Archive for the 'Online Strategy' Category

Website Redesigns Gone Good

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

I can’t count the number of Website redesigns that I have been involved with over the years, but I find them to be a little like renovations to a house: the process can be painful but when you are done, the results can be spectacular.

We just passed the one year anniversary of the launch of new website for one of our clients, Wilton.  Wilton is a leader in cake and dessert decorating, cookie making and celebrations, and throughout its 80-year-history, one of Wilton’s primary goals has been to educate and inspire dessert decorators of all skill levels.  The company’s Web site,, has played an important role by offering a vast collection of decorating ideas, recipes and techniques.

This website redesign had a number of challenges (thousands of pages of content that needed to be reorganized, integrating new functionality, etc.) but the redesign was critical to the success of the online marketing plan we developed for Wilton.

Quite honestly, the results surpassed our expectations – we have seen significant improvements in almost every key metric that we track, including the following:

  • 190 percent increase in the volume of projects and recipes viewed by Wilton consumers
  • 35 percent increase in total number of Web site visits
  • 50 percent growth in returning visitors
  • 20 percent improvement in product views
  • 32 percent increase in the number of new visitors
  • 82 percent growth in the number of searches for local Wilton Method classes
  • 35 percent decrease in search results page abandonment
  • 20 percent increase in estimated Web site driven revenue

One of the reasons why I think we achieved the results we did is that everything was tied to an online marketing goal or objective and those were connected to the overall business strategy.  In other words, we justified everything we did by showing how it was going to positively impact the bottom line.  I can’t say that all web redesigns will provide the results that Wilton’s did, but it does serve as yet one more example of how well a new website can pay-off.

No Doubt That Twitter Is Relevant – At Least For Now

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

twitter_blogTwitter is growing like gangbusters (45 million visitors in June according to comScore), but there are a number of people who believe Twitter is a fad and are relatively dismissive of it.  I don’t have a crystal ball, and I have no way of knowing whether Twitter will become the next Second Life.  However, I do know that given the number of people currently using Twitter and the results I see from our clients and other companies, every marketer needs to seriously consider what role technologies like Twitter play in the mix. 

The reality is that there are probably people tweeting (a twitter post) about your company, your products, and your categories and you need to, at a minimum, be listening to those conversations.  Beyond monitoring, it may not make sense for your company to be engaged in Twitter but more thought needs to be given to that decision than just dismissing it because someone just doesn’t get Twitter.

Barriers To Data Driven Web Optimization

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009
Photo: StarrGazr

Photo: StarrGazr

One of the greatest advantages of online marketing is the marketers’ ability to quickly adjust and respond to the data they can obtain directly from their interactions with their market.  However, each organization is at a different stage in terms of their online measurement sophistication and each faces barriers to becoming more effective at optimizing their web marketing.

Avinash Kaushik recently posted a good blog entry on Barriers To An Effective Web Measurement Strategy.  In the blog, he recommends some first steps in overcoming the following 11 barriers to an effective online measurement strategy that were cited in Econsultancy’s Online Measurement and Strategy Report.

1.  Lack of budget/resources (45%)
2.  Lack of strategy (31%)
3.  Siloed organization (29%)
4.  Lack of understanding (25%)
5.  Too much data (18%)
6.  Lack of senior management buy-in (18%)
7.  Difficulty reconciling data (17%)
8.  IT blockages (17%)
9.  Lack of trust in analytics (16%)
10. Finding staff (12%)
11. Poor technology (9%)

While I did find Avinash’s insights on each of the barriers valuable, I think the list of barriers is flawed in that it confuses the symptoms with the actual barriers.  Could you imagine, for example, if a baseball manager explained that the reason his team was losing was because he was getting “too much data” from his statistician (point 5 from the barrier list).  If he did, he would not be manager for long.  It’s the manager’s job to determine which stats are important and will make a difference in his game strategy.  While I’m sure there are many executives and analysts who feel that they do have to sift through too much data, the true barrier is the lack of a good strategy that focuses the organization on a few core metrics that get to the heart of what you are trying to accomplish.

