Why Companies Struggle to Implement A/B Testing in Their Digital Marketing

A/B (split) testing is the most popular and often most effective way of testing multiple versions of an app, email, or webpage to see which version produces better results. However only 27% – 38% of companies actively do split testing. Of the companies that actively do split testing, almost half claim they do it infrequently or inaccurately. So if A/B tests offer the best opportunity to objectively improve digital marketing conversions, why do so many companies skip it entirely?  Split testing often presents technical or resource challenges that smaller companies struggle to overcome.

There are three common limiting factors that prevent trainers, consultants, and professional coaches from successfully implementing and executing A/B tests:

Time

Marketing is often done at a frenzied pace for many smaller firms.  If a marketing campaign is being done rapidly, or worse yet as a fire drill, it’s difficult to consistently produce communications and meet deadlines.  Making time to take on an additional burden of creating a separate version of a communication and reviewing the analytics to glean valuable insight is simply unrealistic.

A/B Testing Tools

There are valuable tools available to facilitate A/B testing.  Some are built in to digital marketing platforms where others can be added on to your existing platform.  However, inclusive platforms or add on components can be technically challenging to implement and incur additional cost.  Increasing the marketing budget or meeting the requirements to leverage the testing tool is often an unsurmountable barrier for smaller firms.

Sample Size

Accurate A/B testing relies on a sufficient sample size.  If a smaller firm’s website traffic or email recipients don’t generate enough raw data then the A/B test will be flawed and runs the risk of providing inaccurate results.

If you are in the majority of companies that don’t do split testing, is it because of a legitimate limitation to execute them?  If so, it doesn’t mean that you can’t objectively assess your digital marketing but it likely does mean that you will need to go about it in a more gradual way. In our next post, we will cover a less robust form of split testing that relies on an evolving digital marketing campaign.

Anticipate the Summer Slow Down

Acknowledging headwinds is the first step to overcoming them.  Most trainers, consultants and professional coaches experience a slowdown in their digital marketing over the summer months. Anticipating and preparing for that three month lull is critical to ensure that you meet your marketing targets.

Hope is not a strategy.  Almost every training and consulting market will be less available in the summer months. Unless your business is growing rapidly, chances are you have fewer visitors or a percent slow down compared to previous months due to traditional summer slowdowns.

You shouldn’t panic because of digital marketing performance drops during vacation season. Instead prepare for it in one of two ways:

  1. Pad Performance
    If you’ve experienced a summer slowdown in the past, you’re probably going to again next summer. Plan for the slowdown in your annual marketing goals.  The other seasons need to produce enough leads or sales to overcome the anticipated summer deficiency.Rather than setting a standard monthly target, compare year over year statistics to identify what a typical summer slowdown has been for your digital marketing campaigns. Then build a lower summer conversion into your plan and set benchmarks to pad performance. If summer happens to stay consistent then it’s a great opportunity to outperform annual goals.
  2. Increase Activity
    If you have the time or resources, you can increase your digital marketing activity. Essentially this is casting a wider net or increasing marketing frequency to improve your odds of connecting with those prospects that are available in the summer.  Make sure that the increased activity isn’t overbearing. There’s no benefit to alienating good prospects in an effort to keep summer numbers consistent.

Don’t panic when the summer slowdown hits. As long as you maintain your processes and activity, it won’t be depressed for long.

Consistency Counts for a Lot in Digital Marketing

If content is king in digital marketing, then consistency is queen. It’s the power behind the throne that ensures the message is heard.  Don’t disregard the true value of consistency because even a short lapse in consistency can have disastrous consequences.

Stephen Hawking said, “Half the battle is just showing up.” That’s as true to digital marketing success as it is to personal success.  If your digital marketing takes an unexcused absence, your audience is likely to terminate their attention for it.

A while ago we started working with a career consultant that had halted her weekly email marketing campaign to do some “updating”.  The two primary focuses of making a change were to migrate to a different marketing platform and bring in help to administer the campaign.  It took a total of six weeks to get the new platform in place, bring us onboard, agree to a new campaign strategy, and have the first communication queued for a send. During that six week period all the other channels (SEO, Social Media, PPC, and offline promotions) all continued to run as they had in the past.

