With the explosion of direct-to-consumer online retailers, things have been heating up in the e-commerce industry. The things that made you different yesterday have become table steaks for modern brands. Those that want to defend their position or gain market shares will need to level up from foundational practices to advanced tactics.

Opting In To Optimization provides a collection of principles that when applied in a disciplined manner has proven to help e-commerce leaders capitalize on unprecedented market demand and build sustainable, thriving businesses. Author Jon Macdonald has more than a decade of experience, helping globally recognized brands like Nike, Xerox, Adobe, and The Economist, design highly effective online purchasing experiences.

In Opting In To Optimization, he condenses all of that knowledge into a handful of powerful strategies and principles that will accelerate growth without compromising customer experience.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am honored to be joined by Jon Macdonald. He just authored a brand-new book titled, Opting In To OptimizationJon, we’re so glad to have you joining us here on Author Hour today.

Jon MacDonald: Thanks for having me.

Benji Block: Absolutely. For listeners who may be brand-new to you and your work, could you give us a quick rundown on yourself and your background?

Jon MacDonald: I am the founder and CEO of The Good. The Good is a conversion rate optimization firm. That means, we help brands to convert more of their existing website traffic from visitors into customers. Mainly that is for e-commerce brands, we’ve worked up brands like Nike, Xerox, Adobe, The Economist, and hundreds of mid-sized brands but yet well-known as well.

Benji Block: Amazing. Obviously, I mean, that could keep you busy. What makes now the right time to write and release this book?

Jon MacDonald: This is actually my second book. The first book I wrote about six years ago or so, was very tactical. I treated it almost like a college master’s thesis, if you will, on conversion optimization. What we have learned over the last six years or so since then has really been that there are some immutable laws around conversion optimization.

It’s issues that we keep seeing over and over and over, and we really wanted to help get the word out about these issues and that they are actually fairly easy to solve if you know what you’re looking for. Our mission at The Good is to remove all of the bad online experiences until only the good remain— that’s actually how we got our company name.

The reality though is we can’t do that for every e-commerce site across the world, right? The goal of writing this book was to share these laws, help brands to remove those bad online experiences, and to understand the common issues that we see across the board.

Benji Block: Jon, give me a picture of your ideal reader who would most benefit from picking up this book?

Jon MacDonald: E-commerce managers, somebody who is in a leadership role at an e-commerce brand, or even perhaps a software as a service brand who’s looking to convert a visitor into a lead or a customer in that manner. We’ve also worked— like I mentioned The Economist— so with brands who have subscriptions but are maybe with like a payroll in the commerce world.

It’s been an issue where any brand who is looking to convert a visitor into a customer, has a hard time understanding that the consumer’s only at their site for two reasons. The first is to understand if that product or service can help solve their pain or need and if it can, they want to convert as quickly and easily as possible. It’s any brand who is offering something that helps solve a pain or a need and then can use their website to convert.

Benji Block: Amazing. The way you break down this book is basically that each chapter provides a law, a big idea, a concept, and then there’s lots of content around it to solidify that idea, that approach. I want to start right where the book starts with this idea that best practices are for beginners. You actually say that best practices, while they’re well-intentioned, are toxic for a growing team.

I want to understand a little bit more of how we got where we are. Why are best practices so popular?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I think that as the internet has become a world of content marketing, so many brands, and experts, thought leaders, have put out article after article, content after content about how they had success with one kind, or that they found that there’s these lists of best practices. And as a brand who is starting out, yeah, sure, those best practices might help you get to that next level. They might be things that you should really be thinking about.

The challenge that we see at The Good is that these best practices are really just training wheels for a brand and if you just follow those best practices, it ends up really capping your potential as your brand matures. Really, if you’re going to truly optimize your site for conversations and customer experience, what happens is, you need to have a much more tailored approach. You need to be focusing on those consumers and your specific site’s visitors. That’s where really brands fall down most often, they stop paying attention to their specific site visitors and pay a lot more attention to these best practices and their competition for instance.

Benji Block: Yeah, if best practices aren’t the way to go and we’re supposed to kind of hyper-focus on customers, which I love that, a more human approach anyway. Where do you see the future of e-commerce going? The ones that are going to separate and do this the best, where do you see that going?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I think where we’re going to end up here is really fueling your site based on customer understanding and iterative testing. What do I mean by that? Well, first thing you need to do is be tracking all the clicks and movements that happen on your site.

