Beyond Conversion Rate Optimization: The Art of Digital Experience

Episode 295

July 9, 2024

The Kula Ring this week is digging into digital journey optimization with Jon MacDonald, founder of The Good. Jon shares insights from his extensive experience helping brands like Nike and Xerox improve user experiences and conversions. Discover how understanding consumer psychology and optimizing digital touchpoints can transform your approach to marketing and sales in the manufacturing sector.

You can find his new book, Behind the Click, here:

Beyond Conversion Rate Optimization: The Art of Digital Experience Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White, and joining me today is Carman Pirie. How you doing, sir?

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. Delighted to be here and delighted for today’s conversation. I think, you know, we often talk to manufacturing marketers, people that are working client side, rolling up the sleeves, getting it done. And we don’t always talk to folks who are working a little bit more on a consultancy or agency side about how they’re thinking about the work and how it all intersects. So it’s nice when we get to do that.

Jeff White: Yeah, I agree. And, also it’s kind of a a subject that’s near and dear to our hearts and one that our guest has got some particularly major experience with. So around optimizing experiences and digital journeys and all of that and looking at it at a very, very wide and deep level. So I’m looking forward to this conversation. So why don’t I go ahead and introduce him?

Carman Pirie: Sounds like a lovely idea.

All right. So joining us today is Jon MacDonald. Jon is the founder of the agency The Good. Is the author of three books, including his most recent Behind the Click Welcome to The Kula Ring, Jon.

Jon MacDonald: Thanks for having me.

Carman Pirie: Jon, I must apologize that here in Nova Scotia we find that we have a lot of McDonald’s, and MacDonald’s, and we pronounce them all the same and we we blend it all together. I’ve noticed that over on the West Coast, you’re a little bit more intentional about the MacDonald part.

Jon MacDonald: No worries. I will say that I’ve been called way worse and we are kicking this off in great Canadian fashion by you apologizing within the first 30 seconds of the show. We’re off to a great start.

Carman Pirie:  Actually that’s how we amped up the Canadian content by starting with the apology.

Jeff White: The government tells us if we don’t get our minimum 13% Canadian content.

Carman Pirie: John, look before we jump too far into it here, please introduce our listeners a little bit more fully to who you are and who the good is.

Jon MacDonald: Oh, well, as Jeff was kind enough to point out, I’m the founder and CEO of The Good. We are a digital journey optimization firm. What that means is that we help brands to better connect with their end users and customers and help them to essentially help those consumers to do the two tasks that they’re at their website to do. We’ve been in business for over 15 years worth of brands like Nike, Xerox, Adobe, The Economist, as well as hundreds of smaller brands. And really, we have found this is true across all of those that consumers on our website are there to accomplish two goals and only two goals. That is to understand if your products or services can help them to accomplish the task that they are trying to accomplish. And if it can, they want to convert. They want to get that product or service as quickly and easily as possible and get on with their lives. And so that is really what we help brands to do. We do that through our mission, which is to remove all of the bad online experiences and to only the good.

Carman Pirie: And recently, I mean, I think in the early days, a lot of what you just said was synonymous with the term conversion rate optimization, or people would think about it that way. But it really is looking at it much more deeply as you talk about more digital experience optimization. Can you maybe speak to us a little bit about that distinction?