Once the campaign was ready for launch, we pulled up the most recent tracking data from the website to serve as a baseline for performance. Our new client was shocked to see that her total traffic had decreased by roughly seventy-five percent!

After re-establishing her email campaign, we made strides to recover that traffic but a full recovery was just over two years away.  Meaning a six week lapse in consistency took about eighteen times as long to bounce back.

Why was the drop so steep?  It’s not that her audience forgot about her but rather that they had grown accustomed to her emails and the schedule at which they arrived.  When that schedule was disrupted without warning the email traffic obviously ceased but to compound the problem, she was no longer top of mind, so her audience paid less attention to her other channels as well.

If you have established consistency in your digital marketing, be very cautious about disrupting it. If you intend to make a technical or strategic transition, make sure there is an interim way of continuing your campaign until the new process is ready to go live.  If that’s impossible because of technical or resource constraints, then it’s advisable to alert your audience to a pending upgrade.  That at least puts a positive spin on the lapse in consistency, can provide alternate channels to fill the void, and can serve as a teaser to keep the value in your communications fresh in their mind.

More commonly trainers, consultants, and professional coaches struggle to establish digital marketing consistency. If you find that your digital marketing struggles to get traction with your audience, a lack of consistency could very well be the problem. After all if you aren’t showing up regularly, you are forfeiting half the battle.

Frankensteined Digital Marketing

Our last post explored how overusing or poorly deploying tools can limit options and complicates customization.   This same concept can be expanded into, what I call, Frankensteining your digital marketing components.  Piecing together too many disparate elements is a common cause of technical problems and bad user experiences.

Frankensteining happens when you introduce new elements onto a digital marketing channel and there is either a technical breakdown or unintended bad user experience.  Plugins and APIs are the chief culprits when a site goes from well-developed to monstrosity.

Let’s again use a website as an example.  Frankensteined websites are not that uncommon but are often referred to as “cluttered”.  I was recently on a site trying to read an article and I was hit with three calls-to-action as soon as I landed on the page.  The first was a pop up box that ghosted out the background.  As I closed that, I saw a footer bar advertising another offer.  After I scrolled down the page, a pop up appeared from the lower right corner asking if I’d like to start a chat with the sales team.

Any one of these would have been a perfectly acceptable way of introducing a call-to-action.  But having all three pile on me right away was downright annoying. If they had squeezed something into the header the offers literally would have come at me from all angles. It was annoying enough that I dug through the code a bit to see how the page was executing.

It turned out that all three offers were from separate plugins for the site.  I’m certain the admin for the site did not intend for me to have this user experience but frankensteining the components together resulted in this unintended consequence.

It’s not difficult to fall prey to Frankensteined digital marketing.  In the above example, the chat window appeared on every page so I’m certain it was an API driving that component sitewide.  The footer bar appeared on every blog post and is likely an API defined for content pages only.  The pop up window looked to be what the company was featuring at that time and was likely added as the call to action for that page via a plugin.

Frankensteining happens in all marketing channels, not just websites.  Apps and plugins can change a simple social media page into a cluttered nightmare of links and automated “features”.  Even email can get cobbled together with external components that often cause technical incompatibilities.

Be diligent in how you are piecing components together.  If you find that you are cobbling together a lot of components to achieve new objectives, it might be time to redesign how you are delivering your digital marketing.  Often times the redesign will provide a fresh start that results in a cleaner and simpler solution. Piecing too many components together runs the risk of creating a monstrous problem in technical glitches and bad user experiences.

Image Courtesy of dullhunk | flicker.com

Data, Not Preference, Is What Drives Digital Marketing Improvement

It’s said that stats can be used to prove anything.  That is a true statement when we allow our preferences to bias how we conduct digital marketing campaigns.  Digital marketing should be data-driven and changes should be honestly tested to see what is most effective. Dictating changes based on preferences will suit your tastes and make you feel like your gut feel is spot on, but data will drive real performance improvement.

The trouble with preference bias is it’s something people often aren’t self-aware of.  Trainers, consultants and professional coaches unknowingly craft experiments that make their preferences shine through as the best way of doing things.

