The yardstick of success isn’t the number of hits per se, but rather the conversion rate.”

Historically, the most popular web-marketing metric has been traffic. How many visitors come to your website each month? How many unique, how many repeat? The web grew up with “hits” as a common denominator: The more you have, the better you are.

So it’s no wonder web advertising has been primarily concerned with feeding this engine. The mission of click marketing has been to drive traffic to an organization’s website — keep the number of clicks high and the cost-per-click low. The assumption is if you get enough traffic to your site, especially the right kind of traffic, then web advertising has succeeded and your site can take over from there. And because this handoff is viewed as independent, the teams running the advertising may very well be different than those managing the site.

The conversion rate

But that assumption is evolving rapidly. The yardstick of success isn’t the number of hits per se, but rather the conversion rate. When you think about it, this is a fascinating divergence of two very different modes of web marketing: search mode vs. pitch mode.

In search mode the responsibility to “convert” rests squarely on the shoulders of the user. You concentrate on making your site deep, accurate and usable, then rely on search-engine optimization (SEO), affinity links and paid keyword search to point users to your content in whatever context they find relevant.

You give them open-ended “go anywhere from anywhere” navigation throughout your site and then let them introduce themselves to you as a prospect or customer only if and when they think it’s worth it. There are many scenarios — particularly with complex, high-end or innovative products and services — where this mode can be confusing and inefficient for users.

“Pitch mode,” in contrast, funnels those who respond to an ad down an intentionally narrow path. The marketer is in the driver’s seat, crafting a presentation the user sees one screen at a time, usually in a linear sequence. The choices are limited at each step and identify the most relevant needs and characteristics of the respondent so that subsequent pages in the pitch can be tailored accordingly. Everything drives to a conversion event, typically to acquire the respondent’s contact information.

It’s classic direct marketing, genetically pumped up to adapt in real time to each respondent on the dynamic web.

A carefully sequenced pitch

What’s a good example of “pitch mode”? Imagine you’re launching a web-marketing campaign for a new line of hybrid cars. Prospects will click on paid search keywords or banner ads and you could send them to a regular search-and-discover website — but instead you decide to route them to a directed series of web pages (a “landing path” instead of a “landing page”) that delivers a carefully sequenced pitch.

Hybrid cars are ideal for pitch-mode marketing because they are a big-ticket item that comes with complex and innovative — but not particularly well-understood — technology. Many of your prospects are likely to want some guidance in their exploration here.

The first step of your hybrid car landing path would probably be a segmentation choice: Have you ever owned a hybrid before? Most people will click “no,” of course, although a great market for your product is also the owners of competitors’ hybrids, who could be compelled to trade up. Clearly the pitch to these two audiences should be different, so this is a perfect place to branch and adapt your presentation accordingly.

Drilling down at the next level, you might offer forks in your path that further stylize the pitch according to the prospect: urban vs. suburban use, personal vs. business use, etc. Many of these interests are served by the same set of underlying features (gas efficiency, maintenance, safety), but they can be emphasized in ways that make them most relevant to each audience segment. This creates a pitch that’s more like a dialogue.

To “convert” a respondent on the hybrid car path probably means that you collect basic contact information from them — perhaps driven by an offer of a promotional DVD, a high-design literature kit or a free issue of Green Car Journal magazine.

Hybrid cars are one example, but you can envision a similar approach in markets for novel or luxury travel, shared services for small- to medium-sized businesses, financial advising, executive education and so on.

The ad is the first step

In pitch mode the ad that initiates the click can have a much tighter connection with the post-click marketing path. The ad is essentially the first step of the pitch, and what follows should be a seamless experience.

The “experience” is the key in pitch mode — and this is territory where creative agencies can bring their full talents to bear. Crafting an effective and engaging landing path — or paths tied to different online advertising placements — is considerably more work than simply publishing the usual suspects of specs, case studies and news blurbs on a regular website for search-mode surfers. It’s a shift from producing brand-compatible content to producing an actual brand-building encounter. And while such experiences are more expensive, they can outperform more passive web marketing in net results. And because conversions track easily with sales, there’s a clear way to see return on investment.

Although hits matter in pitch mode, because they give you a sense of how well your ads and their placements are pulling, the real metric to watch is your conversion rate. Better yet, if you segment respondents based on their choices along the path, you can also measure the conversion rate within each segment. This can be much more accurate and enlightening than traditional traffic analysis. It also gives you insight into respondents who segment but don’t convert, the often large and mysterious group of “abandoners.”

Doesn’t replace search

Pitch mode doesn’t necessarily eliminate search mode. We often recommend that pitch mode paths contain “escape hatches” that let search-oriented respondents jump to your regular website for a more nondeterministic surfing experience. In many situations, users will still prefer the freedom of browsing on their own terms.

However, when it’s time to make a solid pitch in a web-marketing campaign, both the marketer and the respondent can appreciate a little more structure. Traffic is good, but ultimately it’s all about conversion.

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