Path in a Japanese garden, by Bucknut at DeviantArtFasten up, this is a long post on the subject of emotional landscaping. First: how exactly do you turn a prospective customer into a paying one? And down below, my take on how it works for all you good people selling coaching and counselling as opposed to widgets.

You can find previous posts in the series here:
Website to Wonderful, 1: Makeover Edition (Introduction)
Website to Wonderful, 2: How not to make your visitors’ eyeballs bleed
Website to Wonderful, 3: Designing your site with real users in mind

If the product’s good, the path should match

We built a garden office this summer, which I’ve just moved into. It’s a lovely space, tall and airy. Unfortunately, in the course of building the studio, the builders (aided eagerly by the dog) trashed the garden completely. Right now, the journey from side gate to studio involves a muddy dash and a stagger over the potholes.

It’s great once you get there, but the journey is not very pretty.

I feel a metaphor coming on.

In my last post, we looked at all of the different kinds of customer journey, small and large, that you need to consider when putting your site together. Today’s post addresses the core online journey - how your readers and prospects become actual customers. (And how you can make that easier)

If your site provides something of value, then there is a point – maybe one point or many – where your site visitor says yes, I can act. They can enter their details, invoke Paypal and Visa, ask for more information, book a tour…but whatever the site offers, they can commit with confidence. (They can also be worried or excited about their commitment, but that’s a slightly different thing)

You need to lay out good paths

Your site needs to create good pathways from initial visit to eventual purchase. Not my wobbly studio path with its mud, but a simple path of exploration and discovery that makes becoming a customer into a natural next step.

To extend the metaphor, we’re looking for a confident step or jump into being a customer. You do not want your customer to come to a shuddering halt at the edge of a sudden steep drop.

What does that mean on the web?

Here my metaphor falls over. Websites don’t have physical paths. So what can a website owner do to make sure that prospective customers appreciate what they have to offer, and are able to become customers confidently?

There are two sides to this. On the one hand, you always have to offer something that people genuinely desire. On the other, you need to make that path smooth, removing the obstacles that exist to making a commitment online.

The details vary from one domain to another, but let’s consider this for some different types on online enterprise. As I run through, take a look at the domains that are outside your own experience, and consider whether there’s something you can apply to your own world.

Paths  for product sites

For someone selling a physical product online, the web design is fundamental to success. Above all, the site acts as a bright window display. Prospective customers need to be attracted to the product, through good deals, great photography, detailed specifications and motivating descriptions. They need to feel that they almost have it in their hands. And they need to trust the site, either as a known brand or through its guarantees.

If the site is unknown, the customer is constantly evaluating risk versus reward: it looks like a great deal, but: will the product really be that good? And if it all goes wrong will I get my money back (without a fight)?

Good product sites (even start-ups) minimise the sense of risk.

Paths for software providers

The developers of software products have also come up with a standard sort of approach. Their websites usually provide a simple explanation of the problem that the product solves, together with a list of features.

This is supported by demonstrations of the product in action – dramatisations, virtual tours, animations, FAQs – and case histories of happy, important users.

Software sites tackle typical questions that their buyers have: Will this do what I want? Is it easy to use? Will it work for me? Is it worth the investment? Do people that I admire use it?

Good software sites work hard to show the product in action, to make it really come alive for prospective buyers. And then they make it easy, by offering short software trials that allow users to test drive the product before making a decision.

Long and winding paths for online services

And so we come to online services. Here, I’m thinking of coaching, teaching, training, and e-learning. Experiential products, if you like.

These products are highly dependent on relationships (both real and imagined) between the coach and the customer, and they are frequently co-constructed.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example. Perhaps you take an online class in making your old photos into a digital scrapbook (I haven’t yet, but I’ve considered it). You might sign up for the class because you adore the class leader and everything that she writes.

Your feelings about the class will relate to your own personal journey with the material, and the extent to which it engaged you and stretched you. In many ways, you become the product: the training merely facilitates the transformation.

If you took the class half-heartedly, or misunderstood its aims, or it wasn’t what you expected, you might end up feeling that you wasted your money. If it went well, you may be absolutely delighted.

