Talking Conversion Optimization with Karl Gilis: “It’s not because you have a brilliant idea that it will work”

Online selling has never been easier, yet few companies actually know how to connect with their audience on a deeper, human level in the digital world.

Selling online shouldn’t be much different than traditional face-to-face, in-store selling, says Karl Gilis, Co-Founder of AG Consult, one of the best-known Usability and Conversion Optimization agencies in Belgium.

For the fourth year a keynote speaker at GPeC SUMMIT, Karl is a world famous UX and conversion optimization expert, most known for his funny ways of putting e-commerce into perspective.

We talked to Karl about the strategies of surviving and thriving on the digital market, the role of customer centricity in a company’s success, how to write good product copy for e-commerce and how to find your true tone of voice.

Here are the key takeaways from the interview, that you can read below. Or you can watch the 20-minute video on Youtube.

  • When companies die, most of the time it’s because they lose connection with their clients.
  • A good salesperson asks you a few questions, understands your situation and then tries to sell something to you. Online you have to do the same thing.
  • If you give your visitors what they are looking for, then you will sell to them. The best way of selling is not selling.
  • Put yourself in the place of the customer. Define some key messages and use the word “YOU” all the time! It’s a simple trick.
  • If you want to please everybody, nobody will love you.
  • Never stop evolving as a company! The moment you stop, you’re going down. It’s always work, work, work.
  • A lot of A/B tests are about the outer layer: is red better than green? That’s tweaking bullshit.
  • If you don’t ask feedback, you can never improve.
  • Technologies have changed, but what a person expects from a company has not changed. What makes people happy has not changed.

What were the main ideas of your keynote this year at GPeC SUMMIT?

Karl Gilis: I think there’s a lot of bullshit going around about digital transformation.

What I pointed out [in my keynote] is that when companies die, most of the time it’s because they lose connection with their clients. They don’t understand the frustrations of their clients anymore.

And when you do research, the main reason 68% of people say they stopped being a client is because they have the feeling that the company doesn’t care about them. The company treats them as a number. That’s why customer centricity is really really important.

That’s number one. Number two is how can you do it? I talked about targeted service asking one question at the right time on your website. One question is “Why are you looking for a solution?”. “Why do you want to buy this product?”. But I see on many websites that the marketing copy is way too far for people and people don’t recognize themselves.

I used the examples of a fridge and a carport. Most of the product descriptions talk about the product, but they don’t talk about the customer.

I’m looking for carports because I hate it to get into a hot car on a day like this or, in the winter, in a cold car that I have to scrape the ice from my windshield.

I’m looking for a fridge because my current fridge broke down, it’s not working anymore.

And that first step is so important in your copy, that people can recognise “Aha, yeah yeah! They understand my question!” That’s what a good salesperson in a physical store would do. It’s not just “I’m looking for your fridge” and they say “OK, this is our most expensive fridge. Bite!” That would be a horrible salesperson.

A good salesperson asks you a few questions, then understands your situation and then he will sell something to you. And online you have to do the same thing.

What is customer centricity?

Karl Gilis: The definition is to, really, everything you do, put the customer at the center, at the heart of everything.

I told the story about Kodak. In my age, we grew up with Kodak. They were in the film industry and everybody that took a photo used Kodak. When Kodak started out, their slogan was: “You push the button, we do the rest.” That’s customer centricity. You only have to push the button, we develop the film, we make the film, we do everything for you.

And then the strange thing is that Kodak invented the digital camera in ’75, way long before it came on the market, and they said “We are not going to put it on the market because the digital camera will kill the film business.” And that’s the moment that the company lost touch with the customer. Because Kodak was not in the film business, Kodak was in the business of collecting memories, sharing memories, and the digital cameras was a solution for that.

And that’s a very difficult thing. That’s a very thin line: companies caring about themselves, about business, about selling stuff, or, “Hey, we care about you!” We understand you! And if you give your visitors, your customers, what they are looking for, the questions to their answers, their fears, then you will sell to them.

The best way of selling is not selling.

Speaking about selling, what’s your take on writing persuasive product copy?

Karl Gilis: We just finished working for an e-commerce company selling everything. And what I saw there was that the copywriters, they were horrible at their job. Because they wanted to write copy, but they didn’t think about the consumer, about the customer.

