November 08, 2004
Case Study

How to Raise Online Classified Sales with a Site Redesign

SUMMARY: Want to sell more classifieds online?'s sales were plummeting, until they conducted a radical site revamp. Now sales are over $1 million per year. Their lessons learned include:

- Yes, you can get renewal income from classifieds.

- Test where you put the "upload photo" box.

- $100 is still a nasty price hump.

- Accept offline submissions for online ads.

Our Case Study includes useful screenshots to inspire your Web designer:

When David Scifres took over as General Manager of two years ago, he inherited a classified listing site that was in the midst of a dangerous freefall. Sales were down 30% over the previous year and RV dealers - the mainstay of the listings business - were bolting en masse: less than half of the previous year's dealers were still left on board. is an online classified listing service for buyers and sellers of recreational vehicles. Established in 1996, it's also the only exclusively online property of the Affinity Group which runs 17 other print or print/Web combo properties all targeting the "RV lifestyle."

The target audience is a well-to-do, fiercely loyal, and active demographic with an estimated 12.5 million RV'ers who buy and sell an average of 4-5 vehicles every 10 years.

And these rigs are anything but cheap: RVs can easily run $200-400K a piece.

Scifres knew, as Affinity's only site without a big brother print publication to bolster its brand, was particularly vulnerable. Plus the leading competitor,, is owned by the mammoth Trader Publishing Group, which also cross-promotes sibling sites including and


With revenue plummeting, didn't have the luxury of time or money for extended site usability lab tests. Scifres needed a new site up in weeks, and he had a budget cap of only $15,000 to cover both testing and redesign.

Step one: Quickly analyze the current site

The project team performed a heuristic evaluation of the site's current usability to determine what factors could be changed to help conversions. (Heuristic is a fancy term coined by usability expert Jakob Nielsen in the mid-1990s to mean in effect, a few experts, who know what proven best practices are, will review your site to spot glaring problems.)

Step two: Run a two-part survey

Were the expert's conclusions correct? The team found out by asking the ultimate experts, the users.

The team devised an online survey consisting of some 50 critical questions including multiple choice and open ended questions. But, Web surfers, even your fans, are unlikely to spend more than a handful of minutes on a survey.

So, the survey was interactive, allowing users to branch down shorter, personalized pathways depending on prior answers. Two respondents might see an entirely different set of questions depending on their answers; and no one saw the full 50.

As a result, most people completed the survey in a quick five minutes.

To boost responses, the survey was promoted across all relevant Affinity Group sites. Affinity also sent an emailed invite to their opt-in list.

Participants were offered no incentive. Scifres says, "Users were pleased just that they were being included in the redesign effort, that they could make a difference." A statistically-healthy 750 responses came back in the first three days.

Next, participants who opted-in and provided their email address were invited to a second and then third survey round where the team was able to show off their new layouts and listing options. (Link to sample second survey question below.)

Step three: Revamping the classified order process online

Changes were made extremely quickly -- while the survey was still going on in fact -- and were eventually implemented on almost every element of the site from logo to search page.

Change A. Testing 16 pricing options

At the time the site only offered one classified pricing option: an annual fee for $79. Scifres wondered, who wants to list an RV for a year when most vehicles sell in 6-8 weeks? (Never mind the fact that competitors were already offering shorter listing options.) tested sixteen different price and term combinations from a few weeks to various annual fees; juggling the twin desires of a highly popular price versus a highly profitable one.

Change B. Making "upload photo" incredibly easy

Photos are a critical element in online automotive classifieds. In the past had asked classifieds buyers to postal mail in photos (or digital post locations) for their online ads.

This isn't as crazy as it seems. "You have to remember that RV owners are not necessarily the most computer savvy, but they're literate enough to know the Internet is the right place to sell a vehicle," Scifres says. In fact, many used dial-up accounts via payphones to access their email.

While the team decided to continue allowing postal mail-ins, they tested adding online upload in two different sections of the check-out process:

o Test 1. Put upload photos near the very first step in the classified ordering process (right next to the fields where you type in text for your ad).

o Test 2. Putting photo upload at the very end of the check-out, after the customer's credit card is processed.

For both tests, rather than making folks deal with rules about accepted file types and size, purchased software from True Spectra (now a part of image processing giant Scene7) that allowed customers to upload files in any format without worry. The photos would be converted automatically to the correct format.

Change C. Chopping the long order form into five pages

Every step of the vehicle listing and check-out process (including credit card info) was on a single form on a very long page. The team redesigned the page into five, clearly numbered, easy-to-follow screens. (See below for link to screenshots.)

Global site navigation was removed from all check-out screens. "The last thing we want is for someone to click out of the check-out when they're about to give over their credit card," Scifres explains.

Change D. Adding a "sample ad" promo page

Just in case prospective classified buyers hadn't taken the time to surf the active listings for themselves, the team added a link to a "Sample Ad" off the site's home page. But, instead of just showing any old ad, it showed a best-of ad, and also included marketing copy detailing the eight benefits of placing ads with


Since the final round of changes launched, consumers considering placing classifieds at convert at an 83% higher rate from shoppers to classified buyers.

In addition, dealers like the site's new look. 36 dealers advertised on the site before the revamp, now 140 do.

Today, is the number two RV classified site after, with revenues in the low seven figures and an average of 16,000-20,000 vehicles listed at any given time, up fourfold from the 3,000-4,000 they started with before the redesign.

-> Surveys:

Two-step feedback surveys are a fabulous idea for site redesigns. 70% of the initial 750 survey respondents actively participated in the second survey round.

-> Pricing:

Four of the 16 prices tested proved to be clear winners: Four weeks for $59.95, eight weeks for $69.95, 12 weeks for $79.95 and an annual plan for $89.95.

The four and eight week plans ranked highest in the test... and still do ("they flip flop back and forth," Scifres says). The year option, surprisingly, actually comes in at #3, primarily because it's only $10 more than the 12 week option, Scifres speculates.

Providing customers with more pricing options made a big difference too. The new pricing was rolled out after just three weeks of testing, before any other design changes were made. Sales rose immediately by 100%. At the six month point, sales were up 200% -- a four times increase in consumer revenue.

The worst-responding test -- $109 for the annual category. Going over the $100 hump "it totally blew off the sales for that option" and was quickly discontinued.

Most surprising test -- a strong demand for renewals. "Many customers will sign up for the lowest price offer of four weeks," he says, "and then sign up again for another 4-8 weeks. We even get people who will sign up for the year plan as a renewal."

Renewals now account for 10-20% of's revenue.

-> Photos:

Moving photo upload from the start to the very end of the classified purchase process was a huge winner.

Investing in the software to make photo uploads super easy, no matter what format or size a customer used, was well worth it. "There are more problems with uploading photos than probably anything else," Scifres explains. "You have to locate the photo on your hard drive, make sure it's in the right format. Some customers would attempt to upload 1 MB pictures as bitmaps or in PDF format. Others would get so intimidated by the option, they'd bail out entirely."

-> Final lesson -- allow offline submissions

Despite the revamp and ease-of-use, some 20% of classified orders to the site still come in by phone, fax and mail. If you don't allow offline orders (even for an online-only publication), you're missing out on potential revenues.

Useful links related to this story:

Screenshots of's classified check-out process:

Experience Dynamics, the vendor that helped with the usability analysis, user interface design and the online user research (survey tool):

Image processing vendor Scene7:

Parent company Affinity Group:

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