A piece of successful coaching is almost a three-way fit: the right coach, the right customer, and the right process or plan to give the customer a successful outcome.

The business of choosing and committing to an online coach is likely to be drawn out over a period of time, compared with the simple product purchase. There are the same issues of risk, and trust, and money-back guarantees as with any other product, but it’s a deeply personal matching process.

How can online coaches improve the path for prospective buyers?

Here are three kinds of pre-purchase experience that help people to commit to these more experiential services. (And if this really isn’t what you sell, read on anyway: there’s a lot that you can take away and apply).

1. Create a relationship through your vivid presence

Lots of coaches blog – and the blog is really the heart of the imagined relationship that your prospective customer has with you. Your language, the things you talk about, the solutions you offer, your world view, your beliefs are all right there in your articles. It may just be a reading relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless.

Your style with your audience (and probably with your one-to-one customer) is right there on the page. It’s there in the way that you respond to comments or build community. If you don’t have comments, and yet you have lots of readers, I will bet that your writing style invites people into your world and resonates with their issues.

People read you, and they begin to feel at home in your space.

I could write a whole other piece on blog content, but for now just consider: what are you saying? What’s the conversation you are having? Is it trustworthy? Is it reliable? What sort of business does your writing represent?

Writing is of course very different to voice or face-to-face contact. It’s lovely, but it’s two- dimensional.

You need to come alive from the page.

But not in a spooky way.

If your service is live, then demonstrate your best live self, through audio, video, webinars and Q&A calls. Voice is wonderfully distinctive for many people. Video is fab, but it’s harder to do well.

So, maximise the experience of yourself, using the methods that are best for you.

2. Provide a safe virtual experience

The next best thing to trying something out for yourself is watching someone else try it. It’s not quite as good, but it’s safe and often very informative. As a customer, you can use these to fit yourself in the frame.

Examples of these include case histories, reviews, features and diaries. These are worthwhile if they’re authentic; unfortunately, increasingly they’re a little bit gamed. Third-party reviews can look good, but if they are all from your friends, that’s a little less useful.

The phrase ‘social proof’ is sometimes used here (show that you have hundreds of Facebook fans, for example), but I think it’s a bit misleading. The best proof is the uptake by people like you, or by people that you admire and identify with.

Case histories have the value of demonstrating the whole process to people, and that can be extremely helpful. It shows the breadth of your offering, not just a magic before and after.

3. Set up test drives and trials

Smaller versions of the real experience are extremely valuable.

These could be small services, free courses, sample chapters, e-books, taster sessions – just real but smaller embodiments of more expensive services. Small commitments that let people test out you and your process.

Packaged trials are less emotive – and probably less powerful – than live trials and tests (like free 20-minute coaching calls). Live test drives help people to decide if they have a fit with you, and they also build emotional bonds of trust and commitment.

But bear in mind that test drives tend to imply near-to-final commitment. You don’t usually take up the offer of a test drive unless you are already part-committed.

As I said earlier, if you don’t offer live trial, then audio and written samples can substitute. (Video is great, too, but it’s usually harder to pull off)

It’s all about finding a fit, helping the reader decide whether this feels like the right relationship for them, and whether you and your services will actually deliver the results that you claim.

The customer is balancing desire and risk, just as they do with physical products, but the stakes are usually higher. Virtual tours and safe trials help to eliminate the risks.

So, action.

How can you put this into practice for your own situation?

Take a look at your site, and check your answers to the following questions:

  • How safe is it for my customers to buy what I’m selling? (Why?)
  • Do I communicate the product/service really well, so that people get exactly what they expected, if not more?
  • Do I show people how it works in practice?
  • If I’m pretty much the product, am I building the positive case for choosing me, through the things that I say and write?
  • Do I give people the opportunity to try out my services, virtually and safely?
  • Do I minimise the jump on the path, so that it’s a hop (or a dive)?

Would love your thoughts, especially on any actions it suggests to you.  Do share, retweet, all of that good stuff.  I’m off to do some voice recording, try out some video and phone a landscaper.


