I don’t like being a contrarian — always rejecting the popular conventions and ideas.

But when it comes to conversion optimization, necessity forces me to be so.

I believe that conversion optimization is primarily an area of psychology. This runs counter to the prevailing idea that conversion rate optimization is a set of process-driven techniques.

If you read this article with your mind engaged, you will have to agree with me by the end. Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is not, as popular mentality would have you believe, a series of tricks, techniques, and A/B tests. It is, fundamentally, a branch of psychology.

Again, this isn’t the world’s most popular idea — bringing CRO into the fold of psychology.

In fact,  I will probably get into some civilized arguments over cocktails during a reception at the next industry conference I attend.

All right. I’m ready.

What’s the popular idea of conversion rate optimization?

First, I want to discuss the popular idea of conversion rate optimization.

What do people think of when they hear “conversion rate optimization?” More importantly, how would a conversion optimization expert define his or her trade?

Let’s turn to the literature for examples.

First off, let’s go to the Almighty Wikipedia, the modern Oracle, for answers:  “What is conversion rate optimization?”

What is conversion rate optimization

The crux is there —

In internet marketing, conversion optimization, or conversion rate optimization (CRO) is the method of creating an experience for a website or landing page visitor with the goal of increasing the percentage of visitors that convert into customers.

But in the discussion, any derivatives of the word “psychology” appear only once, when referring to Kahneman and Tversky.

Instead of explaining CRO’s substrata of psychology and science, the article deals primarily with its “process” and “testing.”

However, there is a glimmer of hope in the section on the two main divisions among CRO’s. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry traces it out:

There are several approaches to conversion optimization with two main schools of thought prevailing in the last few years. One school is more focused on testing as an approach to discover the best way to increase a website, a campaign or a landing page conversion rates. The other school is focused more on the pretesting stage of the optimization process. In this second approach, the optimization company will invest a considerable amount of time understanding the audience and then creating a targeted message that appeals to that particular audience. Only then would it be willing to deploy testing mechanisms to increase conversion rates.

In the “first school,” I see a lot of great CROs who are running really good tests. In the second school, I see myself and other psychology-driven optimizers who are asking deeper questions than “Ooh, what test can we run next?”

  • The first school is process oriented.
  • The second school is psychology oriented.

Although I would bicker with the clear-cut delineations of these schools of thought in CRO, I can’t help but agree that there is a divide.

The way that divide is situated is that the vast majority of the CRO community is on one side of the divide — the process oriented side.

Unbounce, one of the largest CRO communities and content providers, has the following articles as its most shared.

Unbounce blog post on buzzsumo

I see hacks, but no psychology.

ConversionXL, another major CRO publisher, has the following top-shared articles. Thankfully, the storytelling topic comes close to a psychology topic:

ConversionXL blog post on buzzsumo

This is indicative and representative of the status of CRO. The field is full of people who want processes, steps, hacks, guides and techniques, but who have little understanding for or appreciation of psychology.

I’m not blaming anyone for this problem, nor am I criticizing those who lack the curiosity about the psychology behind CRO. I’m merely pointing out the status of the industry.

Where did conversion optimization come from?

Let’s take a quick walk back to the origins of conversion optimization, so I can explain why I think that psychology plays such a crucial role.

Conversion optimization was born in the dawn of Internet marketing, specifically the field of e-commerce.

As the antediluvian Internet took form, marketers realized that they could gain more customers and more conversions if only they changed certain things on their websites, their processes and their approach.

Basically, it was just marketing savvy. Instead of analyzing user response to a magazine ad or a billboard, however, the marketers were considering a different set of users — those peering into glowing screens with a hand delicately cupped over a mouse.

All the theory underlying marketing, however, was still in full force. The medium of Internet interaction did not change the foundation of how humans make decisions and choose actions.