During the talk I gave, I gave an example about a terrace heater, a patio heater. In one of the products the description was like: “We have two heating systems, 5 KW-12 KW. If you think it’s too hot and turn it down to 5 kilowatt and when you put it on full power, it consumes between 470 and 800 grams of gas. And the diameter is 81 cm.” And I’m like, nobody cares! That’s too technical!

The copy that you get from your providers, if you’re not selling your own products, if it’s about specifications, it’s bullshit copy.

Then I showed another example, where they said, “This heater can heat the evenings, when the temperature drops to 15 degrees, for 25 square meters.” And it’s like, “Ah, now I understand!” And if you put it on full power, it will consume about 2 euros per hour”. And it’s like, “Aaah, I understand!” It’s the same thing as those 500 and 800 grams.

And that’s what you should do for every single product: understand what triggers your users. What do they want to know about the product. Put yourself in the place of a customer. Define some key messages and use the word “YOU” all the time! It’s a simple trick. It’s not “I and our terrace heater”, it’s like “YOU can…” You, the customer! “YOUR terrace will be heated!” It will consume, it will cost you two euros.

In that product description I think we had 8 times the word “you”. And the other one, the boring product description, there was one occurrence of the word “you”.

What are other tips and tricks in terms of writing copy that really converts?

Karl Gilis: Start from the frustration of the customer. If you don’t know what the frustration of the customer is, just ask it.

Do we have enough information? What is the main reason you don’t buy this product? And when people buy a product, to survey what is the main reason you bought it? And is there something you hesitated? And then you will understand what people are really looking for. And with those answers you can rewrite your copy and make it even better.

What is the most important learning in usability work?

Karl Gilis: For me, the last 2-3 years as usability people, we used to focus a lot on technical issues, design issues, is everything in the right place? And that was important, it still is. But most websites are design-wise kind of okay now.

Then we started to take away friction and to look at the solutions. And now it’s all about trying to understand why some people don’t buy from you. And if we understand that and why do they buy from a competitor, we can adapt our message. It’s okay if some people don’t buy from you because you’re too funny, or you’re using strong language. That’s okay. But you have to find your tone of voice.

What if you have a product that doesn’t really solve a frustration or a problem?

Karl Gilis: Then you have a problem. Most of the time, that’s a problem for your business. So, if you’re selling something like, super thing, toilet paper.. don’t go in that kind of business, because the big e-commerce companies will take it. So, if it’s very common things, don’t do it! The big boys will kill you! And if you developed an app or made something that nobody is waiting for, then you have a problem.

It’s not because you have a brilliant idea that it will work.

Suppose you were just starting on the e-commerce market. How do you find that key marketing message, that tone of voice, that first copy that really converts? Do you have some processes, some techniques that you, guys, at your agency apply?

Karl Gilis: Yeah, we do, but in the beginning it’s always difficult. One thing I always say: “Just don’t copy an existing thing!” Because it already exists. It’s there for a reason. Try to find out something that you really believe in and that makes yourself unique.

One of our missions with everything we do is that I want to make people laugh at least once or twice with every page on our website. Sometimes I use irony, I use a special kind of humor, so that means that a lot of people don’t like me. But most of them are okay with it, that’s my tone of voice.

If you want to please everybody, nobody will love you! You have to have people really like you / don’t like you and then you have to, like I said, work with your clients once they come in and, in the beginning, you have to adapt your message. There is no company in the world that started like “Pow!” I’m sure that companies like Nike and Apple, they changed over time.

Nike, for example, is a brilliant company! Everybody knows Nike. Everybody loves Nike. Nike never talks about their products in their advertising. Never! It’s always about “Just do it! Become a better version of yourself!”. They never talk about this shoe does this and this and this. Never! You can reach your potential, you can have a happy life, just do it! And that’s so important to see: you can sell without selling.

What else can you do with all these optimizations you do?

Karl Gilis: You can do a lot of things. That’s the beauty of it. But the problem is that… So, you can do the customer research, that’s one thing. If you have enough visitors and enough sales on your website you can start with A/B testing. And then you can discover a lot of things and you can really see, like, if I change this sentence with another one and I change my message towards this one, will it help me sell more or not?

I always try to experiment. Never stop evolving as a company. The moment you stop, you’re going down. It’s always work, work, work!

What’s your piece of advice in terms of experimentation and iterating on copy, on experiments, A/B testing?