Jon MacDonald: Of course. Well, you know, the customer’s journey really starts the moment they encounter your company or your brand online, right? So the goal of digital experience optimization is to create an intuitive, really cohesive path for customers to discover who you are, and what you do, to gather the information they need, to understand and be ready to make a decision and then, of course, convert. So it’s really all about giving people the things they need at the time they need them to easily find the best product or solution for them. And it’s really both an art and a science, right? We want to uncover issues that customers face on a company’s website or app or, you know, during their research. We want to help understand and use that data and several types of testing to create solutions with real and measurable results. And the difference here is that I mentioned a bunch of stuff before I even said the word conversion, and there’s a ton of stuff that comes in that journey before somebody is ready to convert and if you ignore all of that, you’re ignoring a large portion of your visitors who eventually may convert but eventually may not convert and in addition to that, conversion optimization has really become a commodity. And I mean that in the way that SEO or SEM-driving ads have really become a commodity. They all focus on one thing and that’s, you know, SEO. It’s getting people to your site, SEM, getting people to your site. C.R.O. has really become all about just that conversion point and it ignores everything else and it’s really become synonymous with AB testing, which is just one tool in the toolbox. It’s really not the entire ecosystem yet. If you listen to all the Twitter bros on X these days, they’re only talking about AB testing and doing a checklist. They’re not talking to consumers, they’re not doing deep research. And so we felt it really important to expand out a little bit, understand the why behind every tactic you would deploy before you just choose that tool out of the toolbox. 

Jeff White: And your book talks deeply about the idea around the psychological principles. You know, these things that the people may not even realize why they’re doing things or why they prefer something or why they find a particular path easy. But can you unpack that a little bit? Like what are some of the things that that you see, you know, when you’re analyzing someone’s website traffic or analyzing the behavior that you see when someone’s on a digital platform? What are you seeing and how does that relate to those very human kind of ways of of interacting with things?

Jon MacDonald: Yeah. So really, there’s a lot of psychology that’s happening behind decision making and most folks, as I mentioned, just pull a tool out of the toolbox and start using that to optimize their site. And they don’t really understand the why behind it. The reason I wrote this book is to help people to truly get in the heads of their consumers and understand there’s all these psychological well, let’s just call it baggage. I understand that probably has a negative connotation to some degree, but we’re getting on a website, we have tons of stuff happening around us and our brains are taking a lot of mental shortcuts and we’re making decisions based on where we are in that digital journey, what our mindset is like. And there are tons of these factors that are happening that are just ingrained in our psyches from evolution, even, and we’re not really meeting customers where they’re at if we don’t understand what those psychological principles are. I mean, even just as high level and as simple as decision fatigue and really becoming just overwhelmed with all the decisions a website might be asking you to make. Right. There’s I talked in the book about two types of consumers that really are helping to understand in that information-gathering phase who you should be talking to. There are the maximizers and the Satis fighters and knowing both of you like I do, I can tell right away that Jeff is probably a maximizer and Carman is probably dissatisfied now with the maximizers consumers are trying to get every little piece of information. So, Jeff, if you’re a maximizer, you have 100 tabs open. You are doing a ton of research. You are out there comparing every little bit of detail between two products or two services. And you are spending all day possible to find the best solution for you. Where, Carman, if you’re satisfied to, you’re just trying to get that job done. It is the very first item that you come across that might possibly hit on the need that you have. You are going to jump in and just convert and be on with your life. And you need to be able to speak to both of those types of ICPs on your website. And that is really how our decisions are being made every day. We’re trying to help understand should I spend a lot of time on this or should I just make a decision and move on with my life?

Jeff White: Well, you certainly have spoken about how I have used spreadsheets to analyze the geometry of various bicycles before making that decision. But I don’t know that Carman isn’t necessarily doing something similar, just maybe without the spreadsheet.

Carman Pirie: He’s only thinking that because I do have a hundred tabs open, but they’re not related to each other in any way, and they shall not be closed for three months. That’s what drives Jeff crazy. But. But how do you I guess do a website do both? I mean, how do you is it just about structuring and hierarchy of information? So what was presented earlier can satisfy whatever it is you just called me versus the maximizer.

Jon MacDonald: Yeah. To satisfy her is the other ICP Now the reality here is that you need to offer all the information that the Maximizers want, okay? But you need to not overwhelm the satisfies. And so the best way to do that is to make that information available. But don’t show it all at once. Allow people to dive in by having a product detail page for a product. But then offering a detailed spec guide. Right. Or putting a video on the page that really dives into details and shows the product, somebody holding it, talking about it. If they’re really interested, they will watch that information and consume it. But if they’re not, make it easy for them to convert without having to go through all those steps. You think about SaaS brands and you know if I have an app I want to buy, a lot of folks will make me get on the phone with them and have a conversation about it. But if I’m already sold, I might just go to their competitor who lets me just convert and buy right away and subscribe to their app. So you have to really weigh whether the additional barriers are going to create too much of a challenge for your folks. What is that mental stage that they’re in? Right? Are they getting decision fatigue? Are they getting overwhelmed or is this part of the process that, you know, your consumers are going to go through?

