The Mobile Conversion Gap Is A Lie

by | Sep 11, 2020 | Fallacies

People seem to be obsessed with how to “close the mobile conversion gap”. It’s been a frequent topic for many years at ecommerce and digital marketing conferences. Payment providers pushing their new mobile payment schemes, merchants seeking to improve their mobile conversion rates… it’s a hot topic with just about everyone in ecommerce. But here’s the thing: the idea that there’s even a gap at all is pretty misguided.

As long as you have a good mobile experience, there’s nothing to worry about. Measured mobile conversion rates are simply not going to catch up to what we see on desktop devices anytime soon. These are ridiculous metrics that don’t matter.

Sure, it’s important to fix issues and ensure checkout is easy on mobile devices. But by now (mid-2020 as I write this), most ecommerce sites have done a good job of this already. Nobody’s perfect. But most ecommerce platforms have had reasonable out-of-the-box mobile experiences for a good five years or more.

Conversion rate has two components. It’s not just about how many conversions you get. It’s also about how many people click over in the first place. Instead of just worrying about how many people make a purchase, consider that other side of the equation. By making a great mobile site, it also makes it easier for people to just casually browse the site and check things out. More casual browsing drives down the conversion rate. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Why get fixated on what the “rate” is?

Think about it like this. I’m out to dinner with my wife. We’re talking about goals for the upcoming year. We talk about some upcoming trips, some hobbies we want to pursue more (and things we might buy that relate to those hobbies), some books we want to read. And while we’re waiting for dinner to arrive, we do a few searches on our phones around some of these topics, because it’s easy and convenient and we have our phones in our pockets. But we’re not buying anything just then. We’re having a conversation at dinner. Think about how this impacts the metrics of the sites we visit. We are driving down the conversion rate of every site we visit by adding more clicks to their stats without any conversions at that point.

When we go back again later to make a purchase, it could be on desktop or mobile. It doesn’t matter which it is, but since our initial browsing at dinner was on our phones, it will disproportionately skew the conversion rates against mobile. There was an extra click on mobile at dinner to dilute the final conversion rate, even if we later purchased on a phone. If we both checked out the same site on our individual phones while we were talking about it, that drove down the conversion rate even more. This example is one that plays out in many people’s lives with increasing frequency.

This difference between desktop and mobile conversion rates is a relic of effects like this. We’re much more likely to whip out our phones on a whim and look something up. We look up far more information than we did a few years ago. As sites have built better mobile experiences and we all get used to it, we do even more of that searching and browsing in contexts where we’re not going to buy: at dinner, watching TV, riding as a passenger in the car, sitting in a waiting room, checking something quickly while we’re in a meeting, and so on.

Of course that is going to manifest as lower conversion rates on mobile. We’re looking up more information on those devices. We do a lot more searches than we used to, we look up a lot more potential products to buy, and we perform a disproportionate share of those searches on mobile devices. Hence the skew in conversion rates on mobile devices. It’s really that simple.

Remember that conversion rate isn’t measuring the percentage of people who make a purchase. It’s measuring the ratio of clicks or sessions to purchases. If people come back several times on different devices between initial consideration and final purchase, that’s not bad at all. Those are serious people engaging with the site, doing their research, considering things, showing the product to a spouse, etc. That’s all great. We want a lot more of that, don’t we? That is valuable engagement with our site.

The percentage of unique people who convert is significantly higher than your measured conversion rate, because many of those purchasers browsed your site on both desktop and mobile before buying and get counted in both denominators, but only one numerator. Since so many of those “purchase journeys” cross devices, any comparison of performance that simply shows conversion rates on desktop vs. mobile isn’t capturing the richness of how your customers actually behave.

That should give you pause. Thinking in simplistic terms about desktop and mobile conversion rates is a relic of the past. Those data points can certainly be part of a more wholistic approach to understanding what is going on and making solid marketing decisions. But to compare one of those metrics to the other and lament that mobile doesn’t convert as well is, well, shortsighted. We don’t live in that world any longer.

That said, it’s really hard to truly quantify what is happening these days, since we can’t accurately pin people down across devices and across time in all situations. But you know what? People value their privacy and we will never get that level of tracking. There’s no reason we need to be that intrusive in the lives of our customers. We have plenty of data to make good decisions.

When we dig into what we can accurately track for our clients, we often find that well over half of all purchases come after someone interacts with a site on both mobile and desktop devices. And that is just the people who we know interacted on multiple devices. Because we know there are many scenarios that we can’t accurately track, we know that the real rate of cross-device purchase journeys is actually much higher.

When we find ourselves in a world of multiple ad and website interactions across both desktop and mobile devices on most purchase journeys, it’s time to put an end to worrying about differences between mobile and desktop conversion rates. Mobile devices result in more clicks, because they’re in our pockets and make it so easy to quickly look things up. Desktop devices are still more convenient for completing a purchase. Who are we to argue with customer preferences when it comes time to buy? The bottom line is that nearly all of us bounce back and forth between the mobile and desktop a majority of the time before we buy.

It doesn’t matter where the purchase is completed, or whether the conversion ends up on this device class or that. What matters is that we give our customers the best experience possible, regardless of how they interact with our ecommerce site.

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