Jun 21, 2011

Conversion Case Study: Ancestry.com

Dani Malik's picture
Dani Malik
Executive Director, User Experience

In the summer of last year Hot Studio took on an engagement with Ancestry.com with the goal of increasing conversion on their site. The Ancestry.com conversion project was both fascinating and challenging, and contributed to our growing pool of conversion projects. We were specifically hired to look at a subset of the potential subscribers, whom they referred to as “newbies” (as opposed to renewals or lapsed subscribers, which require a different approach) and were tasked with designing a number of on-ramps from the homepage to convert them into paid subscribers.

It’s worth mentioning that “conversion” can mean a number of things. It can include fostering general good will toward a brand or company, letting a user engage with a company in a non-paid way that adds value (such as commenting), signing up for communications or free types of membership (still a step closer to paid subscription), enrollment in trial memberships, and of course increasing paying customers and subscription upgrades. Additionally, companies also need to complete the loop, ensuring that the value of a membership is readily perceived during a subscription period and allowing for easy renewal. Methods for influencing all of these subsets of conversion can vary greatly. In a conversion project it’s important to define exactly which of these needles you’d like to move (and understand that this is a continuum and any progress along it is a good thing).

For the Ancestry.com conversion project, we started off with a research and discovery phase, which included real-time intercepts of visitors to the Ancestry.com homepage (via a pop-up invitation to an interview) to find out how they perceived the current on-ramp. In the interviews, we gained insight on what pieces of content or services conveyed the value of Ancestry.com and might influence visitors to purchase a membership. Real-time intercepts were essential because value in a service like Ancestry.com is only perceived on a personal level. Users must connect with accurate links to their own heritage; the mere idea of historical family connections is simply not compelling in its own right.

Additionally, one of the main barriers we confirmed (known to Ancestry.com) was that a given number of people visiting the site would not easily find any family connections (present or past). Part of this was a technical issue: the search functionality needed to be improved. But since there would always be this subset of challenging searches (which might yield something further down the road, with more data input), how could we demonstrate value to these potential customers?

As is typical with any paid subscription service, some interviewees balked at the price, which Ancestry.com feels is a fair price for the premium content and extensive databases. Conversion projects will often take a closer look at a company’s business and revenue models and possibly suggest alternate subscription structures. Ancestry.com wasn’t convinced movement was needed here, so if the price wasn’t flexible then our job was to establish what in users minds would make the service worth that price.

We identified a number of stepping stones on the path to conversion (see graphic below) and ideated around each of these points on the path. Then we created design concepts for cohesive on-ramps which incorporated the best of these ideas.

Although we approached conversion as a journey in which each of the points along the way nudge customers toward conversion, our main goal was to get people excited enough about the service to subscribe. Seeing an authentic historical document from a real ancestor is a deeply moving experience for many subscribers, but obviously Ancestry.com has to protect the content that it charges for. Our designs incorporated different approaches to the “pay wall”—where a customer must have a subscription to see the full database of content—revealing enough of the service and content to demonstrate value while cordoning off some content led us to play with the pay wall and find ways of partially revealing content in targeted ways.

This was a purely UX project (no visual design, prototyping or implementation from Hot Studio), and our final deliverable was two wireframed approaches to on-ramps and pay wall positioning, with some attention given to search result improvements, display of search data and different ideas on family tree display. Ancestry.com was enthusiastic about the work, but knew they would need to do further evaluation internally. Recently they launched a new on-ramp that incorporates a number of our suggestions and I think will definitely move those conversion metrics for Ancestry.com.

Take a look... would you subscribe?

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