Carman Pirie: I wonder if there’s them. One of the interesting things that happens, I find with an awful lot of manufacturers and manufacturing brands is the engineering-driven cultures. They see the complexity. They are inherently maximizers in some way by definition of how they think about things, right? So it can be really hard for them not to give you the garden hose when you ask for their information. You can’t just get a drop of water. I always kind of wonder what other members of the buying committee who aren’t engineers, are turning off and taking that approach You know?

Jon MacDonald: Well, and I think this is because brands love to talk about themselves, right? You have a product to sell. You think you need to tell everybody, every single little thing about that product. And so that is the default, right? I have said throughout my career that the Internet would be a much different place if it was a sales tool first and not a marketing tool first, Right? Because marketers like to talk about the features and benefits, right? They want to communicate so much information and throw branding on top of that, whatever that might mean to you, it could mean a million different things. So now you’re dealing with not only having a brand but having to communicate the details of the individual product. So you have a lot you want to get across on a website, but if you’re a salesperson, a salesperson is helping to qualify that person very quickly and easily. If they are qualified, it wants to help get them to that endpoint of conversion very quickly and easily. That is their job. And so they are going to say, Here’s what we do and who we do it for. Are you in that group? Are you looking for that pain? Yes, we can help solve it. Okay. Here is a solution that’s easy for you. Now, here’s how you would buy that solution. Here’s how much it costs. Are you interested? Yes or no? It’s such a different type of customer journey. Hey, let’s talk about the founder or let’s talk about, you know, this press release that just came out. Here’s this great marketing campaign I have to show you. Here’s this promotion we’re running, right? There’s a lot of different stuff that gets built up in there. Now, I’m not against marketing, but I do think that once somebody has gotten to your site, your marketing has won, it has done its job, and it is now time to help the person convert as quickly and easily as possible.

Jeff White: Hmm. I wonder just the idea that marketing’s job is to get you to the platform. But the sales job is to get you to convert on the site. Like, I feel like there’s there’s some not an argument, but a discussion to be had about where marketing starts and stops and where that that kind of medley relay handoff actually happens there.

Jon MacDonald: I actually wrote a whole book on that. One of my first books was Stop Marketing Start Selling. And that whole book is about that philosophy of how you can turn your website into an appropriate sales tool and not completely ignoring marketing, but working with marketing to help move it along in sales. And at the time I wrote that, which was probably a decade plus ago now, it was pretty controversial, especially the title. I got a lot of great reviews of it, but I also sent it out to lots and lots of marketing leaders who honestly would write me pretty nasty messages back. Like basically you’re invalidating my whole job online and I think there’s a lot of folks felt threatened. But as optimization, especially CRO took off after that, we started to see more people spending time worrying about that conversion point, and that started bringing things back into the sales realm for websites too. Now we’ve gone completely in the other direction where everybody wants to optimize. As I mentioned, conversion rate optimization has become a commodity because everybody will do it. You can buy it for cheap, right? Getting a checklist, might not work as well for you, but we have gone in that direction as an industry. So that is why I wrote behind the click to help you understand, why you should be doing all these tactics and kind of bringing that back home a little bit.

Carman Pirie: Does the length of a sales cycle in a B2B manufacturing context alter your thinking at all in terms of how much more marketing you need to do when somebody gets to the site versus selling them? Or are we just kind of overcoming sales objections and the sales angle still holds, I guess I wonder.

