitors last month, your conversion rate is 18 divided by 450 (0.04), multiplied by 100 = 4%. 

Most CRO tools will do this calculation for you, but it helps to understand the math behind it.

🧐 What is the average conversion rate?

Depending on the sources you consult, the average conversion rate is anywhere between 1% and 4%.

But we’ll be the first to say it: this figure is sort of meaningless. That’s because

  • Every website, page, and audience is different

  • Most businesses don't publish their conversion data anyway

  • Good conversion rates differ wildly depending on the conversion goal (ad clicks, checkout completions, newsletter signups, etc.)

Averages may be useful as starting points for benchmarking, but what do they really have to do with your website? You’re better off focusing on developing an in-depth understanding of what actually matters to your users, so you can give it to them. Conversions will naturally follow.

Step 2: analyze your conversion funnel

Next, it’s time to take a magnifying glass to each page of your conversion funnel. 🔎 This process is called funnel analysis, and the goal is to identify factors that make visitors ‘drop off’ and leave before converting.

You can calculate your conversion rate and find out where and why people drop off with a web analytics tool like Hotjar Funnels that visualizes how traffic moves through your site.

Funnels lets you pinpoint high-exit pages and analyze every step of your conversion funnel, enabling you to get to the bottom of low conversion rates with additional help from integrated behavior analytics tools that capture how real users interact with your website, like heatmaps and session recordings.

You can dive deeper and filter conversion data by key demographics—like geographic region or social media traffic—to segment users and tailor your funnels to fit each target audience.

Step 3: gather user data

After you determine key drop-off points in your funnel, start gathering as much information as you can about your users. This is arguably the most important step in any user-centric CRO strategy, and you’ll find that not every conversion blocker is quantifiable or clear-cut. 

Yes: sometimes an issue is as simple as one bug preventing 80% of your users from taking a desired action. But other times, your site might function perfectly, and people still don’t convert. When this happens, you’ll need to keep exploring the why behind the data and focus on your users’ needs—that’s what CRO is actually about. 

Focusing on the final action—the conversion—is obviously important, but in reality, a lot happens before that point:

  • Specific drivers bring people to your website

  • Specific barriers make them leave

  • Specific hooks persuade them to convert

🚗 Drivers

Determine what factors lead people to your site by analyzing funnel website traffic data or running a traffic attribution survey to account for offline drivers like word-of-mouth referrals.

#A traffic attribution survey can tell you how people discovered your business offline
A traffic attribution survey can tell you how people discovered your business offline

Even better, follow the steps outlined in our article on creating user personas that represent your user base and their motivations, then organize all the data you collect into a list of the main things people want to accomplish on your site. 

Hotjar Surveys is a great tool for running online surveys that get to the root of who your users are and what brings them to your business—you can embed a survey directly on a page to target visitors at key conversion moments, trigger a pop-up poll when they first land your homepage, or send existing customers a more in-depth questionnaire via email. 

AI for Surveys will expedite the research process by generating a goal-oriented survey for you in seconds. Once responses start rolling in, you’ll get a tailored summary report that presents actionable takeaways from the feedback you collect, so you can focus on translating conversion insights into practice.

⛔️ Barriers

If people aren’t converting at the rates you’re aiming for, there’s bound to be a hurdle or two standing in their way that you can work to remove. To find out what might stop potential customers from converting once they’ve landed on your site, you can turn to user behavior analytics tools like Heatmaps and Recordings.

Hotjar Heatmaps gives you powerful user insights by visualizing what users do on your pages—where they click, how far they scroll, and what they look at or ignore—so you can remove friction and identify features they’re missing on both desktop and mobile devices. Hotjar Recordings integrates seamlessly with Heatmaps to give you the full picture of people interacting with your site in real-time.

Heatmaps 🤝 Recordings: a match made in CRO heaven

If your heatmap in Hotjar shows a trend of increased rage clicks—repeated, frustration-induced clicking on a specific element—over time, zoom in on individual users’ journeys by watching companion session recordings that reveal what these users were doing at the moment they encountered a barrier along their journey.

Jump from aggregated data in heatmaps to individual user behaviors in recordings with a single click

Click 'View recordings' to go from a point of interest in a heatmap to its companion session recordings

Similarly, if you notice a user struggling to perform an action in a recording, zoom out in a single click to view the related heatmap and determine whether multiple users are facing the same blocker. This way, you’ll clear the path to potential conversions.

🪝 Hooks

What better way to determine which factors ‘hook’ people in than to consult the ones who are already hooked? Ask your existing customers what persuaded them to convert, and what almost caused them not to, so you can have a solid grasp of what went right and what to avoid along the conversion funnel. 