Karl Gilis: If you do A/B testing, you should have a process. Not test on your gut feeling. Gut feeling is bullshit. In every show I do it, I serve two versions and everybody in the audience is wrong. So it shows that your gut feeling is rubbish.

If you have done your research, that’s the first thing. Where are the problems on my website? Where do I lose money? Where aren’t people doing what I expect? Then try to find out why is it with surveys, for example. Then you can have a good hypothesis, and then you can have a good A/B test.

In your A/B test you can change several things on one page, that’s okay, but it should be things that change the behavior of your visitor. A lot of A/B tests are about the outer layer: is red better than green? If I put this there.. Nah, that’s tweaking bullshit!

You should go deeper. How can I change that behavior, the way the customers think in that they’re like, “Wow, I want this product!” That’s the ultimate thing. That’s selling. It’s like, “I want this, I need it now!” And those are the copy things that you have to change.

How do you recommend them to get into their customers’ minds? Through service or through qualitative data?

Karl Gilis: It’s both of them. You have some quantitative methods, like the scroll it maps, user it maps, click it maps. They’re very good. They’re there for fixing problems. So, that’s the first start. And then you have to go more in-depth. I think the online service with open questions for us it’s wow! We get big results with it.

How many results are enough?

Karl Gilis: It depends. If it’s a general question we can go to two or three results. But if it’s on one page and you have ten results and four people say the same thing, then you have a pattern.

Then you have to adapt it, because there’s something missing. If it’s only one person, then you have to use your brains like, “Is this a good question or is it that this will be the exception and you have to adapt your copy all the time?”

If you don’t ask feedback, you can never improve. And then you can do user testing if you want; that’s a noble method. But I think, for us, surveys have become the most important method. And the beauty of it is if you do a user test, you have five or ten people. It’s good, but it’s mainly good to see: can they work with my website? Do they understand it?

With a survey you reach all your visitors, so that’s a quantitative method. Because you ask an open question we have a one-to-one relation with that visitor. So it’s a nice mixture between quantitative and qualitative research. The input you get, this is gold.

Are there any UX trends at the moment?

Karl Gilis: Most of the time I hate trends, especially in UX, because most of the UX trends are about the outer layer, they’re about visual things on the website…

Let’s call them different. Let’s call them best practices.

… that we had 20 years ago, they’re still rules now. And they will be rules in 20 years time.

One of the most often asked questions to me is: Karl, you live in a business that changes so fast! The internet, you have to adapt all the time! I’m like.. for me it’s just the same. In 20 years nothing has changed.

Technologies have changed. Desktop turned to mobile. There will be voice search, there will be… The outer layer has changed. Technologies have changed, but what a person expects from a company has not changed. What makes people happy has not changed.

Sometimes I have the feeling that I’m always telling the same story. One of the other speakers today, Gerry McGovern, is one of my friends in business, but he was also one of my big inspirations 15 or 16 years ago. And we had a discussion yesterday about what frustrates you the most and we were like “We’re saying the same stuff for 20 years!”.

Once again, the outer layer changes, but the focus on the customer is like what Amazon makes so successful, it’s what Apple is doing, Zalando, Airbnb… It’s customer centricity.

Uber! It’s very popular here in Romania. It became so successful because they took away frustrations that clients from the classic taxi companies had. How can I get hold of a taxi? How do I know that the taxi will be there? When does it arrive, can I pay with a credit card or not? How much will it cost? And Uber softtens all those frustrations.

And the taxi companies were angry. In Belgium, Uber is not allowed. They went to court. But they shouldn’t be angry. They should be saying “Why didn’t we think of it?” When somebody in your business takes over your business, it means that you have failed. You have failed because you didn’t see the frustrations of your customers. And that’s why we all move to Uber, because they took away frustrations.

To resume this interview, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give to entrepreneurs in the online business?

Karl Gilis: Talk to your customers! Just talk with them. Don’t think you know it all. That was one of my biggest problems 10 or 15 years ago in this business. I felt like I know it all! Later on, I realised I was on top of mount stupidity. It’s impossible to know it all, so talk to your customers! They give you your money.

But it’s not about money, it’s about their loyalty, it’s about their customership, so you have to understand what they like about your brand, and what they don’t like about your brand. Talk to them!

Check out the entire interview on YouTube. Don’t forget to subscribe to our Youtube Channel to make sure you watch our interviews and video transmissions as soon as they go live.

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