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TMAI #262: Top 9 Fails: Experimentation & Testing.
| |Since you're reading this newsletter, I'm going to assume that you have been exposed to the magical and amazing awesomeness of experimentation and testing.You are likely aware that there are entire sub-cultures (and their attendant substacks) dedicated to the most granular ideas around experimentation. There are fat books to teach you how to experiment (or die!). People have become Gurus hawking it.The magnificent cherry on this delicious cake: There are really easy to use free tools, or tools that are extremely affordable and great, to get you going in terms of site experience testing. ALL IT TAKES IS FIVE MINUTES!!!And yet, chances are you really don’t know anyone directly who uses experimentation as a part of their regular business practice. Wah wah wah waaah.How is this possible?
It turns out experimentation, even of the simple landing page variety, is insanely difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with the capacity of tools, or the brilliance of the individual or the team sitting behind the tool (you!). It is everything else:
Company. Processes. Ideas. Creatives. Speed. Insights worth testing. Public relations. HiPPOs. Business complexity. Execution. And more.Today, from my blood, sweat and tears from working on the front lines, a collection of reasons that companies and their employees tend to get their approach to experimentation wrong, preventing them from ever having a regular, robust, remarkable testing program.My hope is that these reflections will inspire a stronger assessment of your company, culture and people which will, in turn, trigger corrective steps resulting in a regular, robust, remarkable testing program.First, a little step back to imagine the bigger picture.
| |What’s robust digital experimentation?
The entire online experimentation canon is filled with landing page optimization type testing.The last couple pages of a 52,000 word book might have ideas for testing the cart and checkout pages that pay-off big, or exploring the limits of comparison tables/charts/text or support options, or even how you write support FAQs (see TMAI #257).Yes. You can test landing pages. But, there is so, so, so much when it comes to experimentation possibilities online.So. Much!
A. As an example, we have a test in-market right now to figure out how much of the money we are spending on Bing is truly incremental.
(Without question, as outlined in TMAI #223, experiments that answer the priceless marketing incrementality question is the single most effective thing you can do. This experimentation eats landing page optimization for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snack.)
B. Another frequent online experimentation strategy is to use matched-market tests to figure out diminishing return curves for the online-offline media-mix in our marketing plans.
(Should we spend $5 mil on Facebook and YouTube, and $10 mil on TV, or vice versa or something else?)
C. We are routinely live testing our ads on YouTube with different creatives to check for effectiveness, or the same ad against different audiences/day parts/targeting strategies to find the performance maxima. So delicious.
D. Perhaps one of the most difficult ones is to figure out complex relationships over long periods of time: Does brand advertising (sometimes hideously also called “upper funnel”) actually drive performance outcomes in the long run?
E. Oh, oh, oh, and our long-term favorite: Does online advertising on TikTok, Snap and Hulu actually drive phone sales in AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile stores in the real world? The answer will surprise you.
Obviously, you should also be curious about the inverse. (Print and Billboards are surprisingly effective at driving digital outcomes! Yes. Print. Yes. Billboards!)
F. One of the coolest things we’ve done over the last year is to figure out how to get true incremental complete campaign brand lift for our large campaigns.
You, like us, probably measure change in Unaided Awareness, Consideration, Intent across individual digital channels. This is helpful and not all that difficult to accomplish. But, if you spent $20 mil across five digital platforms, what was the overall deduped brand lift from all that money?
The answer is not easy, you can get it only via experimentation, and it is invaluable to a CMO.These are six initial ideas from our work to stretch your mind. (I promise to cover each in future Premium editions.)Next time you hear the phrase digital experimentation, it is ok to think of landing page optimization first but it would be global maxima imagination if you also think of the deep and profound impact of everything (A - F above) that falls into building a robust and remarkable digital experimentation practice.Digital experimentation holds the power to overshadow the impact you can have via digital analytics - and this comes from someone who has written two best selling books on digital analytics!I want you to have the above context, from work that we are doing in our team. For the rest of this newsletter, I’m going to narrow the focus back to the digital experimentation canon that contains almost all pages exclusively on landing page optimization. After all, any random web page or screen on your mobile app can be improved dramatically. Ex: Checkout this page on Macy’s, it can be improved dramatically, right?
| |Reasons your experimentation program is not robust < > remarkable.
As I’d mentioned above, the barrier to experimentation is neither tools (choose from free or extremely affordable) nor Analysts (I’m assuming you have them). Here are a collection of reasons neither you nor anyone you directly know have an experimentation program worth its salt:1. Not planning for the first five tests to succeed.