Given our experience in helping many organizations with their data driven optimization, I think the 11 point barrier list could be refined down to the following 4 core barriers.

1.  Strategy
It all starts with a good strategy.  It’s necessary for obtaining management buy-in and for ultimately attaining the ROI on any investments made in optimization initiatives.  It is critical that the strategy identify a small set of critical metrics that are meaningful to management and drive any ROI business case.

It’s also important to recognize that the web optimization strategy needs to evolve as the web optimization capabilities of the organization evolve.  The strategy is about pinpointing the most important constraints that you need to overcome and focusing your time and resources on making that happen.  Often this may require small steps first to gain credibility and management buy-in.

2.  Management Buy-in
Not surprisingly, once you obtain management buy-in, many of the symptoms begin to disappear.  Certainly lack of budget/resources and IT blockages begin to dissipate if you have the support of senior management.  While it is likely the most important barrier to overcome, this can often be the most difficult.  It’s also important to recognize that until management is willing to make some level of investment in analytics and optimization, then they have not really bought-in.

This often creates a chicken or the egg situation where the online marketer asks, “How do I credibly demonstrate ROI on the investment prior to making the investment”?   Early on this is where the hard work and innovative thinking must occur to implement examples of how data-driven initiatives can provide the ROI necessary to develop a strong business case.  The good news is that with the use of inexpensive, often free, tools in combination with some good analysis, it is not too difficult to gain credibility by demonstrating substantive ROI.  This is often the key objective of organizations that are relatively early in their web optimization evolution.

3.  Infrastructure for Testing, Analysis, and Change
The infrastructure I am addressing here includes the website or ecommerce management technology as well as the implementation of the analytics tools.  We have come across many situations where online marketers have properly identified what are potentially significant improvements that will really move the needle on their core metrics, but the amount of work involved to test or implement the changes were believed to be too significant to justify the investment.

This can be a daunting challenge in that the investment in the current infrastructure and the staff to support it may have been significant and modifications may be difficult and expensive.  In many cases this requires working actively with someone who is technically proficient enough to implement some relatively small tests across several areas that when viewed together make a strong case for an investment in a new infrastructure or new component to that infrastructure.  In other cases, this is more of an uphill battle and the key becomes just recognizing the constraints and focusing on those areas where improvements can be made.

4.  Skills and Time for Testing, Analysis, and Change
In my opinion this is the most overlooked and most underestimated barrier that must be overcome.   Many organizations that have implemented analytics either largely ignore the analytics reports, don’t have time to analyze them, or generate reports that provide little in terms of insights that stimulate changes that improve the critical metrics and provide a high ROI.  In order for an organization to effectively implement data-driven optimization, they must have time from the personnel who know what data they should be focused on, what tests should be implemented, and what actions should be taken as a result of the analysis.  This, by the way, does not mean that an analyst should be doing all of the analysis.  In fact, quite the opposite, they need to know how to get the appropriate people throughout the organization involved in the analysis (the “Why” behind the “What” happened).   As the benefits of this time become apparent, it becomes easier to build this testing and analysis into normal work processes.

Most organizations also tend to under invest in the time required from the personnel who are necessary to effectively carry out tests.  For example, designing multiple versions of a page for A/B or multivariate testing can pay significant dividends.  Organizations need to plan accordingly for copywriting and design resources in order to make these tests successful.

By focusing in on and addressing these four key areas, the other issues on the Econsultancy list will likely be addressed in the process.  What do you think of the 11 barriers identified in the Econsultancy study?

