Conversion.com: Why experimentation is at the heart of success in digital marketing
An interview with Stephen Pavlovich, CEO, Conversion.com
One of the best-known thought leaders in the Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) and experimentation world, Stephen Pavlovich is a regular speaker at conferences and events, as well as running data-driven optimization agency Conversion.com. He spoke to the Kameleoon blog to share his insights on optimization, personalization, A/B testing and the rise of artificial intelligence in digital marketing.
Stephen, to begin with can you tell us a bit about your background and what you are currently doing?
I’ve always been interested in experimentation, and after boosting sales for my employer’s website five-fold I realised that there was a growing need for optimization amongst digital brands. So I set up what would become Conversion.com in 2007 and we’ve continued growing ever since. We really focus on experimentation in its widest sense – that could be improving CRO on a website through A/B testing, but can be much wider than that. We help clients experiment across their customer experience, business models and ways of working.
We now work with a range of brands operating in highly competitive sectors, from Just Eat to UNICEF and Canon. As we’ve grown, we’ve remained focused on testing everything we do – and I’m still involved in working on client strategy and campaigns.
What are the challenges you see around personalization and conversion rate optimization today?
Having been involved in the industry for over a decade I think there are still the same four factors that impact brands when it comes to experimentation and CRO:
1. People don’t really understand it
While it is relatively easy to explain A/B testing and personalization with concrete examples, there’s a real scientific process behind doing it well, on an ongoing basis. You need to be rigorous and use data to validate everything you do, and every decision you make, otherwise you are really relying on guesswork. Achieving this at scale, across enormous websites with millions of users, requires focus and commitment to deliver both a better experience for the site visitor and higher revenues for the brand.
2. Teams don’t have the skills
There are a lot of demands on the time of digital marketers – as a profession they have to handle a huge variety of tasks if they are to be successful. Often that means while they know they should be doing A/B testing and may even have done some internally, they’ve not gone into detail when it comes to optimization. They simply don’t have the skills or time to take things to the next level, given everything else that they have on their plate. That holds back the move of CRO into the mainstream of digital marketing.
3. They don’t take a holistic view
Often, A/B testing and experimentation are the last thing that is done on a project, almost as a safety check to measure impact. Starting at the end is far too late – and doing it on a granular level is not going to unlock all the potential that experimentation can provide.
Instead of relegating it being part of the final details, brands must apply experimentation to their entire strategy. That will ensure that they are focusing on the right areas from the very beginning, and means they can unlock much larger benefits from optimization.
4. Focusing on personalization too early
Personalization is still a really hot topic, and rightly so as it enables brands to deliver the individual experience that consumers are looking for. However, my concern is that the general experience on a lot of websites is still pretty poor. Before investing in personalization you need to get the experience for everyone up to a decent level, otherwise you’ll lose customers too early in the journey. So, don’t jump into personalization before looking at the wider experience and bear in mind that while CRO and personalization are often seen as separate, they can work together to give useful intelligence for your overall digital marketing.
How do you advise brands to build the right culture for experimentation?
As with anything to do with culture you can’t simply bolt experimentation onto what you do – it has to run through the team’s DNA. It has to be integral to all your activities.
This can be difficult for some companies to grasp, particularly if they work in traditional brands or have a disparate digital team spread over different areas and specialisms. In many companies digital has grown so fast that you have lots of people involved, each looking after their own patch. To build an experimentation culture everyone has to come together and not be precious about their own work. For example, you can have the most visually appealing design for a webpage in the world, but if the data demonstrates that it doesn’t drive conversions, then you’ll have to change it. Some designers might get upset by this and take it personally, but it is important to see the bigger picture.
Changing culture in this way is hard, but the first step is to change behaviors and how people act on a day to day basis. That means for every project you have to start with the strategy and goals. Understand what you are trying to achieve, and experiment on how you can hit your objectives. Look at different routes and methods and then rigorously measure which is most effective, using tools such as A/B testing. Experimentation has to run through everything you do!
How do you see AI impacting digital marketing?
It is beginning to have an enormous impact. Obviously people have been talking about AI for a few years now and I think we’re currently moving beyond the hype and scare stories, in digital marketing at least. People now understand what AI can and can’t do and how it can be best applied to their work.
Most of all, marketers can see that it isn’t about handing over control and letting artificial intelligence run everything. In fact, it provides a framework that accelerates the work that you do – as a digital marketer you still need to come up with the strategy and ideas, such as around optimization and experimentation. This is really where you add value and show the impact you can have in terms of delivering success.
Where artificial intelligence works particularly well is to do the heavy lifting, such as in A/B testing and personalization programs. When you have multiple options you can use AI to quickly and effectively test at scale, helping you really fine-tune your experience. So you can test more options, across more people and analyze the results much more quickly than using traditional tools.
In terms of personalization AI lets you create automated, personalized experiences in real-time, which is crucial to maximize performance. It also helps you meet the growing need consumers have to be treated as an individual. Both of these drive greater engagement, satisfaction and revenues for brands.
As I say it is early days for a lot of brands as they need to bring their experience up to a good level first, before they personalize or deploy AI, but the capabilities it delivers are really powerful, particularly if you sufficient traffic for the algorithms to work with.
You recently partnered with Kameleoon – what was the thinking behind that move?
As an agency we’re always looking for like-minded partners that can help us deliver for our clients. We are always experimenting when it comes to technology, and Kameleoon impressed us when we tested the platform, scoring at the top of our internal benchmarks. The company has a strong track record in France and Germany, delivering value to big brands that are similar to our clients in size and approach. So we feel it is proven in the market, even if it is new to the UK.
I talked about the importance of culture earlier and I was struck by the similarities between how both companies operate. Kameleoon shares with us the desire to be open, has a focus on experimentation and is keen to collaborate, making it a great fit with our team. Also, being involved at this stage of its journey gives us the opportunity to work together closely, to get under the skin of the technology and help it develop going forward. We’re excited about working together!
Kameleoon has its own pet chameleons in the office – do you have any office pets yourself?
We don’t have any lizards in the office, but I’ve been threatening to bring my German Shepherd back into the office. (She came in when she was a puppy… now she’s almost 6.)
And finally, what do you do to relax?
Running an agency can be stressful, so I unwind by baking bread in my spare time and bringing it into the office. This week’s flavour is a stout, cheddar and chive sourdough with a black sesame crumb… Not too shabby!