I know how hard what I’m about to say is. I truly do.But, your first few tests simply can’t fail.
It takes so much to get going. Such high stakes given the people, process, permissions, politics, implementation issues involved. You somehow pull all that off and your first test delivers inconclusive results (or “weird” results) and there is a giant disappointment (no matter how trivial the test was). You and I promised a lot to get this program going, so many employees, leaders, egos, teams were involved, it will be a big let down.
Now your second and third test fail, and suddenly no one is taking your calls or replying to your emails.
It is unlikely you’ll get to the fifth one. The program is dead.
How can you possibly guarantee the first few tests will succeed? Look, it will be hard. But, you can plan smart:
Test big differences.
Don’t test on 5% of the site traffic.
For the sake of the all things holy, don’t test five shades of blue buttons.
Don’t test for a vanity metric.
Don’t pick a low traffic page/variation.
Have a hypothesis that is entirely based on an insight from your digital analytics data (for the first few).
And, all the ideas below.Your first test delivers a winner, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Your fifth test delivers a winner, everyone realizes there's something magical here and they leave you alone with enough money and support for the program for a year. Now. You can start failing because you start bringing bold ideas - and a lot of them fail (as they should).
Bonus Tip: The more dramatic the differences you are testing, the less the sample size you and faster the results will arrive (because the expected effect is big). Additionally, less chances of the surrounding noise or unexpected variables impacting your experiment.
| |2. Staring at the start of the conversion process, rather than close to the end.
On average, a human on an ecommerce site will go through 12 - 28 pages from landing to order confirmation.If you are testing buttons, copy, layout, offer, cross-sells / upsells, other things, on the landing page, chances are any positive influence of that excellent test variation will get washed out by the time the site visitor is on page 7 or 12 or 26.
In fact chances given the reduction in signal size, you are going to need 800,000 humans to go through an experimental design of the landing page to detect an impact on conversion rate.
That will take time. It comes with a high chance of experiment failure, given all other variables.
So, why not start at the end of the conversion process?
Run your first A/B test on the page with the Submit Order button.
Run your MVT test on the page that shows up after someone clicks Start Checkout.
Pick the page for the highest selling product on your site and use it for your first A/B test.
The closer you are to the end, the higher the chances your test will show clear success or failure, and do so faster. This is great for earning your experimentation program executive love AND impact the real business results at the same time.
I realize how oxymoronic it sounds to say do your landing page optimization on the last page of the customer experience. But that, my friends, is what it takes.
| |3. Hyping the impact of your experiments.
This is the thing that irritates me the most, because of just how far back it sets experimentation culturally.
Here’s how it does: You test an image/button/test on the landing page. It goes well. Improves conversion rate by 1.2% (huge by the way) and that is, let’s say, $128,000 more in revenue (also wonderful). You now take that number, annualize the impact, extend it out to all the landing pages, and go proclaim in a loud voice:
One experiment between blue and red buttons increased company revenue by $68 mil/year. ONE BUTTON!
You’ve seen bloggers, book authors and gurus claiming this in their tweets, articles and industry conference keynotes.
The Analysis Ninja that you are, you see the BS. The individual is ignoring varied influence across product portfolios, seasonality, diminishing returns, changes in the audience, and a million other things.
The $68 mil number is not helping.
Standardize the change across 10 more pages, 15 more products, for five more months, in three more countries, etc., and then start making big broad claims.
Another irritating manifestation of the hyping/sad PR tendency: Adding up the impact of each experiment into a bigger total.
I’d mentioned above that you should try and make your first five tests succeed to build momentum. You do!
Test one: +$1 mil. Test two: +$2 mil. Test three, four, five: +$3, +$4, +$5 mil.
OMG, OMG, OMG!
Here’s the thing, if you now made all five changes permanent on your site, in your mobile app, the total impact will be less than $15 mil.
Diminishing returns. Incrementality. Pick your poison.
So. Don’t claim $15 mil (or more) from making all the changes permanent. And, the effect will wash off over time. Not to zero. But less over time.
There is a tension between wanting to start something radical and being honest with the impact. You want to hype, there is so much pressure. Even if you don’t care about the company, there are books to sell, speeches to give at conferences. Resist the urge.
When you claim outlandish impact, no one believes you. And in this game, credibility is everything.
| |4. Overestimating your company’s ability to have good ideas.