Jon MacDonald: Yeah, I think that it’s a great question because I actually, in Behind the Click,  break the whole digital journey down into four different phases. There’s the discovery phase and that’s really marketing-heavy, right? There’s that information-gathering phase. This is where customers move beyond thinking. And I think this might be what I’m looking forward to really starting to dig into those details. And then from there, there’s the decision-making and conversion phase where you’re really trying to get somebody to focus on converting understanding. Yes, this is what I want, make it easy for them. And then you got that post-purchase phase. And I think that’s where a lot of brands kind of drop the ball. Unfortunately, they don’t do anything because they think conversions stop at the checkout when the reality is there’s so much to do afterwards. So if you’re looking at that buyer’s journey for something that has a longer sales cycle, you start to think that that discovery phase, might become fairly short, but that information-gathering phase becomes quite long, right? Because you have consumers who have a lot of questions. They want to make sure, yes, okay, this might be what I’m looking for. And they’re going to really dig into those details. They’re going to move beyond maybe that casual window shopping and start a really dedicated mission to find the information that they need to make that purchasing decision. A lot of these organizations have long sales cycles because they have to convince others inside the organization that this is the right move forward. This is the best use of our resources. So they start to interact with your website in a different manner. They’re hunting for specific information that is going to confirm that your company is the best fit for what they’re looking to accomplish. And yes, that can take some time. The best way to understand what those questions are is to go to your consumers, to talk to them, not necessarily as part of the sales cycle, but before they even get to your site, understand who your ICP is, go out, induce some user testing, go out and have those conversations to understand. When you’re on my website, what information are you looking for and then surface that information for everybody else that comes to your site? It sounds really high level and it is. But so many brands don’t do that, that it really kind of just stops them in their tracks because then they don’t understand what people are thinking and those psychological factors that are influencing users on their website.

Carman Pirie: Help me connect a few dots here. Kind of a part of me is picking up what you’re putting down. And then part of me is like, hold on a second. You know, sometimes people are very unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour. They’re very poor at telling you why they do what they do. And I feel like that’s kind of part of what you’re tapping into when you talk about the underlying psychological principles about how we explore, gather information, discover, convert, etc. Is that, you know, some of those things are kind of subconscious. I mean, that’s something that we’re thinking about or even our active witness as to why we’re thinking that way. It’s just we think that way. Does that resonate with you, am I on the right path here? To what extent I guess to what extent can we get that information from asking people for the answers versus interpreting their behaviour through a more sophisticated lens?

Jon MacDonald: That’s a great question. And it’s important to point out here that if you ask somebody 5 minutes after they make a decision why they made that decision, they’re probably not going to be able to tell you. But if you ask somebody to go to your website and talk out loud about what they’re experiencing at the moment as they are completing those tasks, they will be able to explain to you, I am trying to do X, Y or Z and I’m confused. I can’t find X, Y, or Z. I don’t know what the next step should be. I have these questions that are going through my head right now. All of that is instantaneous. It’s in the moment, right? And as humans, we are actually pretty good about explaining and talking out loud about what’s happening at the moment for us. But ask us down the line and we’ve forgotten all of that. And the reality is we make 35,000 plus decisions a day. So many decisions and we can only remember it’s very, very small. It’s like 0.04% of those decisions every day. It’s because our brains aren’t wired to really retain everything. They’re wired to filter, right? We’re wired to say, Oh, well, I know my way to work. I don’t have to do it. I subconsciously just get in the car and go in that direction. Right? So there’s a whole bunch of these decisions that are happening subconsciously that if you ask me, you know, Oh, well, you know, I just gave a talk at Autodesk last week and I got up on stage and I said, okay, well let’s prove this theory out. So I started giving my talk and then I stopped and said, Okay, we all make so many decisions and we can’t recall all this information. If I asked you how tall I am, I’m six foot seven. So if I’m on stage, everybody knows I’m tall because I’m there. It’s relevant, perhaps. But if I ask you what colour shoes I’m wearing, nobody would be able to tell me because they’re not looking at my shoes. They’re looking at my slides. Maybe they saw them, but it’s not of interest at the moment, right? So you need to ask people this information at the moment what is interesting to them right then, and they will be able to tell you. But if you ask them later, they’re not going to be able to tell you.