Unfortunately, this is where CRO lost its moorings. Instead of retaining a close connection with the psychology-driven field of marketing, it hurtled out of orbit. It played around the outskirts of web design, SEO and web development, and remained in the purview of “Internet marketing,” a field notoriously bereft of careful and sustained psychological research.

I think that’s why we’re stumbling as CROs. We’ve lost our moorings. We’re not aware of the theory behind marketing, nor are we plugged into the value of behavior psychology, buyer mentality and neuroscientific discoveries.

Instead, like primeval troglodytes, we’re holding up button A and button B and asking, “Which one is better?!”

It’s time we run back to the safety of psychology, where we can get real, sustainable and scientific answers to the deeper questions of marketing.

So, what is at the heart of conversion optimization anyway?

You already know how I’m going to answer this question.

Most CROs rush too fast, too quick, too easily into the excitement of making changes and running tests.

I, however, want to caution against this. Yes, conversion optimization must involve extensive testing and careful changes. But at the same time, we need to remind ourselves what’s at the core.

What is at the core? What is the heart of conversion optimization?

It’s the user.

The user/buyer/customer/purchaser is at the heart of conversion optimization, because he or she is the one making the decision to convert. We’re talking about an actual human being with a mind and motives — searching, clicking, looking, thinking, reading, analyzing, deciding and acting.

And how do we best address the user’s searches, clicks, looks, thoughts, analyses and acts?

Through psychology.

Only by understanding the user’s psychology can we best adapt to their likelihood to convert.

Thus, CRO is fundamentally about psychology.

How does this psychology-driven approach affect conversion optimization?

Because CRO is a field dominated by the theories of psychology and human behavior, I recommend the following mental reshaping. Follow this advice, and you will experience a radical reconfiguration within the field of conversion optimization.

Always ask the “why” question.

Much of CRO is spent mucking around in the weeds of button size, kerning, placement, funnel flow and payment methods. Those are crucial and indispensable for any successful conversion optimization.

However, I recommend always asking the why question. “Why are we doing this? Why are we changing the button size? Why are we using green for this header?”

Why? Why? Why?

The why question inevitably drives you back to the customer or user. And considering the customer forces you to peel back the layers of the customer’s behavior, which takes you into the heart of psychology.

It works like this:

  • Why are we using a green color scheme?
  • Once you ask the why question, you can nestle down into the more detailed what or how questions.
  • Next question: What color does our audience prefer?
  • Next question: What is the primary demographic of our audience?
  • Next question: How will our target audience respond to the color green?

And on it goes. The more you ask, the deeper you dive into issues that are answered best by psychology.

Hypothesize first. Test second.

Any conversion optimizer will tell you that you must run split tests, or some other form of testing. BUT! Before you run a test, you must develop a hypothesis regarding the outcome of that test.

Thijs de Valk of Yoast, who stumbled into conversion optimization (and loved it), learned this lesson. By the way, I like the way he introduced his article:

Since I began working at Yoast, I’ve been busy with a lot of things, but my personal favorite definitely is this one: conversion. Maybe this is because of my background in behavioral science.

De Valk gets it. He understands that conversion optimization is deeply and intrinsically connected to behavioral science — the study of human behavior, a branch of psychology. His education, in behavioral science and pedagogical science, has driven him to conversion optimization, and led him to a deep and paradigm shifting approach to the field.

More to the point, however, de Valk also understands the need to “hypothesise first, then test.”

And then, he writes this (which I love):

What you have to do is formulate hypotheses for what you’re testing. And I understand it if you won’t dive into the scientific literature to find references and support for your claims (although this would be awesome).

Just be sure you know what you’re expecting the outcome of the test will be and why. Redundant as this may seem, it’s actually really important.

Hypotheses are not things you just think of yourself. You have to have a reason why you believe something will work, other than your gut feeling. So if you really want to make it scientific, you could dig into the scientific literature. Believe me, there’s a lot of it out there that could be of use for your conversion optimization.

