One of the benefits of usability improvements is that they keep on delivering long after they are implemented, a compelling proposition for companies trying to make the most of their online traffic and conversions.

I regularly need to discuss the benefits of usability in the context of a specific company’s online business goals. 

Recently I was talking to a prospective client in the travel sector and outlining the benefits of usability, covering conversion rate increases, customer retention, better cross sales and cross-channel efficiencies as key themes. The main factor that caught his attention was what he called the ‘equity gain of usability’; that good usability sticks around and keeps delivering value after you have done it, not just immediately when you implement it.
Some context is needed to understand why this was so important to this person. His company had an active search marketing programme of both natural and PPC efforts as well as affiliates. The cost of these had steadily increased to the point where he was spending hundreds of pounds each month on PPC.

He invests in PPC because it works. It gave him an immediate increase in traffic the more key phrases he bought, and he was continually buying new and better key phrases through the information he actively monitored with Google Analytics.

The Adword Addict

However to use his own words, he was ‘commercially addicted to Adwords’. It was an ongoing investment needed to achieve the desired immediate feedback of increased traffic through which he gained revenue. The reason he felt hooked was that if he chose not to invest his hundreds into Adwords for a given month, he would suffer through a significant drop in traffic and therefore revenue. He is certainly not unique in having this ‘addiction’ to PPC and to a lesser degree affiliates who drove traffic. 

Changing metaphors, he reasoned that increasingly investing in PPC and third parties to deliver traffic was similar to either paying rent or the interest only part of his mortgage, whereas a good set of usability improvements that increases conversions carries on delivering that uplift and is more akin to paying off the capital portion of the mortgage, gaining equity. To him it was significantly important that the investment in usability sticks around delivering benefits month after month without further investment.

It was pleasing to see his enthusiasm for usability once he convinced himself of the ‘equity investment’ of usability benefits and the opportunity to decrease his ‘addiction’ to Adwords. 

The point of this story is not to advocate usability at the expense of PPC or other parts of a balanced approach to web marketing. Search, PPC, affiliate, email and offline marketing all provide a healthy return on investment if done wisely. In the wider picture, a good online strategy needs to have elements of:

•    Leading the horse to water: through advertising and marketing including SEO (natural and PPC)
•    Making the horse drink:  usability and persuasion applied to the main user journeys on the site
•    Seeing how much the horse drank: web analytics and variants such as A/B and multivariate testing.

The main point is that the permanence of usability changes is compelling, especially with a dodgy economy and people cutting back on spending. The web is still relatively bouyant, but online retailers need to make wise investments for their long term future.