"Our old site was absolutely horrible," says Div Bhansali, eSylvan's Director of Marketing.
"You'll wholeheartedly agree with me when you see it [link to screenshot below]. It didn't exude any of the values important to us, such as warmth, honesty, confidence in our ability to help children."
And, while some marketers can get by with a grade B Web site, eSylvan's site was the company's "primary face." For parents seeking tutorial help for their kids, the home page was their first brand impression of eSylvan. Ouch.
Plus, Bhansali knew a quick revamp wouldn't do the trick. The site didn't just need to be slicker or prettier -- it needed to do heavy lifting, propelling visitors over three major humps:
Hump #1. New category:
More than half of the visitors didn't immediately understand the product on offer. Parents knew what an in-person tutor was, and what a tape/CD set was, but what was a live, personal online tutor?
Hump #2. Multiple decision makers:
Most parents want to combine their own research with input from others such as teachers, a spouse, grandparents, friends, and the actual child. There was little chance a parent would be convinced to convert on their first site visit until they'd checked with others in their circle.
Hump #3. Expense:
eSylvan is priced roughly the same as offline private tutoring (about $40 an hour.) A parent would spend hundreds and possibly thousands to get the full benefit. It wasn't an investment to be entered into lightly.
These three humps meant that the average parent visited eSylvan's site a grand total of seven times, often over several months, before he or she decided to purchase. CAMPAIGN
First the team debated over what the targeted conversion activity should be. In the past, they'd focused on offering a free registration form to learn more, supplemented by a toll-free number.
Bhansali says, "We had extremely long internal discussions on getting them to the form versus to the phone. For many parents, the most intuitive first step is 'Let me fill out a form and see what happens.' But if they are clearly interested in buying from us, an inbound phone call is better [for conversions]."
In the end they decided to go with the phone as the main offer, with the form being slightly more hidden, but available for active seekers.
However, for outbound campaigns eSylvan ran through a third-party pay-per-action service (link below); they reversed the order because leads were less likely to be deep enough into the sales cycle to be willing to pick up a phone immediately.
Bhansali also cleverly ran a series of tests in the third-party ads to determine what the optimum number and types of questions on a form were to get maximum response while pre-qualifying leads for various levels of follow-up. Then he applied what he learned to the site's form.
In the meantime, the design team mocked up a variety of site look and feel options, and then tested each via an online usability service (link below.) Design decisions centered on three main areas:
-> Decision Area A: Copy
"My office is 10 feet from the [phone] sales folks and I'm out there every day," notes Bhansali. "We hear over and over again they want to know why their child is struggling, what's really behind their child's lack of success at school."
The design team consciously based the new site's copy on verbiage distilled from hundreds of these overheard conversations. "It's obviously very non-educational language. It's parent-friendly; speaks the way parents speak. To be honest, that's something we're proud of."
Although eSylvan's traffic levels, which is primarily driven through search marketing and house list campaigns (see below), might not change much, the team discovered conversion rates were extremely seasonal. So they decided to test seasonal copy changes.
"During May and June parents typically feel the most sense of urgency, so we needed to be a little more hard-hitting with the message rather than being truly aspirational." Example:
Standard aspirational headline:
"Boost your child's academic performance. Live online tutoring with a caring, certified teacher. Find out more>>"
Seasonal push headline:
"3 Hours a week this Summer = Better grades this Fall! Now enrolling for Summer! Call Now 1-800-379-5826 to get our Online Skills Assessment for just $99!"
Lastly, Bhansali decided to test altering the headline for parents who had visited the site multiple times in the past. These might see a home page with a testimonial or a special offer headline, designed to move them off the mark at last.
-> Decision Area B: Home page elements
Because the majority of new visitors had to be completely educated on the concept of online tutoring, let alone why eSylvan was the best source, plus what action step they should take, the home page needed a lot of content.
Plus, the team wanted to please a variety of surfer types -- including women who like quizzes, Type A personalities who want to take action, TV lovers who want to see video, shoppers who want comparison charts, and readers who want to know more...
So, they ultimately devised a section of the home page to please each different psychographic, including:
- A comparison chart
- A video
- A quick quiz
- A link to a "fun page" for kids
- Links to more info on results, why kids struggle, how the
service works, and price quotes
- A basic 17-word sentence answering the question "What is eSylvan?"
(Note from Bhansali: the last item was the hardest to copywrite, "It's much easier to write 500 words than explain everything we do in just 17 words.")
-> Decision Area C: Layout, navigation, colors
Next the team had to work all these elements into a home page layout that was attractive and usable. They mocked up a variety of layouts (see link to three of these below) and after usability testing settled on a format which put the critical conversion elements above the fold.
They also tested a variety of color schemes -- from a formal "pinstripe" to a single tone site in green or blue, and a collection of peppy primaries. A test panel of roughly 150 parents viewing the site decided the results.
Bhansali had a tough choice between three different navigational directions -- a standard left hand vertical, a box of choices in the center of the page, and a modern top horizontal bar. He finally settled on the latter. (Note: This is a style we're seeing more sites using.)
After six months of tough decisions and repeated tests, the new site launched in November 2003.
Finally Bhansali tweaked eSylvan's lead nurturing campaigns -- emails and printed postcards sent to the house list -- to match the new look and feel. (Link to samples below.)
"Since we put up the new site, ingoing calls have risen by 70%. That's been a huge impact for us," says Bhansali.
The total of $99 intro offer tests that parents booked due to the site offer doubled. The average number of content viewed per visitor was up 56%. And when Bhansali segmented his site pages into "most productive for conversions" versus the rest, he discovered visits to the most productive pages had risen 104%.
Currently in a typical month eSylvan's inbound phone team convert 50-70% of callers into intro offer takers. In comparison, fewer than 10% of leads generated by the outside campaign convert to purchasing. (Note: that's still a very good result.)
Bhansali says despite his concerns, the fairly busy home page isn't off-putting to parents because they like the feeling that there's loads of information to help with their decision. However, "If I could only present two marketing messages ever, they would be the video demonstration and the comparison charts."
In fact, the video has proven so popular that Bhansali moved his crafted 17-word service description below the fold under it, as pictures are more powerful than words. (Now, where have we heard that before?)
The tests of showing return visitors a slightly different headline were also a solid success, with testimonials performing a tiny bit better than a hard offer. "We saw evidence particularly during off-peak times that there is an advantage in taking the home page to a two-tiered user experience. Once you've seen the home page two-three times, we're going to assume you already know the basics and make it a little more geared toward where your mind is right now."
Color tests proved the collection of several primary colors worked the best. The pinstriped look was too corporate, and a single color too boring. Plus, the cheerful primary colors reminded parents of a school atmosphere.
Last but not least, Bhansali also learned to keep typeface large even if that meant some elements of the home page would slide below the fold. "We tested one version using nine-point type and parents did not like that at all!"
In fact, now he's standardizing his HTML email campaigns to the same larger font as the Web.Useful links related to this article:
Before & after screenshots, plus additional creative samples of eSylvan's progress toward a new home page:
Organic - the Web design firm that eSylvan used for their redesign project
VeriTest - the site testing firm that conducted usability tests on the new site prior to public launch
WebTrends - analytics software eSylvan uses to measure results
QuinStreet - the pay-for-performance agency that handles eSylvan's outside lead generation campaigns
VerticalResponse - the email and printed postcard service eSylvan uses for lead nurturing campaigns