De Valk is a guy who’s trying to tell the world’s CROs that they have to be more scientifically driven when approaching their field. We don’t go in as gunslinging testers, blasting up a site with our split tests. We go in with laser-like focus, scientific precision, insightful analysis of human behavior.

How do you hypothesize? It’s actually pretty simple. First, you look at the test that you’re going to run. Next, you pick a winner in advance, basically. You think, “Okay, I think that test A is going to win because of such and such and yadda yadda.”

Don’t miss the because. That’s your whole hypothesis. A hypothesis, to get all dictionary about it, is “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.”

Your limited evidence, in this case, is your understanding of human psychology. Your test is going to affirm or deny your supposition.

Let’s take an example. Here is a classic test. The two pages have some differences in copy, formatting, image and trust signals.

Classic A B Test

Before the tester clicks “start,” however, he should think to himself, “Which one do I think will have a higher conversion rate? Why do I think that? How will the audience think or respond to the treatment in such a way that the conversion rate increases?

Without hypothesizing, your testing will not be very valuable. Sure, you ran a test. Yeah, you got your answers. But the why! Where is the why! You aren’t learning as you’re testing. You’re just pulling levers and pushing buttons. You’re not diving any deeper.

So, go ahead and open up VWO or Optimizely, but hypothesize before you run that test.

You don’t need to be a psychologist. You just need to be aware of psychology, and have the ability to research.

Know the user before you create changes.

Since conversion optimization is all about the user, it logically follows that we must understand the user’s psychological composition before making changes for that user.

Let me provide an example. Let’s say I’m going to let you borrow my car. I’ve never met you, have no idea what you look like, nor if you even drive. But you’re going to borrow my car.

So, I adjust the seat, lowering it and pushing it forward. There. Perfect. Then, I adjust the rear view mirror. Just so. I move to the side mirrors and push them this way and that until they are also adjusted. Then, I tilt the steering wheel, and turn up the thermostat in the car. I optimize the car for your safe driving.

Is this going to help you drive my car better? More safely?

I have no idea! I don’t know you. I have no clue how tall you are, what shape you are, or whether you even have legs. I am clueless.

I can’t get my car ready for you unless I know who you are.

Let’s go back to CRO. We have the same thing going on. CROs go wild with things they think will work, or a cool trick they read on a blog. They make changes, tweak headlines, adjust buttons and add colors, but they haven’t even researched their users.

Major big bad mistake.

The user is the starting point for conversion optimization. That user is driven by several fundamental principles of psychology, but the specific tenets of their behavior must be determined through careful research.

Thus, I propose that you adjust your approach to conversion optimization by first studying the user and then moving into conversion issues.

Spend a long time with one client.

The best way to bring value to your clients through conversion optimization is to spend time with them.

I’ve stayed with many of my clients for years. The longer I’m working with them on conversion optimization, the better I’m able to serve them. The customer mentality ebbs and flows, the business models changes, new testing procedures are developed, and advanced design technologies are proposed.

Each of these features has an ongoing impact on conversion optimization. Besides, A/B testing takes time. With every successive test comes ideas for more tests.

And covering it all is the need to know users, which doesn’t happen overnight. The longer you spend settled in with a single client — their needs, their approach, their market and their audience — the better you will be able to serve them.

View conversion optimization as user optimization.

As you think about conversion optimization, keep your mind focused on the user. Basically, you’re making improvements that will allow the user to function better on the site.

As you improve the site for users, you will automatically enhance the site’s conversions. That’s why conversion optimization and user optimization are inextricably intertwined. One enhances the other.

And both are upheld by the theories and principles of psychology.


The goal of this article is to assert that psychology is crucial to conversion optimization, and to provide the practical applications of that in CRO.

No, I haven’t provided you with any new techniques to unleash on your site. But that’s kind of the point. This article is intended to serve as a mental reset, a way of reorienting CROs to the whole idea behind their trade.

Are we backed by science, or driven by tactics? Are we trying to learn about our users, or discover more hacks?

What do you think?

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