Web Retailer: How did Conversion Rate Experts come about?
Ben Jesson: Karl and I met while working for an international telecoms company. I was responsible for web marketing and Karl was responsible for business development. We sold online but the whole market for the company's products was slowing down. The website was optimised for SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] and was ranking well. We'd had some PR success, and had been in Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
We had hit a brick wall with traffic and were spending as much as we could afford to on it. I went to a conference with Karl, who has a background in rocket science, and looked at multi-variant testing - a technique used in engineering to optimise production. Karl then joined me working on the website and we started optimising web pages with this scientific method. Within 12 months of learning about this area we tripled the turnover of the company from $3.1 million to $9.1 million.
At that point we realised we had really valuable skills and should be teaching other companies how to do it. We formed Conversion Rate Experts in October 2006 and launched the business with an article called "101 Ways to Use Google Website Optimiser." Before Google Website Optimiser was released to the public that sort of software cost up to £5,000 a month, but Google's tool was free. Everyone was talking about the software and there was a real buzz, but nobody was talking about what ideas to test in order to increase your conversion rate. The day we launched the report, it was on Digg and Delicious, and our site was Alexa's third fastest growing website that week. The next day Google got in touch with us and invited us to partner with them. At that point Conversion Rate Experts was born.
WR: How has your business changed over the past two years?
We tripled the turnover of the company from $3.1 million to $9.1 million Ben Jesson
BJ: When we formed the company there was just Karl and I taking on a handful of clients for performance-based work. In order to scale the business we had to document and systematise what we do. We spent 12 months on documenting our way of improving Conversion Rates. We call it CRO [Conversion Rate Optimisation]. Now we have the system documented we train other experts, and work with more clients so they can improve their conversion rate with our guidance.
WR: So now you mainly do training rather than doing the optimisation yourself?
BJ: We've got two different products now. We still do performance-based work where we roll up our sleeves and get involved and take responsibility for the whole project. We do that with companies that are generating more than £5 million a year online. We do training for smaller companies who would like to use their own team, and for agencies who want us to work with their clients. Advertising agencies like us to optimise their clients' websites because the more revenue their clients generate, the more they can spend on advertising. It's a product that appeals to a lot of different niches.
WR: Karl, how did you make the change from rocket science to Internet marketing?
Karl Blanks: When I was a student I had a summer job for a Shell-funded organisation that helped students in industry. I won a young entrepreneur of the year award, and about 10 years later - when I was a scientist working in industry - I received a phone call from a business owner asking if I could run his company for him, because he was close to retirement.
That's when I met Ben, and the science has been incredibly useful because we are doing experiments with websites. The level we work at is very scientific, but you don't need a science background to apply the things you learn from it. There's a lot that can be done by anyone and have a really big effect.
BJ: They just need to use the right statistical tools don't they?
KB: Exactly. As long as you use the right software it can be done by anyone. The clever stuff is knowing what to put on the page. That's what we've become experts in.
BJ: One of the problems people have is they get excited about technology, and they dive in, start creating tests, but unless you're testing the right stuff you're not going to get good results.
KB: If you test two pages and they're both useless then it will tell you which of the pages is the best, but it won't do any more than that. The "101 Ways" article contains loads of really practical advice on how to create pages that test well. The advice is from hundreds of thousands of tests done by ourselves and others, things that have been proven to work over and over again.
WR: Are there rules of thumb that any retailer could apply, or do they vary by sector?
It's about understanding the psychology of people who come to your site Karl Blanks
KB: There's loads of rules of thumb and there's loads of common mistakes. The most important thing is knowing what people want - what they are looking for. If they are looking for your phone number then it needs to be where they expect to see it. It's about understanding the psychology of people who come to your site, thinking about what they are looking for, and offering it to them in terms that they care about.
Headlines are incredibly useful, and important because if someone doesn't like the headline they won't read any further. The rule for headlines is to express things in plain English and in terms they care about, not how you see the product but how the purchaser sees it. A good way to get into the habit is to look at the catalogues you get in Sunday supplements. All the headlines are straightforward, and it's easy to understand what the benefit is. Look at any advertising that's tracked, where the company behind it is testing response rates, and copy how they do it.
WR: How does your conversion optimisation process work?
BJ: The starting point is understanding your goals and strategy, to make sure you're measuring and testing the right things. Get your testing strategy right.
The next step is about understanding your visitors and in particular your non-converting customers, which is really hard on the Internet. If you were selling face-to-face, you would very quickly learn what your customers' objections were, what you needed to say to reassure them, you would see their body language and be able to have a debate about your products. Online you don't get the opportunity. They come to your website, and if they don't like it they leave. There are few opportunities to capture their objections. We've spent years looking at tools and techniques for understanding your non-converting visitors' objections so you can address them.
