One of the highlights of last week’s Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, for me, was hearing Doug Breaker’s presentation on conversion optimization — turning Web visitors into customers. I’ve written in this column previously (see: "Your own real estate ‘best practices’ " and "39 tech things to test and try") about conversion optimization. So I was psyched to hear him talk.

His presentation included an in-depth analysis of a pickle-of-the-month club vs. a $40 PDF download for a diet plan (watch for the video at Inman.com). A tool he uses for his conversion optimization work, he said, is an equation for understanding how to make things better.

One of the variables in his equation represents friction. Friction is anything that might slow down a visitor or prevent the visitor from accomplishing a site task. For example, if you have a real estate website that is built for capturing leads, anything that discourages visitors from completing the lead-generation form represents friction.

The classic example on this is the lead form that asks people to fill in many fields: first name, last name, current street address, current town name, current state, current ZIP code, phone number, evening phone number, cell number, e-mail address, etc., etc.

Every one of those fields represents an opportunity for the site visitor to say to themselves, "Nah … I’ll deal with this later."

Of course, someone in marketing will probably make a very solid case for why you can’t possibly make do with just name and e-mail address. So it’s a bit of a balancing act: reducing friction as much as possible while still gathering the information essential to help the customer find a house or find someone to help sell a house.

This is where testing really starts to shine. You will be able to learn whether more people fill out the form if you ask for less information.

But the hope is that getting more leads will result in more sales. So just generating a pile of e-mail addresses and names might not be enough. Here’s where we run into the limits of the usual Web-based conversion optimization.

To really get through to the end you’ll need to find out if the visitors who provide less information turn into customers at the same rate as those who provide a lot of information.

Common sense would suggest that people who fill out more information are likely more committed to taking action. It’s the same sort of logic used for identifying useful long-tail Web searches in search engine optimization.

People who know more about what they’re looking for and/or are willing to provide more information are likely much closer to taking action than those who aren’t.

However, common sense is rarely enough — especially when it comes to understanding human behavior.

Here’s a rough test plan:

1. Prepare two lead-generation forms: One with lots of fields to fill in, one with just name and e-mail address. Include the ability to track leads based on which form they filled out.

2. Run an A/B test (a simple comparison test) on these two forms until you know which form gets more individuals to fill out the form.

3. Make sure the leads from both forms are sent to the same agents/sales teams (i.e., agents/sales teams should have an equal mix of leads from both forms).

4. Track how "closable" each lead is, based on which form they filled out.

5. Do the math. You’ll have two "conversion" rates: one for the forms and one for the closed sales. The closed sales rate is the really important one.

If everyone who reads this column runs this test, I bet they’d all come up with different results. There are tons of reasons for this. There are different markets, different time periods, different specialties and the biggie: different organizations with different capabilities.

This is why it’s better to test than to simply follow "best practices." Someone else’s best practices might be a nightmare for your organization.

For example, decreasing friction by including fewer form fields might result in a deluge of lead forms filled out, which you then have to sort through and figure out what’s closable.

Again, your organization’s capabilities are going to be the determining factor. People, not technology.

If you saw or plan to watch Breaker’s presentation, remember he’s describing a way to test things. He’s telling you how to do it.

He’s not giving you the right answer for your organization — he’s teaching you how to find the right answer.

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