I’ve never started an experimentation program worried that we won’t have enough worthy ideas to test. I’m always wrong.Unless you are running a start-up or a 40-people mid-sized business, your experimentation program is going to rely on a large number of senior executives, the creative team, the agency, multiple marketing departments and product owners, the digital team, the legal team, the analysts, and a boatload of people to come up with ideas worth testing.It is so hard:
People lack imagination.
People fight each other for what’s worthy.
People have strong opinions for what can’t be touched.
People, more than you would like to admit, insult the User’s intelligence.
People will throw a wrench in the world more often than you like.
People will come up with two great ideas for new copy when you can test six - and then they can’t supply any more for five months. Go in realizing that it will be extraordinarily difficult for you to fill your experimentation pipeline with worthy ideas. Plan for how to overcome that challenge.
One of my strategies is to create an ideas democracy. Two lessons power this: The C-Suite has not cornered the market on great ideas for what to test. The lay-folks, those not connected to the site/app, are almost perfect for ripping the existing user experience.
One of my solutions was to send an email out to Finance, Logistics, Customer Support, a wide diversity of employees. Invite them for an extended (free) lunch. We throw the site up on the conference room screen. Point out some challenges we see in data (the what) and ask for their hypotheses and ideas. We always left the room with 10 more ideas than we wanted!
Multivariate Testing sounds good, until you can’t come up with enough ideas to fill the cells and so you wind up filling them with low quality ideas. Tool capabilities currently outstrip our ability to use them effectively. Plan for this problem.
5. Measuring final outcome, instead of what job the page is trying to do.
How do you know the MV Test worked?
Go back to the thought expressed in #2 above: An average experience is 12 to 28 pages to conversion.
If you are experimenting on page one, imagine how difficult it will be to know on page 18 if page one made a difference (when any of the pages between 1 and 18 could have sucked and killed the positive impact!).
For the Primary Success Criteria, I’m a fan of measuring the job the element / button / copy / configurator was trying to do.
On a landing page, it might be just trying to reduce the 98% bounce rate. Which variation of your experiment get’s it down to 60%?
On a product page it might be increasing product bundles added to the cart instead of discrete products.
On the checkout page it might be increasing the use of promo codes.
On a mobile app, success might mean recovering the password to get into the app.
So on and so forth.
I’ll just designate the Primary Success of the experiment based only on the job the page/element is trying to do (i.e., the hypothesis I’m testing). If it works, I’ll declare the test to be a success.
In each case above, for my Secondary Success Criteria I’ll track the Conversion Rate or AOV or, for multiple purchases in a short duration of time, Repeat Purchases. But, that’s simply to see second order effects. If they are there, I take it as a bonus. If they are not there, I know there are other dilutive elements in between what I’m trying to do and the Secondary Success.
If all your experiments are tagged to deliver higher revenue/late stage success, they’ll take too long to show signal, you will have to fix a lot more than just the landing page, and, worse, you’ll be judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree.
Don’t do that.
6. (Advanced) Believing there is one right answer for everyone.
Entirely at random if you read one of the previous editions of TMAI, it is likely you’ll bump into my exhortation: Segment, Segment, SEGMENT!
That’s simply because all data in aggregate is crap.
We simply have too many different types of people, from different regions, with different preferences, with different biases, with different intent, at different stages of engagement with us, with different contexts, engaging with us. Segmentation helps us tease out these elements and create variations of consumer experiences to deliver delight (which, as a side effect, delivers cash to us).
The same principle applies for A/B & MV testing.
If we test version A of the page and a very different version B of the page, in the end we might identify that version B is better by a statistically significant amount.
Knowing humanity though, it turns out that for a segment of the users version A did really well and they did not like version B at all.
It would be totally a bonus item being able to figure out who these people are and what it is about them that made them like A when most liked B.
Not being able to figure this out won’t doom your experimentation program. It might just limit how successful it is.
Hence, when the program is settled, I try to instrument the experiment and variations so that we can capture as much data about audience attributes as possible for later advanced analysis.
The ultimate digital user experience holy grail is that every person gets their own version of your website (it is so cheap to deliver!). It is rare that a site delivers on this promise/hope. As you run your experiments, it is exactly what I’m requesting you to do.
This one strategy will set your company apart. If you can figure out which cluster of the audience each version of the experiment works with, it holds the potential to be a competitive advantage for you!
Bonus Tip: If you follow my advice above, then you'll need a experience customization platform that will allow you to deliver these unique digital experiences. Then, I'm a special snowflake and you'll treat me as such! Wow.
