Site Optimization and Testing: A New Twist on an Old Concept

Online testing is all the rage right now. At a recent conference I asked the audience how many people worked for companies that do online testing (A/B, multivariate, or behavioral targeting); roughly 5 to 10 percent of the people raised their hands. That is about twice as many people who would have said yes 12 months ago. Then I asked how many people work for companies that plan to start a testing program over the next 12 months and nearly everyone raised their hand.

On-site testing makes sense. It focuses on making incremental site performance improvements in a very measureable way. It is a great way to increase revenue or profit and a great way to justify budgets managed by Web teams.

While more people are getting comfortable with testing, it is often treated as a whole new approach to marketing. But testing is not new. Direct marketers have been performing tests offline for years.

Think about the idea of someone doing direct mail and testing 15 different versions of an envelope to increase the chance that you open that piece of mail in your mailbox. Direct marketers try all sorts of different paper and offers on the outside. They test making the envelope look formal, making it look like it is hand addressed, or adding an actual stamp so it doesn’t look like it’s been stamped by a meter. And that is just the envelope.

Direct marketers test all sorts of versions of the content as well copy length, price points, and offers. We have all also seen it in catalogs we get as well. Is it better to offer a 10 percent discount, a free add-on, or free shipping? Which offer will return the greatest revenue and ultimately profit? Marketers have been testing these things for years to maximize their conversion rates.

Let’s take a look at the definition of direct marketing. I found several, but the definition on Wikipedia said it best:

    Direct marketing is a sub-discipline and type of marketing. There are two main definitional characteristics which distinguish it from other types of marketing. The first is that it attempts to send its messages directly to consumers, without the use of intervening media. This involves commercial communication (direct mail, e-mail, telemarketing) with consumers or businesses, usually unsolicited. The second characteristic is that it is focused on driving a specific “call-to-action.” This aspect of direct marketing involves an emphasis on trackable, measurable positive (but not negative) responses from consumers (known simply as “response” in the industry) regardless of medium.

Let’s break down this definition a bit, looking at the two key elements:

Delivering Messages Directly to the Consumer

Online, more companies are tuning their messages or Web sites based on a visitor’s profile, previous activities, or anything else known about that person. While many sites are still “one size fits all,” more companies are getting smarter about the way they communicate with Web visitors. Think of some customized experiences you see at Amazon or timely calls to actions you see on other sites when you have been there before.

Driving a Specific Call to Action

This is a big one. What is it we want people to do on the site? Realistically there are a number of things that could define success for any given Web site. When you start to segment your audience, the number of things we want visitors to do on the site can get narrowed down. Your site can be more successful if you narrow down those choices based on your visitors and really look to drive interest in those activities. Think of a banking site when a visitor lands on the home page. If it knows that a visitor has previously logged onto its Web site during a previous visit, it should not dedicate 50 percent of the homepage to getting the visitor to sign up for online banking. It isn’t applicable and she won’t respond. Rather, the visitor may already have an account and the banking site may want to inform her of an add-on service or helpful piece of information about it. Just as the online banking promo might not be applicable to someone who is not a customer, the add-on service promo might not be applicable either. Because the message isn’t targeted, it won’t be successful. More important, the banking site is missing an opportunity to give each audience segment something that makes sense to it. Go back to the definition of direct marketing: the banking site is not giving the audience an applicable call to action to respond to, and thereby, not advancing the visitor as a customer.

But again just like the envelope examples above, the beauty of direct marketing is the idea of testing what works and what doesn’t in order to maximize ROI (define) and profit.

It really is the same type of thing. A few years ago the company I work for was acquired by Wunderman, a WPP company. Wunderman was founded by Lester Wunderman, who is often referred to as the creator of direct marketing. (You can read more about Lester here. In 1996, Lester wrote a popular book, “Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay.” It is amazing how many of his examples of offline direct marketing can so easily apply to direct marketing online. It really is the same principles applied to a different medium.

So don’t be cautious, uncomfortable, or feel like we are reinventing something new. Rather look back and learn from others who have done these things before. Pick up some direct marketing books and talk to people in direct marketing. When you introduce testing into your organization, speak to it in the sense that direct-marketing principles have been proven out for years. We are just applying them to the Web.

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