The Importance of Making a Good Latest Impression

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

thumbs_upAs a society, we are very focused on first impressions:  clothes, good looks, jewelry, etc.  It’s not much different in the business world.  First impressions in business are obviously important because without a good one, you may not have a chance to make a second impression and those good impressions are needed to make a sale.  However, the value of that first impression only lasts so long and is eventually replaced by the combined value of all impressions. In fact, the benefit from the good first impression usually lessens over time and customers start determining your value based as much, if not more, on your latest impressions.  That’s why companies must focus as much attention on ensuring a positive latest impression as they do on creating a great first one. All of your company touch points – customer service, account managers, internal sales, receptionists, invoices, newsletters, participation in social networks, etc. reflect your company and the value you provide and any one of them can be an asset or a liability. I have worked with software companies that had great products and were wonderful courters during the sales process only to be ultimately undone by very poor customer support and follow-up services.  For example, how often have you met a senior executive during the sales process telling you how important your business is but once the sale is closed, you never hear from that person again? The following are ways to help ensure your latest impression is as good as it should be:

  • Have a clear understanding of what your brand promise is with respect to the customer experience.  Even if you aren’t trying to be Nordstroms, there is some minimum expectation from your customer in terms of follow-up, support, etc.
  • Ensure that you aren’t so focused on getting the sale that you sacrifice the post-sale experience.  For example, in b-to-b situations, salespeople are sometimes incented only to close the sale and there isn’t focus on creating long-term customers.  This can create situations in which the salespeople make promises that the implementation and support teams can’t keep.
  • Review all of your touch points and decide if any are a liability.  Don’t forget to review each and every touch point and that includes the person who answers your phone and welcomes your clients, invoices, security guards, website, etc.  This is more difficult than it might appear because touch points usually span several functional areas.
  • Implement metrics that help you measure your success at providing a great latest impression and review them on a consistent basis.
  • Continually remind all key parties of the importance of that latest impression.

What other ways can we help ensure that we are providing a great latest impression?

Content, Content, Content

Monday, June 29th, 2009
Photo: Sharyn Morrow

Photo: Sharyn Morrow

No matter what type of marketing you are engaged in (search marketing, email marketing, social marketing, etc.), the first, and perhaps most important, thing you can do is ensure you are providing relevant and useful content.

Most companies could benefit by spending more time thinking about what they can do to continually provide value to their customers, followers, fans, etc.  Marketing is made so much easier if you have something of interest.  Content is still king.

Success and Failure – Strange Bedfellows

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.  – Michael Jordan

Failure is a tricky creature in the business world.  Fail too often and you are likely to be looking for a new job, but the reality is that no one continually finds success without encountering failure.  The problem is that the fear of failure can be so strong that it prevents people from expirimenting, testing, and innovating. 

Image: Gregory Szarkiewicz

Image: Gregory Szarkiewicz

Companies need to establish an environment where failure resulting from sound business decisions isn’t punished.  Look no further than Google.  Google realizes that not every idea will be a winner but they have created an environment where its employees are encouraged and even expected to constantly innovate – which means trying new things without a paralyzing fear of failure.

What Michael Jordan knows is that if you are too scared to try, you won’t succeed.

Improving Email Marketing Results With Pre-Testing

Monday, April 20th, 2009

As Internet marketers, we love our testing, and one of the greatest benefits of email marketing over direct marketing is the immediacy of testing results.  By ‘pre-testing’, we can use that immediacy to improve the performance of our email campaigns.

A typical A/B test usually involves developing two different versions of an email (e.g. different subject lines, including personalization, etc.), splitting the list of subscribers into two randomly selected groups, and sending a different version to each group.  The test is often run multiple times, results are analyzed, and the information is used to inform future campaigns. 

Most marketers start with what I’ll call ‘macro tests’ which involve larger issues such as testing different layouts, best time of day and day of week to send, etc.  All of these type of macro tests are very important and establish best practices and guidelines for an email program.

However, there are situations in which elements specific to a campaign need to be tested – I’ll refer to those as ‘micro tests’.  For example, maybe the creative director and product manager disagree on which photo should be used in the email as a hero shot or there are questions about the arrangement of words in the subject line (i.e. which are most important to place toward the front).  You could just A/B test the two approaches, sending each version to 1/2 of the list.  However, if one version significantly outperforms the other, then you would have lost opportunity by sending out the worst performing version to 50% of your list. 

