As a consultant specializing in online marketing, I’m often asked to just increase online sales — by hook or by crook. It makes sense: whether you’re a startup or an established business, everybody needs topline revenue, right?

Now sometimes it’s possible to increase sales just by doing the technical stuff right — say, by targeting the right audience or fixing up landing pages.

But sometimes that’s not enough. The sales and conversion problem is so big that the problem can’t be fixed with more money, more fiddling, or more testing.

The problem is the company’s branding, and it has to be fixed before you can make serious progress.

What do I mean by branding?

Let me clarify that by branding, I don’t mean your trademark or your logo. Zappos has strong branding and has done quite well, even though I think it has the ugliest, dumbest, non-swoosh logo in all Christendom.

Zappos brand logo

Zappos: The ugliest, dumbest logo in all Christendom. How many fonts does one logo need? Four, apparently. Is it a shoe? An exclamation point? Make it stop.

Branding is about who you are, what makes you different, and what you’re promising to offer. That’s all.

In essence, branding is the distillation of your brand strategy, which is actually synonymous with your business and marketing strategy. (You have a marketing strategy, right?)

Your branding should be expressed through your logo, yes – but more importantly, it should be conveyed in your messaging, your tone, and your copy. And ideally it is not just on display in your marketing and communications, but in everything you do: your product, your customer service, and your human resource policies.

Zappos, for example, is not about shoes. Its brand is “do anything for the customer.” This means free shipping. This means extremely liberal customer return policies. That means personalized and attentive customer service. All its communications and service delivery are designed to reinforce this brand.

As a result, people love Zappos, they love to keep shopping at Zappos. and they tell their friends to shop at Zappos. This is the power of a good brand – it’s like an annuity that yields repeat sales and word of mouth.

Why is branding online important?

In the online world, the real sales process starts BEFORE a prospective customer fills out a form, adds a product to their shopping cart, or picks up the phone. It starts as soon as they see your ad or visit your website.

When a prospect first visits your site, they are making a number of implicit and explicit judgments about your company. Many of these judgments are made in the first 5 seconds they are there.

Explicitly, they are looking for information about your product, whether it does the job, and what it costs.

But implicitly, they are trying to decide a bunch of more subtle questions, like: Is this company real? Who is behind the company? Is the product really likely to work, and how can I be sure? Why would I choose this company out of the infinity of choices I have? These are the judgments that are made shortly after arrival, often unconsciously.

If prospects don’t like what they see, they bounce.

In other words, in the online world, customers often sell themselves before you can sell them.  If your site isn’t answering those IMPLICIT questions – through design, messaging, and tone – then you won’t get those sales.

Why branding matters for performance marketing

I always tell customers that even if your only concern is an exclusively mercenary focus on performance marketing (getting leads, sales, or what have you), you cannot forget good branding and design.

Good branding provides a positive benefit to customers by reducing their perception of risk and making the buying process faster and easier – which is a positive benefit to you.

In performance marketing, you can measure this with three numbers: (1) clickthrough rates; (2) conversion rates; and (3) bounce rates.

Branding Means Higher Clickthrough Rates and Conversion Rates

Branding provides familiarity, and familiarity feels good.

A familiar brand implies history, quality, reliability. After all, how could a familiar brand persist and do a bad job? (Easily, but no matter.)

When customers are shopping for an item and they see a familiar brand – even if all they’ve ever seen about that brand are ads that they’ve never clicked – they are more likely to consider and buy it.

I saw this clearly with one of my clients – a major online advertiser in the financial services space. They asked me to evaluate whether a no-name brand that they also owned would be worth advertising, in order to take up “shelf space” in search results.

The ads and landing page experiences were nearly identical, and we advertised on the same top keywords. Yet, the clickthrough rates on the no-name brand, as well as the subsequent conversion to sales, were so low as to make the strategy essentially unprofitable – particularly when you added in the extra expense of my managing the campaigns. (Not to mention that we were probably making our brand campaigns more expensive.)

Lesson learned: good brands make prospects more likely to consider you and purchase from you, and you can see this in increased clickthrough and conversion rates.

Branding Means Lower Bounce Rates

Another very practical way to measure the impact of branding is your bounce rate – that is, the quantity of web visitors who visit your site after searching or seeing an ad, and who subsequently jump back to where they came from almost immediately.

In online marketing, a high bounce rate is a killer.

When people find you organically via a search engine, that search engine is watching not just the clickthrough rate on your site, but also your bounce rate. When Google sees a searcher click on a result and immediately retreat back to the search engine results page, Google takes note. In effect, the searcher has downvoted you through this action, and Google will later punish you with a lower search engine rank.

The same dynamic actually applies to Google’s paid search ads as well. When Google sees a person click on an ad, only to quickly jump back to wherever they came from, Google perceives that ad as less relevant – and Google will subsequently penalize you by raising the costs of later bids to maintain the same level of exposure.

In other words, whether you are getting advertising for free (via search engines) or are paying for it (through ad networks), a high bounce rate is not just a missed opportunity for a sale – it’s actually hurting you and making your advertising more expensive.

Now a high bounce rate could mean a lot of things: (1) your messaging isn’t engaging users right away; (2) you aren’t demonstrating that your product or solution is the answer to the prospect’s problem; or (3) your site makes you look incompetent, amateurish, or small-time. All of these problems can be fixed with good branding – that is, good visual design, a clear value proposition, and snappy, relevant copy.

How to diagnose if your company has good branding

My recommendation is to find somebody who has never seen your site, and maybe doesn’t even know your industry, and ask them this:

  • What feeling do you get when seeing this website for the very first time?  Is it competence, openness, ease of use, creativity? Or is it immaturity, confusion, or the blahs?
  • Can you figure out what this company does in 10 seconds?  That’s all most people are going to give you to determine whether you are relevant to their needs.
  • What makes this company different? If it’s not clear right from the start, people will lose interest and start comparing you to the competition – not digging into your site.
  • How do you feel when reading further into the site? Is the visitor fatigued or energized? Most website copy is overlong and crammed with platitudes and technical jargon — all are killers for visitors’ attention spans.

Do this with 4 or 5 people, and you’ll quickly learn if your site has good branding or poor branding. (Your landing pages, which like your home page, are often a prospect’s first interaction with your site, should also be subjected to the same test.) If impartial visitors aren’t giving you the answers you expect, it’s time for you to come up with a new branding – a clearer story and a better home page or landing page. Answer the Top 15 Branding Questions and go from there.

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