The next step is getting a really good understanding of your market place and your business to make sure that you're positioned in the right category. Are you industry authority, are you an affiliate, or are you a merchant? What are your strengths? What can you offer visitors that's unique in your industry? Hang around communities that your visitors hang around in, such as forums, chat rooms, and blogs, to get an idea of where you fit into the market place.
Next is looking at your business and understanding where your money is coming from, where your opportunities are, which areas of your business are totally neglected, and which areas are already well optimised. By this stage you're buzzing with ideas to improve your business. Take a step back and think about how to prioritise the ideas and come up with a testing strategy that will get you quick results.
The next step is creating pages that you will test against your original ones, then carrying out the tests. Select the right testing software and conduct the experiments.
WR: Why is CRO so effective? Can everybody expect outstanding results?
The simplest thing you can do is do a usability test Karl Blanks
KB: It's so effective because it can't go wrong. You create a different version of your page and test to see which one brings in the most money. Then take whichever one wins and create a different version again. It's an evolution so it can't go wrong. At each step you're picking the winner.
Over 100 years ago John Wanamaker said, ""Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don't know which half." But because everything is tracked and because every time you make a change you are measuring whether your site got better or worse, the only question is "how quickly will it get better?" Our process is about how to get tests done quickly, so each new challenger to your existing champion page is significantly better than the last one.
Some people will find the idea of running a test with Google Website Optimiser too daunting, so the simplest thing they can do is do a usability test. That means finding someone who doesn't know your site and setting them a kind of role play, saying "imagine you've arrived at my site, you're searching for product X," and watch that person using your website. Resist the urge to interrupt and help them. Watch them clicking on the wrong links, watch them getting lost, watch them getting confused and clicking on a banner ad that you forgot was there and disappearing off site. Doing that immediately gives you the same kind of insight that you'd get if you were a real storeowner.
WR: In your Google Website Optimiser article you've set out 108 tips for improving conversion. Why do you give away so much information for free?
BJ: Before we published the article we had a conversation and thought, "are we being stupid here? Are we giving away all this information for free when we should be selling it?" When you get that feeling that what you're giving away is too valuable, you should publish it, because you know there's going to be lots of interest, people will trust you and come back for more. It's a way of showing your expertise.
KB: We call it the celebrity chef model. The most successful chefs in the world became successful by giving away all their recipes. It's the same. By giving away useful information you get more authority and attention. It's a very good technique.
BJ: Had we not published that information Google wouldn't have known about us. We were invited to become the first Website Optimiser consultancy in Europe and we're still the only ones. In terms of relationships it got us into the industry, and that all came as a result of giving away information. It's something I would strongly advise.
WR: How could a retailer apply that idea?
BJ: You've got all this information inside your head that helps your customers. Imagine that you need to very quickly pass that on to someone, get it all down on paper. Genuinely try and help your customers as much as you possibly can. That's our approach to everything we do. We genuinely try to help people as much as we can, and very often that results in giving away valuable information that builds the relationship with customers.
The recession has made people sit up and take their conversion rate more seriously Ben Jesson
KB: There is a real karma on the web that the more you give the more you get back. Every storeowner has loads of things their customers want to know about their products and if they don't learn from you, they'll be learning from your competitors. Try writing useful articles and sending them to industry magazines or article sites on the web. The more useful it is to people, the more chance there is of it going viral, being passed from person to person, and if your name and a link to your website is at the bottom it will benefit you.
WR: What's next for Conversion Rate Experts, what are you working on now?
BJ: We're releasing an article based on tools for understanding your website's visitors so you can address their real problems, rather than guessing at what you should test. We've also got a little Word Press widget coming soon that will increase readership of websites and blogs, because if people aren't reading your sales message they're not going to convert. People will be able to plug it in to improve their "reading gravity" as we call it.
WR: What's reading gravity?
BJ: When someone lands on your website you want them to look at the stuff that's important and prioritise your sales message. On most websites they don't track how people actually view the site. We had a word with companies that do eye tracking so you can measure exactly where people are looking on the page and reposition your elements to make sure they're seeing the right information at the right time. You control the way they consume your message, rather than have them looking all over for clues.
WR: How has the credit crisis and recession affected you and your clients?
BJ: We get more customers for our clients without spending more on advertising, because we're converting more of their visitors into customers. The business people coming to us realise that they've been wasteful with their marketing budget and need to generate more money from their existing visitors. The recession has made people sit up and take their conversion rate more seriously. These difficult times have sped up a process that was already happening.
WR: What do you think are the major Internet marketing trends, what will be big in 2009?
BJ: We would say this, but improving conversion rates really is the next big thing. People are beginning to hit brick walls with their traffic generation. We call it a virtuous circle because the more you optimise your conversion rates the more money you generate, the more you can spend on traffic, the more traffic you get, the quicker you get test results for your tests, and the quicker you can evolve your pages. It has a knock on effect on the rest of your business. You can afford offline advertising, you can afford to spend more on pay-per-click, and because you're dealing in larger volumes you have greater bargaining power over suppliers. It has a snowball effect on your entire business.