Bloodletting and Why Testing Can Be Unscientific

Zach, my good friend’s son, answers the phone. He is in the middle of trying to solve one of those verbal math problems that go like this: “Bob is walking at 3 miles per hour, and Jim is walking at 1.5 miles per hour. They have to walk 30 miles. What kind of head start does Jim need to get there at the same time as Bob?” Helping Zach figure out an answer wasn’t difficult, but getting the answer wasn’t the only goal of this exercise. The more important objective was to develop an understanding of how to solve these types of problems.

Most of us know that H2O is water. Nevertheless, most of us don’t have a thorough understanding of chemistry. The art and science of conversion rate marketing is similar. It’s not just about getting higher conversion rates by experimenting with the variables. Awareness of the variables and how they relate to each other are crucial. Solving the problem of getting better conversion results is as much an exercise in understanding why something works as it is in understanding what to do.

If Zach simply knew the answer, he would have knowledge — he would be able to recite correct information. If he gets the solution, he has wisdom — he knows what makes it work. For him to achieve understanding, he has to know why it works; he has to comprehend fully the relationship between all the variables in the problem and its solution, so he can apply this effectively to any number of similar verbal math problems.

Think for a moment about an email message for which we want to improve response rates. If it helps, read this article by my fellow ClickZ author, Al DiGuido. Most of us are forced to start at the highest testing ground (the email delivery), where there are few signposts to illustrate success. We don’t spend the time to prove techniques on lower elemental levels. This is like trying to build a pyramid by starting with the top block. To possess a complete understanding of how to create emails that drive action and build relationships, it is not enough for us to develop a science based on systems we make to test our “creative.” We must be able to recognize, predict, and duplicate the elements that create the persuasive process.

Persuading is influencing opinions or affecting attitudes by means of communication. It means not only informing but also providing new information to the readers so they can make decisions. It also requires motivating people. It means affecting the hearts as well as the minds of people (a message has to have emotional appeal while possessing rational elements).

We know that if we were to merge two elements of hydrogen with one element of oxygen, we would create water and we could duplicate this process repeatedly. This is knowledge. Knowing how to put these two elements together is wisdom. Knowing why these two elements bond and have the properties that they do is understanding. If I tell you the formula for water is H2O and say that it is a “rule,” I’m not giving you the understanding to do more than just make water.

A science based on rules creates a technician; an art and science based on fundamental principles create a visionary. An artist creating by rules produces paint-by-number pictures; an artist creating by fundamental principles produces works the likes of Monet, Rembrandt, and Picasso. The danger in crafting persuasive creative based on rules is that it becomes predictable and our readers (prospects) begin to tune it out (especially when 3,000 commercial messages a day come at you). Should it be a rule that personalized subject lines deliver higher open rates? I hope you understand the answer is no. Do they often work better? Yes. The important question to answer is: Why do they work better? Maybe the subject line without the personalization did not grab any attention at all, and including the name grabbed just a bit more than zero.

A perfect example: One of the world’s largest personal goods manufacturers had wonderful records and had discovered which advertisements throughout its history were the most effective. As the managers went through each and every advertisement, they could not figure out what made them successful. On the surface, they all seemed to be randomly different. What was the similarity? I can’t share with you the secret of exactly what it was, but I will reveal that it had to do with an understanding of the human mind’s attraction to chaotic systems.

There is a human need for rules, especially in the Web’s technology-worshipping culture. Just look at the demand for successful books and articles out there with titles incorporating things like seven habits, nine rules, and 12 mistakes (we do it, too, because people want it). The left brain demands control while the right brain insists on freedom. Left- and right-brain concepts collide in your cranium every day. We constantly struggle with choices between cold logic and heartfelt intuition, control or liberty, exactness or beauty.

The process for persuading human beings to take action is indeed a system, but it’s not a hard science based on predictable rules that could produce perfectly replicable results in a laboratory. People who believe it is remind me of the “medical experts” who once went around treating patients with leeches. After all, they thought they were being scientific.

Are you looking for rules or principles? Will your scientific tests ignore the fact that the single most important variable in your experiment is unknowable? Will you invest the effort in understanding what creates emails that drive action and build relationships, or will you be caught up in the pseudoscience of randomly testing to see what works? If it’s the latter, don’t forget to bring your leeches.

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