Running another on-page or external link survey would yield helpful results, but if you want to gather even richer data, try interviewing your users. Hotjar Engage offers the full package for conducting user interviews, from recruitment and scheduling to hosting and recording. Engage will automatically transcribe your conversations, and you can chat, highlight key clips, and add notes to keep your team in the loop.

#Interview customers to understand what persuaded them to convert
Interview customers to understand what persuaded them to convert

Once you’ve spoken to real people from your customer base, compare what persuaded them to convert with the factors that blocked them so you can start reflecting on what features to lean into and away from.

Step 4: create hypotheses

The next step is tying together all the insights from the data you collect in step 3 by developing hypotheses and determining what funnel features to add, adjust, or remove to increase conversions. 

It may seem daunting to draw sound conclusions from such a wealth of data, but that’s what the next step is for: testing your hypotheses to determine which changes lead to impactful results and which changes you should scrap. You’ll have to do some trial and error to confirm your hypotheses, so don’t stress too much about getting things right on the first try—CRO is an iterative process.

Step 5: test your hypotheses

Now it’s time to put your theories to the test and implement data-driven optimizations geared towards increasing conversions. When it comes to CRO tests, quantitative and qualitative metrics should be intertwined—one gives you the what, while the other gives you the why

A/B testing variants of each web page is an excellent method for trying out new UX page designs and sales funnel flows. 

👉 Read our comprehensive guide on A/B testing to come up with a game plan and figure out which modifications drive conversions.

💭 Did you know? Hotjar Heatmaps, Recordings, Surveys, and Feedback integrate with traditional A/B testing tools, like Optimizely and AB Tasty, to help you understand how your variants perform. Combine these tools for deeper context, and learn invaluable CRO lessons—even from your losing variants.

Step 6: review and iterate

The last (and continuing) step is to review everything you’ve done and mark the effect your tested changes had on your conversion rate. Conversion rates will improve incrementally the more you iterate, so keep monitoring your conversion rate and decide which areas of your funnel need addressing with an ongoing CRO program. 

A tool like Hotjar Dashboards helps you effortlessly stay on top of your CRO metrics, visual insights, and user feedback. Dashboards doesn’t just give you a bird's-eye overview of your most crucial metrics—it also allows you to effortlessly zoom in to the specific session recordings, heatmaps, or user feedback impacting these metrics.

#The site overview dashboard in Hotjar
The site overview dashboard in Hotjar

CRO tips and best practices

If you’ve already done some research into digital marketing strategies, chances are you’ve come across a few ‘best practice’ lists. Best practices, within the context of CRO, are commonly held beliefs that a particular optimization will guarantee an increase in conversion rate. 

Suggested optimizations might include 

  • Using a strong color for all call-to-action (CTA) buttons

  • Relying on urgency (e.g. time-limited offers) to drive sales

  • Always displaying testimonials 

But are these best practices always good for improving your conversion rate? Debatable.

First of all, best practice is—by definition—past practice: it's something that worked in the past for someone else. You can’t guarantee it’s going to work today, and just because it worked for someone doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.

In the long term, blindly applying best practices won’t lead to your full potential for growth. 

There is, however, one core principle we can recommend as always valid: spend time understanding your users and customers—or, as we like to say around here at Hotjar, build a customer-centric culture by obsessing over your users and customers. Fixate on their needs and desired outcomes, learn as much as you can about their concerns and hesitations, and then deliver solutions that address them.

Use Hotjar on your site to see what's really happening, identify problems, and increase conversions.

🚀 Your CRO journey has just begun

We have so much more to show you. The following chapters of this guide cover

  1. Our three-step CRO program: a free, downloadable CRO process that helps you understand the drivers that bring people to your site, the barriers that stop them from converting, and the hooks that persuade them to stay

  2. Landing pages: a practical guide with case studies on how to optimize a landing page and drive conversions effectively

  3. 20+ expert CRO tips: 20+ expert CRO practitioners answer the question: ‘What's the one thing you recommend to people working on improving their conversion rate?’

  4. 10 CRO tools: find out which popular conversion rate optimization tools will help you improve UX and increase conversions

  5. 6 benefits of a user-centric CRO approach: you’ve done the hard part—getting potential customers on your site. Now, discover what you stand to gain from a higher conversion rate.

  6. How to perform a successful CRO audit of your website: a nine-step guide to a proven CRO audit method to identify opportunities to improve your site’s conversion rate 

  7. 7 CRO strategies for ecommerce businesses: improve the UX throughout the entire ecommerce conversion funnel, from pricing and product pages to the checkout process, to turn site visitors into paying customers

  8. 10 key conversion rate optimization metrics and KPIs to track: from bounce rate and CTR to user behavior metrics like click and scroll depth, learn about the most important metrics to keep an eye on for CRO

  9. CRO glossary: an explanation of the most commonly used terms and messaging in CRO, from split testing and CTA buttons to multivariate testing

Conversion Rate Optimization FAQs