You should do that in an aggregate fashion so there’s no privacy concerns there. We’re also seeing a big issue right now where a lot of direct-to-consumer, e-commerce brands especially, are really struggling because of supply chain issues. I mean, as of today, as we’re recording this, there’s almost 70 ships off of the California coast that are waiting to get their goods into the United States and that’s the most there’s ever been by factors of 10.

The other option is that brands are really having consumer issues, driving consumers to their site via paid media. So, what we’re seeing is all of these brands are relying on third-party data and third parties. You’re relying on that shipping, freight containers, and things that you have no control over. You’re relying on getting people to your site on Facebook and Google that changes their algorithms or Apple comes out with an update.

Next thing you know, Facebook ads are half as effective, if not, less, right? What really needs to happen is these brands need to focus on their own data, first-party data. Best way to get that is to understand your consumer on your site and to be collecting that data on your site where you own it. It is your moat, right? Nobody can come in and Apple can’t make a change that is truly going to affect your site and how you create your experience on your site.

What you really need to do there is be understanding of people who come to your site and reusing that data. That’s really where I think things are going to be heading here is that owned or first-party data, a lot of brands would call it.

Your Brand’s Online Interaction Should Support the Customer Experience

Benji Block: Pinging right off of that, let’s say a visitor does arrive at your site. You say that we make this common mistake and we keep marketing to them instead of selling, right? What’s the common mistake you see companies making on their site when it comes to marketing, instead of selling?

Jon MacDonald: Right. I say this all the time but I’m a firm believer that if websites, especially e-commerce websites, were originally built by sales teams instead of marketing teams, we’d have a completely different online shopping experience. It would be so much easier to just get what you need, understand this product or service is going to help me, and then to buy it.

Instead, we always continue to market to consumers as they get to the site and that gets in the way of them accomplishing those two tasks. Instead, what happens is, a brand will sacrifice that consumer experience— that user experience on their site— under the guise of branding. We want to have a great brand experience. The challenge behind that is that these brands just really get in the way of their consumer accomplishing those two tasks, and then the consumer gets frustrated and they leave.

A good example of this is email popups. As soon as you get to a site, a popup comes up asking for your email address in exchange for a discount.

Benji Block: Every time.

Jon MacDonald: Yeah, it’s frustrating, right? Imagine if you were in a retail store. If a sales associate jumped out in front of you as soon as you walked into a store, with a clipboard and said, “Hey Benji, give me your email address?” What would you do?

Benji Block: Maybe turn around and bounce, I’m out.

Jon MacDonald: Exactly, right. Just because we see the consumer in the store, we don’t do that, right? We have more respect for them but you know, just because we can’t see the consumer on the other side of the screen doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have that same type of respect and compassion for them.

Benji Block: Yeah, I think that level of humanity is still getting introduced to the internet. To be honest, I think that does set companies apart, when you start thinking about your website as just another, like a brick-and-mortar, is what you say. Think about the process that someone’s interacting with when they’re on your website as if they were walking into an actual store. I think that is such a helpful way of thinking about it.

I think the disparity of how companies think customers are interacting with their website versus how a customer actually interacts with their website is so vastly different— and I loved just quoting you here, you said that “often, organizations treat a website like this monumental thesis or some great work of brand literature, whereas visitors interact with it more like they’re driving past a billboard on a highway.”

With that knowledge, what would you say— is there a main takeaway or a change that we could do to our website or layout— when you’re thinking about the fact that the way that customers are interacting is just far different than the way an organization is thinking about it?

Jon MacDonald: Yeah, the best way to be thinking about this is separating your marketing’s job from your website’s job, right? Your marketing is there to create awareness, that’s what the billboard is for. It’s to create interest. Hook them, say, “Hey, I know that brand exists. I have a pain, I think that brand that I saw that billboard for can help solve.” And then desire, right? They go to your website and “You know what? I see this product detail page, it’s addressing my concerns.” I’m evaluating that and now we’re really into that evaluation, and then the brands taking action, right? You need to separate that awareness and desire from evaluation and action.

