3 big picture marketing themes from #ConvCon

Last week was the inaugural Conversion Conference (#ConvCon), a new event organized by landing page optimization expert Tim Ash and co-located with the eMetrics marketing optimization summit. While there were plenty of terrific sessions on landing pages and conversion optimization — my post-click marketing craft and trade at ion — three larger marketing themes emerged that I want to share with you.

Theme #1: Agile Marketing

In conversion optimization — what marketers do to increase lead generation or e-commerce sales on the web — there are two perennial secrets to success.

The first is the ability to test, for instance, to try two different landing pages in an A/B split test. You send half the respondents who click on an advertisement to page A and the other half to page B, and then measure which of those two groups has the highest conversion rate.

The second is the ability to deploy specific landing pages to match particular advertisements, emails, or social media promotions. So if I click on an ad for a romantic getaway in Tuscany, it works much better if I land on a page that talks specifically about a romantic getaway — with content and images and special offers tailored to that idea — rather than the generic home page of a hotel chain in Italy. (I’ve written before about the proliferation of such micromarketing in my post on landing pages as atomic marketing.)

Both depend on how quick and easy it is for you to deploy new tests and new pages. As a result, many speakers emphasized agile marketing practices — if not with that label, certainly with its essence.

The message: conversion optimization is all about agility.

As conversion optimization gains more executive recognition — which it is quickly doing, due to the ROI it delivers in the age of marketing accountability — it will help motivate broader adoption of agile methodologies in the marketing department. Agile-marketers-to-be: take advantage of this opportunity to start changing your organization’s marketing metabolism.

Theme #2: Test-Driven Marketing

However, just because you can run tests doesn’t make you test-driven.

Probably the biggest theme at the conference was developing a culture of testing in the marketing department. Marketers, perhaps more than anyone, have passionate and creative opinions about what will work in the market. In old-school marketing, the highest-paid person’s opinion — the infamous HiPPO that Avinash Kaushik rails against — would take precedence. The boss would pick the winner.

(Imagining that bosses are inherently good at picking winners is a classic example of survivorship bias and being Fooled by Randomness.)

In a test-driven marketing environment though, such creative ideas are only the start of the decision-making process. Instead of one idea being picked by the loudest or highest ranked advocate, many ideas are tested to learn which one customers like best — and that’s the empirical winner. Executives embrace the process, rather than the picking, as the mantle of their leadership.

But test-driven marketing goes further than merely arbitrating internal debate.

Test-driven marketing is about continuous improvement, iterating through experiments as a way of life, rather than a one-shot project. Chris Goward of WiderFunnel gave a fantastic presentation at the conference on applying the Kaizen method (popularized by the Toyota Production System) to conversion optimization. I think this is a brilliant cross-pollination of ideas from engineering and operations into digital marketing.

PDCA for test-driven marketing

Chris and the team at WiderFunnel have also developed their own LIFT model for landing page improvement that demonstrates the power of a domain-specific framework for managing the direction of such continuous improvement.

Brooks Bell, the founder and president of Brooks Bell Interactive, presented on the power of A/B split testing and recounted her company’s start with optimizing banner advertisements for AOL. She described how AOL was obsessed with testing — a company worldview that in no small part contributed to their one-time domination of the market through massive customer acquisition. AOL may have eventually been eclipsed by The Innovator’s Dilemma, but their culture of testing was pioneering.

One of the anecdotes that Brooks relayed was how AOL built a technology team directly in the marketing department as a way to accelerate testing and push the boundaries of new ideas. Is it possible that they were the first company to prefigure the rise of the marketing technologist?

Theme #3: Insight vs. Automation

One of the most interesting debates in this next decade of new marketing will be the tension between human insight and software automation. On one extreme will be fully “black box” computational marketing, where computer algorithms take over the entire decision process of what marketing to present prospects and customers at every contextual opportunity. The other extreme, which will no doubt be driven by a blacklash to problems with pure algorithmic marketing, will keep people directly in charge of most marketing execution, relying on their judgement and creativity, albeit at the cost of more limited scale.

Of course, the most compelling solutions will be those that thrive in between the two extremes, seamlessly entwining the capabilities of people and machines. Think of the bionic man more than The Terminator.

Conversion Conference offered a sneak preview of that debate. Some vendors who have specialized in highly technical fractional factorial multivariate testing (MVT) continued to emphasize their ability to test thousands and thousands of possible page variations of a web page to (theoretically) find the most optional combination.

But most other speakers, who had real-world experience implementing such approaches, championed simpler but more meaningful tests. They argued passionately for intuitive and well-hypothesized A/B split tests, maybe followed by smaller full factorial MVT experiments that properly identified interaction effects.

Bryan Eisenberg, the wonderfully opinionated author of Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, showed outright disdain for the notion of throwing millions of combinations against the wall, hoping for a miracle somewhere in the jumble. He called it slice and dice optimization and claimed that all it did was burn people out on testing without achieving real results.

Lance Loveday, CEO of Closed Loop Marketing and co-author of Web Design for ROI, made a strong case for not just testing, but testing among good options (TAGO). What is “good?” That’s where human insight and creativity come into play.

Neither Bryan nor Lance are Luddites by any stretch of the imagination — they’re all for using every tool they can find to help with their conversion optimization mission. But they’re fervent advocates for leveraging such tools with human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.

The battle lines in this debate are in flux though, so it will be exciting to see how it evolves.

Intrigued? There will be another Conversion Conference in Washington, D.C. in early October. Hope to see you there!

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3 thoughts on “3 big picture marketing themes from #ConvCon”

  1. Fantastic summary, Scott, thanks.
    For me the ConvCon was a real milestone. Rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other folk who are as concerned with conversion as we are gave me a real sense of purpose and belonging.
    I notice that you stopped short of mentioning your own impressive presentation which held our attention and certainly opened my eyes to optimization opportunities for B2B companies. Great job.
    October can’t come fast enough! Cheers.

  2. Thanks, Daniel!
    I heard that your presentation was fantastic as well, and I regret that I wasn’t able to catch it personally. Definitely looking forward to an encore performance though!

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