The Slippery Side Effect of a Frictionless Funnel

April 17, 2017

I've been thinking a lot about conversion rate optimization (CRO) lately. The word "conversion" has been in the news recently, and not in the best light. That word doesn't sound friendly to me. It sounds forceful. I'm sure whoever or however the concept became an in-demand skill didn't mean it to sound as forceful as say, conversion therapy. It is after all a scientific and proven method to increase funnel efficiency. At face value though, conversion rate optimization sounds like you're forcing someone through a funnel, not pulling them in by aligning with their desires.

In this post I want to talk about some of the problems that arise when marketers stop thinking of their users as people, and start thinking of their users as numbers. What happens when they remove friction without considering its value to the health of the business. I'll start with a somewhat unconventional way of describing friction in a conversion funnel, and then we'll get into the unforeseen side-effects that make heavy-handed CRO a high-risk activity.

What Friction Actually Is

Site visitors need to trust your website to deliver that awesome eBook if they fill out a website form. Prospects need to trust your company enough to sign up for a trial and see if it lives up to the expectation you've set. If you look at it through this lens, conversion points are really 'trust points,' and friction in the funnel is actually trust building. Ah that sounds so much better, doesn't it?

In this frame of mind, conversion rate optimization becomes 'trust rate optimization' -- and the marketer isn't motivated to move people through a funnel just for the sake of hitting their number; they're actually finding ways to build trust faster (or less often, decrease the trust needed to buy). As long as we think of friction as the absence of trust, we can see CRO (the process of removing friction) as a healthy endeavor.

What Is the Purpose of Friction?

But that doesn’t mean we should make our #1 goal removing all friction in the funnel. Here’s why.

To me, friction in a conversion funnel as neither good nor bad. But to most people, friction -- or the effort it takes for someone to move from stage A to stage B in your conversion funnel -- is often considered bad. After all, anything that keeps people from converting into a lead, or a customer, is bad -- right?

Not always. Particularly in the unit economics-driven SaaS world, where it can take 6 months for more or a customer's lifetime value (your revenue) to surpass their cost of acquisition (your cost), a 'bad-fit customer' becomes an expensive liability.

With this in mind, friction is there for a reason - to keep the bad prospects out, and let the good customers in. It's our business' semipermeable membrane, and it has an innate equilibrium that I'll describe in the next paragraph. A decade ago, qualifying opportunities was the job of sales. A new lead would come in, and a sales rep would determine if they were a potentially a good fit customer or not, and if so, an opportunity was born. In digital marketing, we have that responsibility now too. We have to consider whether we're removing too much friction and letting unqualified people move through our funnel.

Friction behaves in equilibrium.

You might be thinking: 'But a higher volume at the top of the funnel means more people will qualify at the bottom, right?' Not always, and particularly not when you're impacting that number through conversion rate optimization. In a CRO scenario, you're not increasing the absolute number of potential eyeballs to move through your funnel, you're increasing the percentage of an existing set of eyeballs to move on to the next stage. See the difference?

Our friends in sales have long known what happens when they get bad-fit customer to sign on. Their services team counterparts have to pick up that slack, because the user likely feels swindled. All of the friction removed from the sales function gets pushed over to the services function who now has to educate the un-fit customer of what they really purchased and how it hopefully still may provide some value to them.

In this way, friction, or trust-building, never actually goes away - it just gets moved around your funnel. And that's why equilibrium is so important.

Let's move up a level in our theoretical funnel. When marketing sends unqualified people over to sales, sales is going to do their best to close them, and now both sales and services have to pick up the trust-building slack for marketing. If we go even further, and think of the product team as the final piece of the funnel - now they're making product decisions based on the unfit users that marketing, sales, and services, carried over to them. Services will inevitably make process changes and decisions based on their experience servicing those unfit users, as will sales. Now, you've let a whole cohort of crappy users enter the customer base, when they shouldn't have even gotten to sales in the first place - and it has created a butterfly effect throughout the company.

That, my friends, is the slippery side-effect of a frictionless funnel. It takes a certain amount of trust to sign on for your product and if your CRO efforts displace that trust-building on to other departments of your organization, you will wind up costing your company more than you generated for them. If you, however, figure out ways to decrease the required trust to buy, or build that trust faster, then you're really doing CRO for the good of the company.

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