That’s where I think the big change needs to happen. Brands really need to be focusing on their website of helping consumers to evaluate and take action and anything other than that should just try to get stripped away as much as possible.

Benji Block: Right, it’s about removing the brand from being the front and center and allowing that customer experience to take over?

Jon MacDonald: Right. Have the brand support that customer experience. On your product detail page is a great place to say, “Here’s all the customer reviews. Here’s great photos of this product in use,” but it’s a really bad place to be saying, “Sign up for email list right now” or “Go promote us on Instagram.”

Those type of things, one of the worst offenders I see of this is on a product detail page when brands ask consumers to leave reviews and they have a form right there. The only thing that happens is, great, a marketing manager wants your review. Because social proof works. The challenge is that now as a consumer, I’m looking at that product detail page and I say, “I can’t trust these reviews because anyone can come here and leave a review. How do I know that these are actual consumers with their real thoughts and not just people getting paid to show up to the site? Have they even been shipped a review or our products for review?”

Amazon has a big issue at this and really enforces this well, at least. They try to at their scale where they even say, have a badge for verified products, verified purchasers. So, something to consider there as well.

Benji Block: I thought you made a key point as well around— maybe this is just a reframing— but you say, customer goals actually aren’t so different from brand goals in certain instances. Could you expound on that a little bit?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I think your customer wants to convert as quickly and easily as possible and a brand wants you to convert as quickly and easily as possible as a consumer. You’re both on the same path, you both want to be able to evaluate, complete those two steps where you just talked about: evaluation and action.

As a brand, you want a consumer to evaluate quickly and easily, to be able to make that decision quickly and easily, and then to be able to convert and buy quickly and easily. And as a consumer, we’re so busy and we’re busier every day. It’s the exact same thing, when I am looking to buy an airline ticket, I want to be able to understand what my options are and I want to do that research very, very quickly.

Sort of how I want to sort, filter how I want sort. Am I okay with two stops, one stop? Do I have to leave at a certain time of day? Then I want to see prices and then I want to buy that and be done. I don’t want to be able to store my information and be able to purchase with one or two clicks. I don’t want to have to enter my ID information every single time. We need to be really thinking about these types of experiences from the side of our consumer and say, “If I was a consumer on my site, how would I evaluate what’s happening right now?”

One of the laws I talk about in here is that it is really hard to read the label from inside the jar. Brands are so close to their site. They’re so close to their products, they know everything about their products that they really try— and fail— to communicate that effectively to consumers who are new to file, consumers who click on an ad, got a referral from their friend on social. They come in and they’re like, “I don’t understand what they’re even selling me right now. How are they helping me solve my pain or need?”

Instead, I just see all this marketing, I see what their latest product release is or that they’re having a sale or they want my information, yet I just got here. I don’t even know if they can help me.

Benji Block: Yeah, it’s easy to get consumed by the fluff when you’re in the jar in a sense.

Jon MacDonald: Exactly.

Are Your Conversion Rate Practices Benefiting the Customer Experience?

Benji Block: Brands, obviously get consumed by conversion and you say that customer experience and conversation rate optimization is actually a one-way street. A great experience drives conversions but conversions do not drive experience. How would directing all of our attention towards improving conversion rate actually, potentially, maybe hurt us in the long run?

Jon MacDonald: Well, there is a lot of things you can do to increase conversion rates overnight that aren’t really great for your customer experience or your brand for that matter. You could go in and discount every product on your site to a dollar and I’d guarantee you’d sell a lot more but you are really killing your experience. Same thing with— I talk about email pop-ups.

Another one I see all the time, that is really out there to try to increase conversion rates but really just hurts experience, are things like auto-rotating carousels. On a homepage, you see these auto-rotating carousels of marketing messages or new products or features and benefits, right? But the challenge is, as a consumer, I just have all of these issues with usability around that. The messaging scrolls by before I could even see it. Often, the call to action, the button you want me to click on, moves. So I go to click it and then it rotates by and now I have to find the button for the next message and try to figure out what’s being sold to me.

