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Merchandising

Talking with...WiderFunnel Marketing Optimization co-founder and CEO Chris Goward

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Optimizing usability and developing an innovative retail site design are two big elements online marketing and merchandising teams spend much of their waking hours thinking about. This thinking comes from their passion to improve the customer experience, which ultimately plays an integral role in driving conversion. For many retailers, usability optimization takes place on a feature-by-feature or page-by-page analysis and, as many e-commerce experts would agree, after testing. At the upcoming Shop.org Online Merchandising Workshop, we plan to have a number of speakers sharing website redesign (or refresh) tips and stories – all with design, usability and conversion in mind. One of those speakers is Chris Goward, author of You Should Test That! I had the pleasure of connecting with Goward for his thoughts on best practices in site design, where to start testing on a retail website, and the most surprising test result he has ever seen.

At our Online Merchandising Workshop, you’ll be sharing your 5-step strategy for optimizing conversion rates. Can you share a quick preview with us? 

Chris Goward, Co-Founder and CEO, WiderFunnel Marketing

Often, marketers get excited about conversion testing when they first get into it, and they may have heard poor advice telling them to “just get started” and test anything. This inevitably results in wasted effort and depleted organizational momentum. The wind is knocked out of their sails. By starting with a conversion optimization strategy and systematic process, you’ll end up with better results, organizational support, and more budget to continue the improvements. I’ll share key frameworks that attendees will be able to take back to the office to get started on the right footing. You’ll find out how to know what to track, where to test first and how to come up with test ideas.

What are some examples of “best practices” that don’t yield good results when put to the test?

In general, I don’t believe in marketing “best practices.” I think there are some pretty well-founded “better” and “worse” ways to do things, but very little marketing and user experience (UX) rules that should be enshrined. For example, I was the first to come out publicly against rotating home page carousels in Oct 2011. Since then, others have jumped on the bandwagon based on our data. For us at WiderFunnel, it’s less about opinion and totally because of the tests we’ve run. We love running A/B split tests against home page rotators. They often lose badly. I believe we are still in the early days of testing new e-commerce experiences. Innovative designers and UX architects are coming up with new experiences all the time. Some are terrible ideas and others are going to work better than our current standards. The beauty of the scientific approach is that you can kill the losers much more quickly and definitively without having to worry about them turning into sacred cows. The pace of business is too fast today to allow them to be protected.

There are thousands of things you could test on a retail site. Where is the best place to start?

It’s true. It’s not uncommon to be testing on websites with many thousands of pages. You can’t test everywhere at once and, with limited traffic, you could spend months in the wrong areas if you don’t prioritize properly. The best places to start are where the biggest problems are. It’s different for each business. Some say you should always start testing in the checkout, at the bottom of the funnel. That advice is plainly wrong. There’s also an over-emphasis on the “obvious” important areas like landing pages or the home page. But those may not be the best areas for improvement. In fact, because they get so much attention, they may have the least potential for improvement. We always start a new client with an opportunity prioritization using the PIE Framework™ that we developed. We recommend ranking each test opportunity based on three factors: Potential for improvement, Importance to the business and Ease of test implementation.

What's the most surprising test result you've ever seen?

My favorite tests are ones that contradict the so-called web marketing “best practices.” They’re often surprising results that also teach us something about how people really respond to websites. People don’t always follow the neatly packaged rules that traditional web experts promote. In one conversion optimization test example for WineExpress.com we found some unconventional results. We ran A/B split tests with dramatic redesigns and found our new layouts lifted revenue by over 40 percent. But some of our isolations were surprising. In one isolation of the call-to-action area, the variation with the larger “add to cart” button and larger price actually reduced sales conversion rate. In another test for BabyAge.com, we found a new e-commerce product page design that lifted sales by 22 percent. The surprising thing was when we swapped the left and right columns on this site-wide template, the page with the add to cart on the left and product image on the right actually beat out the opposite, which is a more normal design. That certainly doesn’t work for all e-commerce sites. In both of those examples, their unique target audiences responded differently to different price and produce emphasis. The page templates that won were the ones that directed the shoppers’ eye flow to the most important content.

You’ve worked on many projects throughout your career. Tell us about one remarkable success story and what lessons you learned.

Building WiderFunnel has been the most remarkable (and longest-running) project yet and it’s certainly where I’ve learned the greatest lessons. One that I’ve been reminded of over and over again is to act with boldness - to remove my self-imposed limits. Beginning in the early days when we brazenly asked Google to partner with us and co-promote Google Website Optimizer in 2007, to today's day-to-day bold testing with our clients. I’ve realized that the person who naturally tells me “no, you can’t do that” most often is myself. By rejecting that first reaction and just doing the bold thing, I can achieve much more. I’m on a continuous journey to seek out those self-limiting fears and continue to break new ground. By all rights, when I started WiderFunnel, we shouldn’t have succeeded. I was literally going out and telling successful companies that we could do a better job on their website. Fortunately, we did most of the time, and the rest of the time we learned a whole lot in those early days. If you want a little inspiration, watch this interview video from Steve Jobs on this “Ignorance Creates Courage” article I wrote recently.

Shop.org’s recent Organizational Structure Study examines how retailers are integrating digital into their org structure. As someone who has worked with many different organizations, what kinds of resources and leadership do you think a conversion team needs to perform at their full potential?

Every organization needs a marketing optimization champion to lead the cultural change. The challenges of developing a data-driven culture may be great. Some will resist the rigorous discipline of a testing strategy. Those who have spent their lives following their intuition alone are unaccustomed to asking the data for direction. If you’re a data-driven decision-maker, this may be frustrating for you. Why would any company willingly reject conversion optimization when so much revenue could be within easy grasp? Sometimes decision rationale doesn’t make sense. Your organization’s culture and norms determine how decisions are made. The company may be accustomed to following the strongest personalities, or letting the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) dictate direction. Creating a data-driven culture can take time and effort, but it’s well worth it! When you stand as an advocate of the data-driven approach, you’ll reap the rewards in your career. Data advocates inevitably rise to positions of influence. This question ties in to the final chapter of my new conversion rate optimization book. Here are the 8 tips I give in that chapter:

  • Get Senior-Level Buy-in for Testing - no matter how strong your project results are, you’ll face an uphill battle without senior management support.
  • Create a Tangible Opportunity - Sharing case-study examples of companies can be a source of inspiration and motivation. You can download case studies at ConversionSkills.com.
  • Conduct Skunkworks Tests - if you don’t have senior support at the beginning, you could try an under-the-radar approach.
  • Involve Other Departments - Save yourself surprises by involving them early.
  • Tie Results to Revenue - tie the results to revenue to show real cash impact.
  • Share Results Far and Wide - Many of WiderFunnel’s clients have used our results-analysis presentations to create an internal event in the organization.
  • Be a Leader - every idea you want to sell depends on the influence you have with colleagues, friends, and clients.
  • Never Give Up - testing and optimization are not one-time events. as Winston churchill said in a famous speech, “never, never, never, never give up.”

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