Returning Ecommerce Visitors: How to ‘Nudge’ Non-Buyers into Taking the Customer Leap

Returning Ecommerce Visitors: How to ‘Nudge’ Non-Buyers into Taking the Customer Leap

If there’s one segment that’s frustrating, disheartening, and mysterious … it’s the returning visitor who doesn’t buy.

Everyone loves the returning customer. After all, lifetime value is the heartbeat of ecommerce. Likewise, the new visitor and hunter are full of excitement and promise.

The returning visitor, on the other hand, keeps coming back but never makes the leap.

They browse around your product pages, product categories, and blog posts. Many of them even sign up for your email list and add to cart. Returning traffic is great; obviously, you’re doing something right.

But what holds them back?

Understanding the returning visitor and transforming them into first-time customers is all about the “nudge.” And this means answering three questions:

  1. Identity: Who are they and where do they come from?
  2. Intent: What do they want?
  3. Action: How do you drive them forward?

1. Identity: Who Are Returning Visitors and Where Do They Come From?

Returning visitors often make up the majority of an ecommerce site’s traffic, sometimes by a large margin, sometimes by a small one:

Describing them from the merchant side is easy: they come; they go; they come back; they go again … until eventually they stop coming back altogether.

The good news is that returning visitors are loaded with selling potential, as long as you can cultivate empathy rather than react with exasperation.

In Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg describe the situation like this:

“Because of smartphones and the Internet, our options are no longer limited to what’s in the physical store where we are standing. We can choose from what’s in every store, everywhere.”

“Besides gasoline, it’s damn near impossible for me to think of anything where I won’t put in the time to find the best. … Bottled water? Yup. Potato chips? Ruffles? No, thank you. Pass the Sweet Onion Kettle Chips. Candles? If you only knew how good the candles in my house smell.”

Choice, as Barry Schwartz points out, is a “paradox.” Far from making us happier, it paralyzes. Awash in options, “Am I getting the absolute best?” haunts online shoppers. Regret from not having looked at just one more page overshadows every “Add to Cart” button.

But before we delve into cultivating empathy and nudging them forward, it’s important to understand where they come from. The where will shape both the what and the how of driving them forward.

By and large, returning visitors generally come from three sources.

First, through direct traffic. Maybe they bookmarked a specific page or maybe their browser is autocompleting your URL. Either way, they’re jumping straight in.

Second, through emails. These are the returning visitors who’ve become genuine leads. They arrive on your product pages or promoted content through the links you prioritize; in this case, email traffic is responsive but noncommittal.

Third, through PPC, specifically retargeting. Just like email, these visitors have shown more than just a passing interest in something specific. You’ve tagged them, retargeted them, and they’re clicking.

So, what’s the problem?

2. Intent: What Do Returning Visitors Want?

As long your competitors aren’t running up your PPC costs with fake clicks, above all, the returning visitor wants to buy.

Fear -- namely, FOMO on something better -- holds them back. They crave security, to be assured that they’re getting “the best,” whether that’s quality or price.

This means you aren’t starting from scratch or launching a full-frontal-ecommerce attack. Rather -- with each of the traffic types -- you’re “nudging” them into a purchase. According to behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who popularized the term:

“A nudge is some small feature in the environment that attracts our attention and influences behavior.”

In general, nudges are designed to reduce fear and friction. In other words, they make the action safe and easy, which is exactly what the returning visitor is longing for.

Your Direct Traffic Wants …

Since they’re already contemplating a purchase, the best thing you can do is help the returning visitor make a good decision. They likely have several sites open at once, comparing prices and product specs.

Don’t make this comparison process difficult.

Instead, become the standard against which your visitor measures everything else. Provide:

  1. Dynamic pricing (or price comparisons),
  2. Detailed product specifications,
  3. Seductive images (in addition to “standard” product imagery),
  4. Irresistible social proof (reviews and ratings), and
  5. Clear trust signals (i.e., seals).

The second provision in that list deserves special attention. Because they aren’t as sexy as descriptions, many ecommerce sites neglect the specs. Making them obvious -- either by listing them immediately next to the product image or creating a clearly marked tab -- makes it easy.

Outdo your competition when it comes to comprehensiveness and transparency. A merchant can gain a serious edge against a competitor with an identical product simply by providing everything the visitor need to know.

Your Email Traffic Wants …

In a word: relevance. And you don’t have to wait for an abandoned cart to get personal. While your email list should already be segmented, you can and should trigger emails based on onsite behavior, as long as you’ve got the right tool -- like Klaviyo or BounceX -- to identify your returning visitors one by one.