There is a whole bunch of things that you could do that are dark patterns if you will. You could have a pop-up on your site and then do something we call negative intention, where that pop-up comes up and it asks for your email in exchange for a discount but then it goes in down below has a little text that says, “No, I don’t like discounts.” Well, I mean everyone likes a discount but I don’t want to give you my email address. This has nothing to do with how I feel about discounts but you are trying to shame me into giving you my info.

From the very beginning at that point, you have now turned who could be a brand advocate into somebody who, as soon as it gotten to your site, within that first 10 seconds, they are now having a negative brand experience. And that is really hard to overcome.

Benji Block: Yep, all of those examples are so spot on. One, I’d love to hear you expand on a little bit is the idea that discounts kills the experience. I think [with] that idea, especially to brands that are newer in an e-commerce space, it’s like, “Man, we just got to sell. We got to sell, let’s have the discounts. It sounds like a quick way to sell.” Why might that not be the best approach?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I fully believe that discounting is not optimization. It is margin drain, so when you default to discounts, you are damaging your brand, your customers, your profits… you’re really just continuing a downward spiral that is very, very hard to get out of. And the earlier in your brand life cycle you start discounting, the harder it is to get out of it.

Really, instead of discounting, you want to be looking at doing a whole bunch of other options that I think most brands don’t even consider because what do they do? Well, they hit the easy button. I call this the French-fries problem. It’s so easy. Many e-commerce brands just go to discounting because, like fast food, you can go through the drive-through and get that fast food really quickly, it satisfies your hunger, it’s often cheap. But here’s the thing, you know that that’s not healthy for you but you still do it because it’s easy. Yes, it’s convenient, it’s effective, it tastes good but all of those perks are deceiving.

While you’re checking off all these short-term needs, you’re really damaging your long-term health, and it is the exact same thing for brands. And then worse than that, it is highly addictive because you hit that easy button and you run a big sale, and you get more revenue and you look at that and you say, “Well hey, I’ve got more revenue. I’m going to do this again next week” and then you keep doing it again and again and again.

The next thing you know, is you’re a discount brand. There’s so many great examples of this. In the United States, we have Bed Bath & Beyond.

Now, if you go to Bed Bath & Beyond and you don’t have their 25% off coupon that is in every newspaper every weekend, then they’ll actually give it to you at the counter when you go to check out because they know that that’s the only way you’re going to buy. And if you didn’t know about it, you’re going to be really upset when a friend is like, “Hey, I bought this at Bed Bath & Beyond, it was on sale and I got 25% off” and you didn’t do that, and then you’re never going to buy at Bed Bath & Beyond again because you’ll be so upset. They actually just artificially discount everything and it’s because they know they can’t get out of doing that now. There is no way for them to stop discounting.

Benji Block: I am actually very interested because I don’t know if you know about Hobby Lobby, [it] has that same approach. Every time we go into Hobby Lobby, my wife would always have pulled up the coupon on her phone, and it is kind of like a known thing, we always have this discount. The last time we were in there, they actually said that they discontinued that discount. And I mean, years of going to Hobby Lobby and this is the first time that they said, “Oh yeah, that doesn’t exist anymore.”

I wonder the effect that it has because clearly, my wife was so frustrated. So she literally was the perfect example to what you’re speaking to, because it gets established into consumer’s mind that this is just who they are. This is part of their brand and then to try and take that away, well now it feels like a birthright. I totally see that playing itself out, and it has even more effect when you are not walking into a brick-and-mortar in an e-commerce situation, it’s so much harder to get someone to attach to your brand in a meaningful way. Then, if you take away discounts like, “Well, I’ll just go find it somewhere else,” right?

Jon MacDonald: This is why a number of consumers start their research now on Amazon. What we see a lot with direct-to-consumer brands, and I hear all the time, “Jon, it is really hard to compete against Amazon.” Well, it can be, because Amazon is going to go for the lowest price. They’re the Walmart of the Internet right? And now Walmart is moving into online shopping too, so that’s bringing prices down even more.

But the reality is a lot of consumers, what we see happen is, they start their research on Amazon just to see. It’s an easy search engine for them to go and say, “I need a backpack” and then it pulls out 100 backpacks. They can sort really effectively and easily, and then take a look at a handful of them. Often, Amazon is not that great at having product information.