Crowd, by MissCrash, via DeviantArt

Yes, it’s time to talk about what user experience types grandly refer to as ‘user journeys’. The word ‘journey’ does sound somewhat major, but don’t get caught out: some of those journeys are the pixellated exquivalent of popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk, rather than crossing the Andes by hovercraft.

As site owners, we mostly try to steer people towards the Grand Journeys that we want to promote and we utterly neglect the small everyday journeys that are also important. A good website will handle all of the journeys, more or less elegantly.

Let’s brainstorm. (Big piece of paper)

Why do people come to your site?

  • to check you out
  • to shop around for The Kind of Stuff You Have
  • to find out how much Your Kind of Thing costs and how much the postage is
  • to buy your Big Thing, obviously! Yay!

…OK, now the boring stuff…

  • to find a photograph of the managing director
  • to download a report
  • to find a phone number
  • to look at your press release archive

…and the painful stuff….

  • to find something for their homework assignment.
  • to argue with other commenters about your last blog post
  • to see if you’ve got any jobs going
  • to find a vaguely valid email address
  • to find out your address so that they can show up for their meeting with the Finance Director/come to the December Health and Safety Committee meeting/come for a job interview/protest outside your offices, accurately.

I could go on.

Many of those tasks are not very interesting to you.
Many of those people are not really of much value to you (pfft, students).

There are customers and prospects in there, it’s true.  Hooray! They can stay! But there are also suppliers, colleagues, bosses, competitors, jobseekers, students, and what you may call shameless freeloaders.


It is tempting just to chat to serious prospects and customers waving actual money in your face, but you really have to do more.

How to tackle it

Let’s group those user goals into categories. I’ve come up with 5 for the list up there, although there are may be a few more to represent every type of website. Down below, I discuss how you might want to handle these different types of journey on your site.

1. Standard business courtesy -> Make it lovely

Emails, address and phone number.  Opening hours. These matter a lot to your people, so make them easy to find.  I’ve always thought that the postal address/map/directions page can say a lot about an organisation.  It’s easy to make these pleasant and creative, introducing people to a sense of you and your organisation.

The absence of some of these details also sends cues to website visitors. If you are selling physical products and do not list a postal address, you will be deterring some customers.

Your Page Not Found error message is also a place for brand-related hilarity, or whatever the IT department decides to put there.

2. Non-core requests ->Package it

This is the busywork that can take up a lot of your time. You may not be able to remove it altogether, but you can allow the site to handle a great deal of it.

For example, if you never use recruitment agencies, you can state that on a page.  You can use frequently asked questions, you can have a press release archive, or you can make up homework packs for all the schoolchildren who are endlessly asking about your green policies.

3. Reading, commenting, sharing -> Design for right action

How you design these really does depend on your deep goals.  Your business blog might be a window for your ideas, largely meant to impress prospective customers. Or it may be more of a salon, or a highly interactive community.

Your style will determine some of the reader reaction, but you can also design for the type of interaction that you hope for. So if you want people to share your pieces with other, make it easy to share. Simple.

4. Window-shopping ->Provide the detail

This is one of the most important functions of your website: attracting people in, getting on their shortlist ready to be involved with you more in the future.

This means giving people the detail needed to make a good decision. It’s also likely to mean writing and designing your detail with a particular audience in mind, not trying to cater to everyone. For a physical product, it means great quality images and good descriptions that don’t neglect important details.

5. Buying -> Make it simple and pleasant to buy

There is a lot to say on this topic alone. For now, I’ll focus on one thing: Make the online transaction as lovely and rewarding as the thing that you are providing, so that they are likely to come back.

This takes time and work and not a little research. But the rewards are great.

More on these last two points, later in the series.

The thing is: know exactly what your visitors will want from you, including the stuff that doesn’t especially interest you. Then create a site which offers nice pathways for all these different categories of use. Yes, some users will take priority, but a good site will cater for all of the people with an interest in your work.

Previous posts in the series can be found here:
Part 1: Website to Wonderful, Makeover Edition
Part 2:
Usability, or How not to make your visitors’ eyeballs bleed



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