Image via BounceX

In addition to a “people-based” approach, you can also nudge through urgency and scarcity. Serious discounts with serious time constraints on the exact product they’ve been looking at tips non-customers into their first purchase. And once they make the leap, getting them to jump again is far easier.

Image via Klaviyo

Your Retargeted Traffic Wants …

Again: relevance. As much as possible, build your retargeting campaigns at the single-product level. This approach zeros in on exactly what they’ve shown interest in. Also, build your campaigns around sequences and variety when it comes to copy and imagery. As KlientBoost explains:

“Just like email nurturing pushes visitors down the conversion funnel, depending on what emails are opened and clicked through, sequential retargeting works the same way.”

“You group your audiences in different categories or lists and include/exclude them depending on the landing pages, durations, or downloads they’ve been taking action on.”

Image via KlientBoost

Relevancy should extend to the page your ads send traffic to as well. Creating slight variations for retargeted product pages -- often with only the headline or price adjusted -- adds continuity to each campaign so that the ad matches the page. Returning visitors are served up a unique experience with a clear connection at every step.

Alongside these best practices, it’s also imperative to ask. If low conversion rates on returning visitors are particularly troublesome, explore How to Design Customer Surveys That Lead to Actionable Insights and how to Harness the Power of Feedback Loops to Build a Business Customers Can't Resist.

Now that you know who the returning visitor is, where they come from, and what they want, here’s what you should do about it.

3. Action: How Do You Drive Returning Visitors Forward?

All three traffic sources deliver returning visitors directly to your product pages, so optimizing them with this segment in mind is crucial.

First, price. Dynamic pricing lets you easily adjust to fit both supply and demand. Plus, when you call attention to changes in price -- visually on-page or through email and retargeted offers -- the returning visitor is given a fresh nudge to convert.

If the price is particularly important to your audience, then consider making it the main benefit.

Image via TicketLeap

Second, product specifications and descriptions. ThinkGeek’s initial specs do little to give visitors information on essentials like sizes, materials, and quality. This makes it hard to compare. However, the lengthier description that follows brims with personality that fits their target audience.

Image via ThinkGeek

Best Made Company, on the other hand, nails both specs -- through their “Discover More” link -- as well as descriptions visitors can read above and below this screenshot:

Image via Best Made Company

Unlike first-time visitors, return visitors dig deep into copy, so giving them a full experience is enticing.

Third, seductive product images. Using high-quality visuals is a science, not a matter of guesswork. Make visuals personable, relatable, and -- above all -- vivid depictions of how much better off the visitor will be after buying.

Aim at emotion, texture, and real-life application. StudioNeat does this in two ways. To start, through their static product images:

Image via StudioNeat

And then, through their on-page video, which is immediately followed by the next optimization ingredient, social proof.

Image via StudioNeat

Fourth, social proof. Reviews, ratings, and testimonials instill the confidence wary visitors need to make a purchase. So make what other people say dominant and include both quantitative and qualitative versions.

Death Wish Coffee goes the extra mile on social proof. They include user-generated content on their product pages by posting from and linking directly to their hashtag:

Image via Death Wish Coffee

Then, they offer cumulative ratings and extensive, qualitative reviews on each product:

Image via Deathwish Coffee

Fifth, trust seals. Not all trust seals are created equal. Baymard ran the numbers and discovered the most confidence-inducing are Norton and Google by a wide margin.

Image via Baymard Institute

The Returning Visitor Is Wary, but Closer Than You Think

It’s true, they’re right there on the edge.

The returning visitor wants to buy and all they need is a nudge to push them in.

To cater to the return visitor, keep in mind the three questions:

  1. Identity: Who are they and where do they come from?
  2. Intent: What do they want?
  3. Action: How do you drive them forward?

Let empathy guide you. Instill confidence. Give them a reason to say, “Yes.” Make it easy. And nudge ‘em … just a little because that’s all they really need.

(Note: This article is the third in a three-part series. To get the full picture on how to optimize for the other two most-common ecommerce segments, be sure to check out (1) New Ecommerce Visitors: How to Serve Up Their Hidden Desires and Pull 'Em into Your Online Funnel and (2) How to Drive High-Intent Ecommerce Visitors Toward Buying and Eliminate Anything That Stands in the Way.)


About the Author

Aaron Orendorff is the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus as well as a regular contributor to sites like Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and more. You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.