Yes, they’ll have size, weight, and a couple of those stats and figures but when it comes to actually being able to compare products, often what the consumer is doing is going to the brand’s website to do that research, because the brand typically will have a little more information. That is a great opportunity to be able to convert that customer in a much higher margin sale with first-party data that you own, as we spoke about earlier.

The reality here is if you are able to really have a great customer experience on your website, it doesn’t need to just focus on discounting. Where Amazon is almost always going to be able to get it to them cheaper and faster than you’re going to be able to do as a direct-to-consumer brand. The challenge for that is that there’s tradeoffs. If you are on Amazon, you’re going up against hundreds of other brands but as soon as that consumer gets to your website, you can create a much better experience than Amazon can for a researcher, and help understand how you’re solving that pain or need.

Be Aware of Your Competitors, but Remain Focused on Your Customers

Benji Block: That’s good. There is one final law I’d love for us to just highlight here before we start to wrap up. Obviously, we’re inviting everyone— I mean, go pick up the book. There’s so many great laws in here and really practical content for you to digest on your own but the last one I’d like to highlight is the idea that competition can actually be a distraction.

There’s times when our competitors— you know, it’s useful and then there’s times where they become a distraction. How do you decipher between the two and what do you mean when you start talking about our competition being a distraction?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I think the best way to illustrate this is, as I say in the book, that there is a reason race horses wear blinders.

Benji Block: Yep, I love that phrase.

Jon MacDonald: Right. If you are watching the Olympics, it’s the same thing. You never see a sprinter turn their head and look behind them, right? They’re focused on just doing the best job that they can do. And that person who is winning, they could be a lap ahead and if they turn around and they look, what could happen? Well, they could trip, they might run into somebody else or something else and have an issue.

Worse, it’s going to slow them down. So, the reality here is that as a brand, you really don’t want to focus on your competition. There are so many reasons why, and I will touch on a couple of them. The first is most brands that we start working with, we ask them why they implemented something on their website and they say, “Well, this competitor who is bigger than us does it and, you know, so it must work for them.”

I say, “Here’s the challenge. First of all, you don’t know if you were opted into a test.” They could have been doing AB testing or they could have just been running a brand test for a week, and you happened upon it and then you said, “Oh that’s a good idea. I’ll do that too.” On their side, it could be failing miserably, right? You have no idea. The second thing is, is that there’s a lot of these challenges where brands will say, “The average conversion rate is 2% and I’m at 1%. I got to get my site to 2%.”

Well, the reality is maybe you could get your site to 3% but if you just stop at 2% because you think that’s the average, and then start putting your efforts else place, you’re really going to short-change yourself long term. There is very little that could be good that comes from copying your competition.

Now, I am not saying don’t be aware of what folks are doing but when you fixate on your competitors, the worst thing you’re going to do is be distracted from your own consumers and the feedback that they are giving you.

This really all goes back to understanding and engaging with your site’s visitors. If you are able to do that and do things— like user testing where you send people to your site who match your ideal customer profiles, ask them to complete some tasks while maybe you’re observing them or you’re recording them, and you ask them to talk out loud about what they’re thinking— you will learn so much more.

You will learn not only what challenges they’re having but what information is missing and what they wish was happening or what objections aren’t getting addressed. Those are all things that are going to be really hard to learn from competitors, but brands put way more effort into following their competitors than they do to listening to their own consumers.

Benji Block: I feel like you gave us permission to keep our eyes on our own plate in a sense and I think that’s such a good takeaway especially in a crowded internet space where, if we wanted to, we could endlessly be looking at what other people are doing. I think that is a great way to wrap up today. Jon, for those that are interested in following you and maybe want to reach out or just see more of your work, how can people connect?

Jon MacDonald: Yeah, the best way to learn more about The Good is just go to thegood.com and if you want to get in touch with me, feel free to email me. I give out my email all the time, and has yet to be abused, but feel free if you have any questions. It’s just Jon, there is no H in Jon, [email protected] and you can, on thegood.com as well, you can download a sample chapter of Opting In To Optimization and also purchase the book.

Benji Block: Jon, it’s been such an honor to have you here on Author Hour. Thanks for taking time to chat with us and I know Opting In To Optimization is going to be a great resource for so many, so thanks for being on the show today.

Jon MacDonald: Thanks for having me.