We had an obvious case of this happening recently with a client. The client attributed his email marketing campaigns success to putting questions in the subject line. The problem was that the open rate had been in a noticeable decline over the last twelve months. Our client was resistant to testing other types of subjects because he was certain that wasn’t the problem.  He had used questions in the subject consistently and had several best-practice articles that sited questions as the best converting subjects. In fact, he said, “I tested subject lines that weren’t questions seven months ago and the open rate was worse.”

After experimenting with some other potential causes, including changing email marketing platforms to make sure that delivery was not a problem, we reviewed the test he had run.  It turned out that he had used the subject right after adding a new list from a trade show.  Many of those first time subscribers were lured into signing up for his email list but weren’t motivated to read his campaign, at least not right away. The bounce rate data confirmed that the new contacts were the catalyst for the open rate drop, not the subject line. Upon this realization he agreed to trying subjects without questions.

While the other tests produced small or moderate changes, the updated subject lines produced the most notable improvements.  Of course this is not to say that questions make for bad subject lines.  But it definitely does mean that exclusively using them in this client’s case was negatively impacting his email marketing performance.

There are many potential biases in digital marketing and none of them should be universally adopted without testing.  If you are not implementing changes that are counter to your preference on a semi-regular basis then there’s a fair chance that your preferences are driving your decisions rather than the data.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Atlasowa

Should Your Digital Marketing be AGILE?

It’s no secret that technology greatly influences how we work.  In recent years those influences have been bleeding outside of the realm of technology and becoming general principles for project management.

Sometimes these principles are skillfully applied outside their original intended purpose but in many cases they serve as an inefficient construct.  The most prevalent technology concept that has bled into digital marketing conversations is applying the Agile Methodology to digital marketing campaigns.

To apply Agile Methodology to your digital marketing you first need an explanation of what Agile Methodology is.  As a high level description, Agile is a process for software and system development where developers create a piece of software, review it, get feedback, then refine it.  Other pieces of the software are likely being developed for the same project and using the same process.  These bursts of development are called “sprints”  and allow multiple people or groups to review and provide feedback so that all the elements create a cohesive whole throughout the project.

The benefit of the agile methodology in software development is that it lets developers focus on a single element of the software, get immediate feedback, and refine it before moving further into development.  It also prevents any element from being set in  stone so that improvements can be made later in the project. In this way, elements of the software don’t become siloed by function and it ensures that the software is evolving into something users want, rather than what the developers think users want.

The agile methodology has been widely converted into a project management philosophy. While elements of it can be used effectively, it is also easy for trainers, consultants, and professional coaches to misapply the methodology.

The basic structure for any good digital marketing campaign is:

  • Set a strategy
  • Develop the content
  • Launch an element of the campaign
  • Review the results
  • Refine the campaign using the metrics

This process can be adapted into an Agile framework:

  • Project backlog (list of all projects)
  • Sprint backlog (individual elements of the project)
  • Burn chart (Visual tool of what is complete)
  • Task board (Visual tool of what needs done)
  • Sprint (Do the work)
  • Sprint review (Gather feedback)
  • Retrospective (Set plans for correction/improvement)

The real risk of misapplying Agile is over complicating what should be simple.  Here are some common misapplications that makes Agile slow your marketing progress to a crawl:

Not really understanding the Agile Methodology – Agile is widely used as a management fad or for its buzzwords.  It’s not uncommon for someone to state that they want their marketing to follow the Agile process when what they really mean is that they want rapid deployment of marketing communications.

Unnecessary meetings –  SCRUMS are daily meeting to focus a software development project.  That’s very useful to a large group of developers trying to build a single cohesive software offering.  For a small group of people where only a few are actually executing the marketing, it’s a waste of time.

Sprints are too fast – Sprints in the Agile methodology almost never go over a month.  Many digital marketing campaigns require at least a month’s data to effectively analyze it.  Speeding up the analysis often means taking action on incomplete data.