Jeff White: I love that. And I’ve been lucky to bear witness to quite a number of, you know, user sessions when you’re asking people how they’re going through things and why they’re making the decisions. They are certainly not on the level that you’ve experienced, but I’d love to know kind of what was the, you know, an example of one of the times where you were like, how do you not see what the solution is here? You know, like it’s so obvious to me, it’s so obvious to the designer. It’s so obvious to the brand. But for whatever reason, the customer or prospect or whomever is going through it just doesn’t see it. What’s one of the best examples you’ve seen of that?

Jon MacDonald: Well, I think the, you know, it’s really interesting because we’ve worked with lots and lots of larger brands that really have a hard time kind of reading the label from inside the jar. Right? They are usually the challenge, not the consumer. Right? So they are so close to their products, they are so close to their website. They know everything that the brand often doesn’t see what the challenges are. The consumer is trying to get their task done and in fact, they often go above and beyond trying to solve the problem that’s in front of them. So much so that, you know, they get frustrated and leave. Right. And so it really the 99.9% of the challenges we see are on the brand side. Unfortunately, a great example of that is, you know, I mentioned earlier we’ve worked with Xerox printer manufacturers, and for years they held kind of the dominant position in print. It was them in that company called Hewlett Packard, HP Well, what happened was that they went and started selling DTC direct to consumers and folks would buy the printer off their website and then they’d need toner and they’d come back to the website and they knew what model of printer they had. Of course, nobody knows what model number of toner you have in your printer, but you can go look at your printer and see the model number on it, go to the website and type it in. Right? Well, it was really interesting because consumers were so frustrated they could not find the right toner for their printer. What were they doing? They were going to the printer page that they owned the detail page for that printer and expecting to find the details of what toner it took. Right. Seems logical that you would do that, right? I’m not going to pull the toner out. It gets messy. I’m just going to go to wherever the model number is and go to that page. Well, Xerox, unfortunately, didn’t have it listed on those pages. And we asked, why aren’t you doing that? Well, we’re a printer company. We sell toner. But we want to we want our website to sell printers.

Carman Pirie: It’s an entirely different SKU, Jon!

Jon MacDonald: Yes, of course. I was like, okay, I get it. You want to sell more printers, but how many more printers are you going to sell to people who come to your website? You can’t find toner, They’re going to get frustrated and they’re going to go to the brand that they can walk into their local office supply store and buy the right toner. But the problem is that you’re making it very, very difficult for them. And they said, well, this is the way we’ve always done it. I said, okay, I’ll come back in a week and I want to prove you wrong. Give me a week to do that. I went and conducted user testing and what I did is I actually recorded folks who were looking to purchase on the website and I just said, Hey, you know, you need toner for a printer. Here’s the printer model. To find the right toner. And I and I didn’t say another word. I asked them to talk a lot about the experience they were having. We’re going to record your screen and your audio. And I ended up putting together 10 minutes of clips of people being extremely frustrated that they could not find the right toner. And then what I did is I put a little ticker down on the bottom of the video. And every time somebody got frustrated and said, you know what, I can’t do it. I can’t find it, or I have no idea what to do next. I took the average order value of people who buy toner, which, believe it or not, was higher than the average order value of people who buy printers because they’re selling to corporations who want to buy toner for the year. Right? So they were buying multiple they weren’t just buying one. And I just started adding up at the bottom was the ticker over those 10 minutes. We got about three or 4 minutes into the video and the VP who was sitting in the room said, okay, let’s make the change.

Jeff White: I’ve heard enough.

Jon MacDonald: And the idea behind this is you have to put it in the terms of the brand and you know, consumers just want toner, the brands want revenue, they want conversions. As soon as we made it real, by helping them get some empathy for the customer and by seeing how much money they were leaving on the table, they immediately changed course.