7. (Advanced) Optimizing yourself to a local maxima.
A crucial variation of #5 and #6.
An illustrative story…
When I first started A/B testing at a former employer, we did many things above and the team did a really great job improving the Primary Success Metric and at times the Secondary Success Metric. Hurray! Then, because I love the what but also the why, we implemented satisfaction surveys and were able to segment them by test variations.
The very first analysis identified that while we had improved Conversion Rate and Revenue via our test versions, the customer satisfaction with the site also plummeted. Digging into the data made me realize, we’d minimized (in some instances eliminated) the Support options. And, 40% of the people were coming to the (ecommerce!) site for tech support.
Many experimentation programs don’t survive because they end up optimizing for a local maxima. They are either oblivious to the global maxima (what is the good for the entire company and not just our team) or there are cultural incentives to ignore the global maxima (in our case likelihood to recommend our company - not just buy from us once).
Be very careful. Don’t be obligated only to only your boss/team.
Think of the Senior Leader 5 (/12) levels higher and consider what their success looks like.
To the extent possible, try to instrument your experiments to give you some signal (in a Secondary Success Criteria spirit) so that you can understand the impact on the global maxima.
In our case above, it was integrating surveys and clickstream data. You might have other excellent ideas (pass on primary keys into Salesforce!).
Global maxima, FTW. Always.
| |8. Building for scaled testing from day one.
Experimentation is like religion. You get it. It seems so obviously the right answer. You build for a lifetime commitment.
You start by buying the most expensive and robust tool humans have created. You bully your CMO into funding a 40 people org and a huge budget. You start building out global partnerships across the company and its complexity, and start working on scaled processes. And so much more.
By the time you build out people, process, tools, across all the steps required to test at scale across all your business units (or even customer experiences), the stakes are so high (we’ve already invested 18 months, built out a 40 people organization, and spent $800k on a tool!!), every test needs to impress God herself or it feels like a failure.
Even if your first five tests succeed, unless you are shaking the very foundations of the business instantly (after 18 months of build out of course) chances are the experimentation program (and you) will still feel like a failure to the organization.
And, what are the chances that you are going to make many of the above mistakes before, during and after you are building out your Global Scaled Massive Integrated Testing Program? Very high my dear, very high. You are only human.
Building for scale from the start, not having earned any credibility that experimentation can actually deliver impact, is silly and an entirely avoidable mistake.
From my first book this formula works wonderfully for experimentation as well:
1. Start small. Prove value. Scale a bit. Robust and remarkable experimentation platforms are built on many points of victory along a journey filled with learnings from wins and losses.
Prove value. Scale a bit more.
Rinse. Repeat. Forever.
9. (Advanced) Not realizing experimentation is not the answer.
Testing fanatics often see every problem as a nail that can be hammered with an experimentation hammer.
Only sign up to solve with experimentation, what can be solved with experimentation.
A few years back I bumped into an odd case of a team filled with smart folks constructing an experiment to prove that SEO is worth investing in. There was a big presentation to go with the idea. Robust math was laid out.
I could not shake the feeling of WTH!
When you find yourself in a situation where you are using, or are being asked to use, experimentation to prove SEO’s value… Realize the problem is company culture. Don’t use experimentation to solve that problem. It is a lose lose.
Not that long ago I met a team that was working on some remarkable experiments for a large company. They were doing really cool work, they were doing analysis that was truly inspiring.
I was struck by the fact that at that time their company’s only success was losing market share every single month for the last five years, to a point where they were approaching irrelevance.
Could the company not use a team of 30 people to do something else that could contribute to turning the company around? I mean, they were just doing A/B testing and even they realized that while mathematically inspiring and executionally cool, there is no way they were saving the business.
It is not lost on me that this recommendation goes against the very premise of this newsletter - to build a robust and remarkable experimentation program. But, the ability to see the big picture and demonstrate agility is a necessary skill to build for long term success.
| |Bottom line.
I’ve only used or die in two of my slogans. Segment, or die. Experiment, or die. I deeply, deeply believe in the power of A/B and Multivariate Testing. It is so worthy of every company’s love and affection.
Beyond that, I’ve become a massive believer in the value of broad experimentation and testing (ideas A - F, in section one of this newsletter).
In a world filled with data with few solid answers, ideas A - F and site/app testing provide answers that can dramatically shift your business' trajectory. May the force be with you.
PS: The images in this newsletter are from an old presentation I love by Dan Siroker. Among his many accomplishments, he is the founder of the wonderful testing platform Optimizely.
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