Let’s look at the results (similar to one of our client’s recent campaigns) of an email that was A/B tested with 200,000 subscribers and in which version A outperformed version B:

Typical A/B Test Scenario

Typical A/B Test Scenario

The good news is that we did 20% better than if we would have sent version B to the entire list. However, the bad news is that we performed 20% worse than if we had sent version A to the entire list.  Of course, we didn’t know which would be the best version prior to the send.  Pre-testing allows us to reduce the risk associated with sending a worse-performing email to a large percentage of our list.

A pre-tests involves deploying the initial A/B test to a smaller, but statistically significant percentage of subscribers first and then sending the ‘winning’ version to the remainder of the list.   For example, using the same number of subscribers and response rates in the example above, a pre-test sent to 20% of the list would generate the following results:

Pre-Testing Scenario

Pre-Testing Scenario

In this example, pre-testing improved results by 16% over straight A/B testing.  The greater the performance between the two versions, the more benefit provided (and risk-reduced) by pre-testing.

A few caveats about pre-testing:

  • Pre-tests are not suitable for all situations.  For example, there are some tests (like testing a new enewsletter layout) that you are going to want to run multiple times involving as many subscribers in the the sample as possible.  Also, you need to allow at least 24 hours between the pre-test and the send to the reaminder of the list so that you have enough data to reach a conclusion, so if the email is time sensitive, you may not have time for the pre-test.
  • Even though you want the pre-test groups to be small, the groups need to be large enough to be statistically significant. (for more on sample sizes and statistical relevance, read Wayde Nelson’s response in a MarketingProf knowledge exchange answer)
  • To help validate your approach to pre-testing, run a few tests where you conduct a pre-test with your two versions and then deploy an A/B test to the remaining subscribers.  If you don’t see the same results between your pre-test and full A/B tests, then you need to pre-test with a larger sample size or check to see if something else is impacting results (e.g. day of send).

5 Internet Marketing Myths

Friday, April 17th, 2009

It’s amazing how often I hear the same misconceptions and misunderstandings from prospects we talk to, clients we work with, or others when discussing Internet marketing.  While businesses have become more savvy with respect to the web, some still have much to learn. 

The following are five of the most frequent Internet marketing myths that I come across:

It’s really about the latest and greatest trend.  While technology continues to amaze, some things don’t change.  Content is still king and in order to engage you have to provide something of value.  The printing press probably wouldn’t have had such an impact initially if Gutenberg had decided to print a book of mutton stew recipes instead of the Bible.  In the end, technology can’t overcome bad design, poor strategy, inferior quality, or terrible customer service. 

I can handle email subscribers in the same was as my direct mail list.  Direct mailers sometimes have a difficult time understanding the repercussions of emailing to subscribers too frequently or to those who didn’t provide clear permission.  Junk mail delivered by the United States Post Office, at worst, ends-up in the recycling bin, while unwanted email triggers spam complaints which in turn tarnishes your email reputation and makes it more difficult to get your communications to those who really want it.  Just because it only costs fractions of a penny to send an email to an email address doesn’t mean that you should.

I’ve implemented XYZ analytics application so I have done all that I need.  Implementing a service like Omniture Site Catalyst or Google Analytics is a great start, but it is just a start.  Companies need to ensure that they have trained staff dedicated to analyzing the information provided by tools like Site Catalyst.  These applications have many wonderful reports but the ‘canned’ reports won’t tell you everything in you need (often they only provide a small portion), and you have to have skilled people focused on analyzing the data in order to gain the insights needed to improve results.

SEO is free – I can just have someone already on staff handle it.  There are companies that handle search engine optimization in-house and are very successful.  But those companies will be the first to acknowledge that it’s not free.  SEO is still such an art and science that you need to dedicate real resources to truly understand how to succeed.  Also, because the rules are continually evolving, a considerable effort needs to be made to stay current and that takes time and commitment.  Companies who think they can buy a book and task someone without search marketing experience to handle SEO in her ‘spare time’ soon discover that approach is a recipe for failure.

