For Every Optimization, There’s a Hierarchy, So Get Started

I sometimes wonder why more companies aren’t busy optimizing their websites and digital marketing. Or why those who are “on board” with the concept don’t always commit the right amount of resources towards the effort.

I’m not a mind-reader, but I think it’s due in part to an all-or-nothing mentality where nothing short of a full optimization ‘project’ is worth putting effort into. Most companies are more interested in redesigning their websites all at once instead of incrementally, even though incremental optimization is far less expensive, less risky, and more accountable!

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.”

Sometimes, I tell clients to redesign and optimize a small design element of their site; their call to action buttons, for example. And they seem tentative and slow to implement the recommendation. Why? Maybe because they think it has to be 100% optimized right away, or they want some sort of guarantee that it will be perfect in order to devote resources to the task.

A useful model to get past this mode of thinking is to use the Hierarchy of Optimization. It’s a great mental framework to think about a roadmap of how businesses should be optimizing their digital assets, and with what priority. I learned a ton of great concepts from working with Bryan Eisenberg, but the Hierarchy of Optimization might be my favorite.

Take a quick look at Bryan’s hierarchy video linked above, and then I’ll apply the model to real-life design elements that most sites should be taking a look at. Note that the Hierarchy has 5 levels:

  • the Persuasive
  • the Intuitive
  • the Usable
  • the Accessible
  • the Functional

While you can apply the 5 levels at a “macro” level on your entire site, you can also apply them at the “micro” level on a single landing page or even small design elements.

Example 1 – Call to Action Buttons

  • Persuasive – Do all the layers of the pyramid work together as a cohesive whole? Are you actively testing your buttons? Do all your calls to action pair an imperative verb with an implied benefit? Do they answer WIIFM?
  • Intuitive – Do your buttons look like buttons? Do they look “clickable”? Do they feature 3-d effects, shading, or rich surfaces?
  • Usable – Are your calls to action always located in a consistent position on pages? Do they follow the prospect’s eye path as it travels down the page? On your forms, do the buttons line up with the “scan line“?
  • Accessible – Is there alt text behind your calls to action? If you use graphics, do they load and render in all your supported OS/Browser combinations?
  • Functional – Do all your pages even have a primary call to action button? Are any of them broken? Is anyone responsible for occasionally testing them?

Example 2 – Testimonials

  • Persuasive – Are your testimonials architected to answer questions and overcome objections throughout the prospect’s buying process? Are your testimonials as ‘real’ as possible, using pictures of the customer? How about video testimonials? Are you constantly testing to find the right testimonial content/format for your business?
  • Intuitive – Do your testimonials follow common design patterns for displaying quotes? Are relevant testimonials placed on key pages to answer your prospects’ unanswered questions? Do you attribute quotes with name, location, and other relevant information?
  • Usable – Are your testimonials readable? Are they an appropriate font size and contrast? Do prospects have to go hunting for them, or are they spread throughout the site?
  • Accessible – In this case, Accessible and Usable can be thought of as essentially the same layer of the pyramid. See Usable.
  • Functional – Do you have testimonials? Are they legitimate? Do you have permission to attribute the author with at least a first name and last initial?

Besides what I hope are useful questions to ask yourself, the point of all this is to encourage everyone to start today on optimization, take baby steps, and work your way up the Hierarchy. As the old saying goes: You can’t eat an elephant in just one bite!

[Originally published June 29th, 2009 on, an award-winning, but now defunct, Marketing Optimization blog.]

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