Retrospective on what you already know – Software developers rely on user tests to verify what works and what doesn’t.  An advantage that digital marketing has over software development is an actual data set on what was effective and what isn’t.  In an effort to follow Agile some people feel compelled to survey their audience on what they like/dislike about the marketing campaign. If you diligently analyze the data then you can see what your audience prefers rather than what they think they prefer.

Using complicated software tools – There are a lot of project management tools that offer the agile methodology.  For large groups this can be a valuable tool for keeping everyone on the same page.  For a small group it takes a long time to do what a simple flowchart or summarized email string could accomplish.

 

Agile methodology was designed so that software development was flexible in what it delivered rather than developing an entire software offering only to find out its not what people really want.  That flexibility and constant evolution process is what digital marketing should take from the Agile Methodology.  If you’re taking more than those core principles from the methodology make sure it’s increasing your efficiency rather than hindering it.

 

 

 

Responsibly Re-use Content

Online marketing has become a voracious beast that devours content. Keeping quality content flowing at a pace that can feed your email, social media, and/or blog can be a daunting task. If a trainer, consultant, or professional coach responsibly re-uses their content it can help fill gaps in their online marketing campaigns and still provide value to their target audience.

There are a few ways of re-using content:

  • Refresh Old Article/Video/Podcast Etc. – Reusing older content that has not seen the light of day in a while is often a simple way of getting more out of the effort you spent in creating it. However, it’s important not to get lazy by publishing it without a review. Be certain that you haven’t used the content lately (a year is often a safe time line). The world changes quickly and even an article or video from only a year ago might need updates on technical points or current events. The theme from Articles or videos that are several years old might be retained but frequently need a significant rewrite. For example, we just updated an article that referenced “replying to a pager” and “receiving a fax”.
  • New Spin On A Repeated Topic – This article is a partial re-use. Read the previous version about the pitfalls when you chronically re-use content. Previous content will often focus on one specific aspect of a topic. It’s possible to re-use that content by covering a different aspect. In this case the previous article speaks to the problems that can arise when you chronically re-use content. This article is on the same topic but is designed to suggest responsible and effective ways to re-use content.
  • Repackage Content – If you have newer content that resonates well or a series of articles or videos, it might be repackaged into a new offering. For instance, if you have an email marketing series on a particular topic or theme, that might be edited into a whitepaper or eBook.
  • Use Others Content As Commentary – It’s possible to re-use other people’s content but it takes diligence. The best way to do this is as commentary. This is often achieved by making a short comment on social media or by doing a lengthier review/analysis on what someone else has provided. In either case it’s important to make it clear who created the original content so that you are not taking credit for other people’s work.

Content creation is a significant effort in most digital marketing campaigns. While it’s important to provide unique content to your audience that highlights your unique expertise or offering, content re-use can be a valuable tactic in meeting a burdensome content creation schedule.

Photo credit: Flickr, Steven Snodgrass

Digital Marketing’s Value is Disrupted without Gauging Your Target Market’s Perception

contentIf you are searching for a new, and critical, perspective on digital marketing then Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble is a good option. The book came to my attention after hearing other digital marketers’ mixed reviews. The book is an account of author Dan Lyons’ time with HubSpot, a popular digital marketing platform.  It was described to me as funny but lacking an understanding of tech companies in general, but digital marketing specifically. While Lyons’ criticisms can be harsh at times, they often had merit. I think the sentiment that the book is a disgruntled employee whining about a past employer is an unfair review and overlooks one of the biggest lessons learned that can be taken from the book.  Your target market’s perception of your digital marketing campaigns is what assigns value to it.

Lyons largely covers the culture clash he experienced at HubSpot but also touches on some of the contradictions he saw with their digital marketing tactics.  Specifically when reviewing HubSpot’s digital marketing strategy he states that they claimed to hate SPAM and showed their disdain by flooding their customers and their customers’ customers with SPAM. He also writes about predrafted content that HubSpot employees were strongly encouraged to mass share to social media feeds to flood those channels with repetitive content.

Most digital marketers would counter the SPAM claim by citing opt-in processes or content engagement. They’d probably also suggest that the social content would be organically posted so that it was not a content or link blitz.