I control the conversation.  Companies can foster, facilitate, participate, and even impact the conversation but they can’t control what is being said about their organization.  Customers are having conversations about organizations and their products and services on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, blogs, Amazon (product reviews), etc.  There is nothing that a company do to stop it and attempts to only backfire.  Organizations must stop worrying about control and learn how to participate.

What Internet marketing myths would you add?

Free Website Traffic Estimation Services – How Accurate Are They?

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

There are several reasons why an online marketer wants to know how much traffic a site other than their own is receiving:

  • You may want to compare how much traffic a competitors’ site is getting.
  • In reviewing the landscape of sites your target customers are visiting, you may want to ballpark the volume of traffic to each in order to get a sense of their relative prominence.
  • When reviewing the sources of traffic to your website, you may identify a new source that has had good conversion success and you may want to determine if they have a significant audience and would like to see if that audience is growing. If so, you may want to pursue a more in-depth relationship with that source.
  • It may also help to provide focus in trying to establish high quality links to your site for SEO purposes.

There are now several free traffic estimation services (Amit Agarwal did a nice job of outlining these options in his article, Find Out How Much Traffic a Website is Getting). However, one obvious question is how accurate is the data?

In order to help answer that question, we evaluated the quality of these estimation services against the web analytics data collected through Omniture, Google, etc. for a subset of our clients. We thought that the quality of those estimates might vary significantly depending upon how heavy the volume of traffic was to the site being estimated. As such, we grouped the results based on site activity: heavy, moderate, and light. When available, we also evaluated how accurately the services reflected the trend of the site traffic as well as the volume of visits and visitors for the following traffic estimation services: Alexa, Compete, Google Ad Planner, Google Trends, QuantCast, and StatBrain.

The following table shows how the free sources compared to the data collected by our clients’ analytics programs (e.g. Compete’s estimation of traffic for moderate sites was lower than reported by the analytics tools used by those sites).

Free Traffic Estimation Comparisons

I should note that this was not a formal study, was based upon a relatively small sample set, and other factors may impact the results (e.g. relative volume of paid search marketing may influence the accuracy of some sites versus others).

A few observations/conclusions:

  1. Not surprisingly, the quality of the estimates is considerably better for higher volume websites.
  2. At this point, there does not seem to be a reliable source for viewing site trends for lower volume websites and the trends for moderate traffic websites are not much better.
  3. The growing volume of incremental demographic information being provided by some of these services is encouraging. Most of the demographic information is fairly rudimentary, but it is definitely more than what has been available in the past.
  4. You should definitely review In addition to pulling in data from Alexa, Compete, and QuantCast, this service displays other non-traffic related data such as Google Page Rank and Twitter posts related to the site.
  5. Given that none of the free services provided accurate estimates in every scenario, you may be able to use our findings to make adjustments for your specific situation.

Has anyone else conducted a similar comparison? If so, what type of results did you find?

Less Can Really Be More with Email Frequency

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Businesses are always searching for ways to increase revenue, especially in difficult economic times like these.  Often, the suggestion is simiply do more of what is already generating profits.  Email marketing is especially susceptible to this rationale because it is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement compared to other options (e.g. direct mail).  For example, if one email campaign per month generates $50,000 then two campaigns will net $100,000.

However, not only can increasing the frequency of your email campaigns not deliver the expected revenue, but it can result in an increase in unsubsriptions and abuse complaints and a decrease in engagement, especially if you can’t provide relevant content or offers.

In one of his takeways from the 2009 Email Evolution Conference, Chad White recounted the experience of REI who performed a test in which they suppressed emails to non-clickers for 4 weeks, after which they sent them an email promoting REI’s anniversary sale. While the control group was sent several more emails over that 4-week period, the suppressed group (who only received the anniversary sale email) outperformed the control group by 4%.

Does that mean that everyone should reduce the frequency of their email marketing campaigns?  Of course not.  However, it is a reminder that the days of taking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ and one email blast approach to the entire house list should be behind us.  In REI’s case, the company may have identified a group of subscribers who had begun ignoring their emails because they received too many and sending fewer emails (at a lower cost) could achieve as good or better results.

Less can really be more – all it takes is a test (or a few of them) to find out.