Carman Pirie: This seems so silly to even say, but I’m going to say it anyway. I can just imagine, almost like the unsophisticated junior marketer sitting there looking at a time on site stat and then, you know, and the time on site actually reduces considerably because people can actually find toner. They know how to search around it forever. It’s just interesting to think that they’re looking at the wrong things, right?

Jon MacDonald: Yeah. Well, that’s where understanding what data you need to be paying attention to matters. I think we’ve become such a data-driven world that, you know, everybody wants to be a data scientist these days. Everybody wants to have the right data tracking in place. That often has led to AB testing becoming so prevalent and conversion optimization because it’s easy to look at something and run a test. And they said, Oh yeah, that won. The data says the math says that the variant won. But here’s the challenge. They never I wouldn’t say never, but rarely. When people come to the good, they have run a lot of testing, but they rarely understand why they’re running those tests. And what happens is they come to us and they say, Oh, well, yeah, I saw this test online. Somebody ran it and they’re paying attention to what their competition is doing. And they say, Oh, I wonder, you know, I saw this on our on our competition site. We should be doing it too. So I set up a test. Well, unfortunately, copying your competition is unlikely to get you where you want to go for a number of reasons. But number one is you have no idea if you have opted into a test and if it is actually working for them. I mean, people have been ab tested all over the Internet every day and you have no idea, Right? I can guarantee almost every big site you’re going to is AB-testing you down to the news sites. You go to AB testing headlines to understand which one’s getting the most clicks, and what variants are to the exact same news story. So you really need to be thinking a little bit about what are people going through, not necessarily what tactics to deploy.

Jeff White: Man Understanding the context of your users is just, you know, it’s a, it’s a concept that that you really wish that more people, not just marketers, but just everybody understood it’s fascinating.

Carman Pirie: Jon I appreciate that we’re coming to the end of our time together today. I wonder I wonder what advice you would give to manufacturing marketers who are listening to this thinking, you know, there’s something here to think about our digital experience optimization approach. And we haven’t maybe been unsophisticated about this as we should be. It’s what’s the first next step was the parting advice that you might give to them as they may think about taking this up.

Jon MacDonald: Yeah, I think there are fundamental principles that shape the way we interact with and how we make decisions in the world around us. And by understanding your audience, you can use that knowledge to help guide them to the best solution and the easiest or most effective way possible. I promise this is going to help you and your customers both reach your goals because your customers are going to have a better experience with your brand, and your brand is going to have more customers in the end. So everybody will win. And I think, you know, the first thing you need to do is talk to your customers. So simple. But if you understand you need to optimize your site, you really need to understand why you need to make these changes to your site. And the best way to do that is to talk to customers, not look at your competition, not go straight to the numbers, to the data, look at conversations with your customers, and talk to your customer service team. Right. Talk to your sales team. What are the common questions that come up? What are the common objections that come up and then start doing user testing? Get people on your site, ask them to do a simple task and don’t say anything else and let them talk about their experience out loud. You will learn so much information so quickly. From there you can prioritize and move forward with optimizing your site.

Carman Pirie: Well, Jon, I think we’ve certainly all learned a lot from you today. Thank you for sharing this with us. And I encourage everyone listening to to check out Behind the Click. It’s just a treasure trove of insight and knowledge into how to think about digital experience optimization. John, thanks for coming to the cooler and for that.

Jon MacDonald: Thanks for having me.

Jeff White: And I should note will have a link to Jon’s book in the show Notes on Thanks a lot, Jon.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s K-U-L-A Partners dot com slash the kula ring.

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Jon MacDonald

President, Founder at The Good

Jon MacDonald is the founder of The Good, a digital experience optimization firm that has achieved results for some of the largest online brands including Adobe, Nike, Xerox, The Economist, and more. Author of three books on digital journey optimization and a frequent keynote speaker, he has been invited to share his expertise on important stages including Google and Autodesk. He knows how to get website visitors to take action.

In Behind The Click, Jon dives into the psychological principles behind customer decisions. The way companies understand and activate optimization tactics based on these principles will either guide customers toward conversion or send them running to a competitor.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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