Lyons has a point in these examples. There are a lot of digital marketers that skirt a fine line, or blatantly cross it, with list building. To suggest that a digital marketing platform will reliably enforce CAN-SPAM practices is unrealistic.  Flooding social media with duplicate content is an obvious abuse.

It’s important not to get so caught up in our own digital marketing campaigns that we start disregarding outsider analysis. After all, our perception of our digital marketing is secondary to how our target audience perceives it.

Digital marketing data analysis, if done consistently and credibly, is designed to supply an objective view of how our content is being received which dictates its effectiveness. But even that will still contain some subjective judgment calls. That’s where outside perspectives can provide poignant insight on how your digital marketing can provide more value to your target audience and you in return.

Checklist Mindset in Digital Marketing

I am a checklist junkie.  I create monthly task calendars that I break down into weekly checklists and then create daily journal entries for what needs accomplished. For me it’s natural to want to do a task, complete it, and then check it off the list.  While valuable in task completion, a checklist mindset can be detrimental when misapplied to digital marketing efforts that require ongoing and consistent execution.

In a recent review of an SEO report with a small business owner, we outlined a number of updates that could be made to improve his site’s ranking.  One of those aspects was review links to his site.  The business owner assured us that he had plenty of reviews and pointed to his 5 Yelp reviews as evidence.  He felt that reviews had already been done and should not be part of the action plan for further improving his search engine ranking. While having the review in place was certainly a positive thing, there were two misconceptions.

The first was the apparent suggestion that 5 reviews was the end of the road.  Marketing is a consistent and ongoing process.  Five is a good start, six would be better, twenty-five would make significant impact on his site rank.  The method of soliciting reviews can evolve, an individual review can be completed, but there should not be pre-defined finish line on the activity itself.

The second issue was that all five reviews happened within a couple weeks of one another.  So the listing showed that they had been in business for three years but only one month contained reviews.  Either that was a stellar month or it’s an obvious and short-sighted attempt to drum up reviews. This has two negative consequences.  The first is that search engines will identify and marginalize such an isolated spurt of activity.  The second is that people that use the review site are likely to notice an anomaly like this which will call the credibility of the reviews into question.

Rather than having a mindset that reviews are finished, the business owner needs to break the category into replicable tasks.  As an example, he might have a thank you email or satisfaction survey that gets delivered to clients that features a link to leave a review in Yelp.  In this way the individual task can be thought of as complete but the overarching activity of acquiring reviews is ongoing.

Checklists and project completion mindsets are invaluable in executing the individual tasks of a digital marketing campaign but should be consistently applied in cycles. The activity itself doesn’t end when a particular instance is complete, but rather should be reapplied to a future instance. Set a goal and then build an execution plan into your daily operations. Quick fixes lead to short term results that can often do more harm than good for your long-term objectives.

Is It Time for a Redesign?

color-paint-paletteA redesign of a website or email campaign is often considered when the aesthetic of the layout has become dated or unsuitable. By all means, if you find yourself repulsed by the look of it, then it’s time to make an update.  But what if you’re just indifferent toward the layout?  Is it worth the time, money, and effort to do a redesign? To answer the question, analyze what problems the redesign can solve and whether there is a likely return on that investment.

The most prevalent mistake in doing a redesign is starting from scratch.  A new look doesn’t need to completely remove all previous elements. This is counterintuitive because the point of a redesign is to get something updated and fresh and the assumption is that the previous layout is neither of those things.

If you are running continually improving campaigns then there should be plenty of data on what elements improve performance, which elements hurt performance, and what elements have no tangible impact on conversion.  Your redesign should incorporate all the elements that improve conversion and shun those that do not.  That becomes the design constraint and any redesign needs to fall within those boundaries.

The second overlooked aspect of a redesign is whether it presents an opportunity to improve the technical competency of your website or email.  Technology changes quickly so almost every redesign should incorporate updated technology that brings the items up to speed.  In this way the redesign has the added benefit of keeping the infrastructure current.

If you are considering a redesign of a website or an email that is performing well and has no technology shortcomings, it’s often not worth the effort. If your redesign becomes a technology upgrade coupled with an evolution of your tested design elements, then it will almost always generate a tangible business impact.

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