Plan Before You Test
by Bryan Eisenberg
Bryan Eisenberg cofounded marketing consulting firm Future Now with his brother in 1998. Future Now applies persuasion architecture to increase online and multichannel conversion rates so prospects purchase, subscribe, register, make referrals, or accomplish other goals that can be measured and optimized. He is chairman and a founder of the Web Analytics Association and is a long time columnist on ROI Marketing at ClickZ.com, publisher of GrokDotCom, and has authored several books, including the "New York Times," "USA Today," and "Wall Street Journal" bestsellers "Call to Action" and "Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?"
Back in 2003, a reader named Brad asked me for some advice. He'd conducted a test campaign that resulted in a huge discrepancy he couldn't identify. No doubt losing 90 percent of his sales, when his normal conversion rate is over 4.6%, distressed him. He wanted to know what caused his conversion rate to come in at just 0.47%. Together, we discovered the variable he'd ignored, and in his most recent test the conversion rate is back to normal.
Brad was so excited he insisted I share this case study with all of you. I hesitated to do so but promised him I'd share the data with you and let you reach your own conclusions. My concern is what is valid for Brad's business isn't valid for everyone's. Brad's product has a target market with very particular characteristics. Plus, his marketing is response-driven, not branding-driven. The entire buying process for his products is, though not entirely unique, not universally applicable, either.
Case studies can be very informative, but they can also do a lot of damage. Be very careful what you copy. Many companies try to emulate more successful competitors without really knowing what they're copying, because they're unaware of all the variables. What you need to do is uncover the key factors that influence your target audience to buy your particular products, then utilize this information to help you refine your sales process.
At Future Now, we constantly get requests for averages and benchmarks on conversion rates. We always advise against comparing your own conversion rates with "norms" or "averages." These are drawn from sites that don't have the same traffic or product as yours, and they may differ in any number of ways. In our work alone, we've identified over 1,100 variables that affect conversion. This is why I cringe when I hear the phrase "best practices" tossed around as if it were gospel.
To illustrate my point, I called a friend I knew could further confuse the issue. I told Sam Decker, then senior manager of Dell Consumer eBusiness (currently VP of Marketing & Products at Bazaarvoice), what Brad did. Dell remains one of the top e-commerce sites and is known for its innovative approach to measuring, testing, and optimizing. At Dell, Sam was responsible for sales on the consumer website. So, if anybody would know what to learn from Brad's case study, it would be Sam, right? Interestingly enough, Dell's own case studies proved that making Brad's "mistake" would actually help Dell's online sales.
How can it be that two case studies contradict each other so blatantly? The answer is no business is linear. There are many facets, or topological elements, to consider in designing an effective online strategy to maximize your conversion rate. Your conversion rate is only a reflection of the marketing and sales effectiveness and your customers' satisfaction. If you're looking for one canned, simple solution, you're bound to be either bankrupt or very disappointed.
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