Can you really put your numbers people in charge of the website?

Craig Sullivan has been a welcome speaker at the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit for many years. His original orations were plaintive rants against the poorly conceived and hastily created infrastructure he had to maintain with bailing wire and bits of string. It all seemed to work when looked at from the right angle, but he was also plagued by na├»ve expectations from those on high. He emphatically exposed the dichotomy between the organization’s desire for more traffic that converted better and the complex yet unsophisticated and incomplete tool sets he had to cobble together or fashion for himself.

But the years have been good to Craig and, at the latest eMetrics Summit in London on May 17 and 18, this dour Scot showed us his transformed continence of vision and hope.

After several years consulting, blogging, and tweeting at OptimiseOrDie, this former digital and usability manager at found a company that believed him when he advocated testing as a way of life. He had found a home at Belron, facing a slightly more complex sales process for auto glass repair than DVD rental. Belron eventually turned over all the creative pieces of content and site layout to Craig and let him fine-tune things with a more robust set of tools. Belron turned him loose.

It wasn’t that Belron had blind faith in Craig, but he was very good at managing its expectations. He would promise to improve a specific conversion rate here or diminish a painful bounce rate there and then promptly deliver. Bit by bit, he took over the shopping cart flow, the design of ads served up off site, and the segmentation of that traffic to show the right creative to the right person at the right time.

“I got it wrong almost 80% of the time,” Craig deadpans. “I’m as good as it gets when it comes to guessing which color, shape, size of button or facial expression is going to bring in more traffic and close more sales. We even place bets on the outcomes here and I can count on walking away a little lighter in the wallet after one of those.” Fortunately, Belron does not depend on Craig’s innate design sense. It’s his testing skill that turns auto glass into gold for Belron.

Belron’s website knows to alter the gender of the representative on the landing page based on time of day, which ads are running on TV in which geographies, and whether that visitor is a first timer or not. The results are not just impressive, they are consistent and cumulative. Craig gets enough traffic at his large sites that he has the luxury of running full factorial tests and getting answers within weeks. That means he can roll out pre-tested partial factorial tests on Belron’s smaller sites and know just what winning creative to A/B test on its smallest sites.

But Craig isn’t stopping there. He has his eyes set on the next touchpoint – the call center – specifically, music on hold. What type of music improves conversion? Should the “Your call will be answered in ___ minutes” voice be male or female? Should the message be conciliatory? Apologetic? Concerned? Friendly? Cheerful? Under what conditions? Should the choices be based on online behavior? Product selection? Purchase history? Craig’s eyes gleam at the multi-ness of the variables he gets to play with.

Craig found a path that leads to integrated marketing – the kind where outbound marketing messages are integrated in the eyes of the customer and data across touchpoints are integrated in the eyes of the data repositories. Enough datastreams are being wired together that Belron can start treating its customers better (customer satisfaction) and making the most of the relationship (profitability).

If Craig keeps this up, he’ll find himself in the same situation as Michael Gulmann, another eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit presenter. Michael is the senior director of global site conversion at Expedia. After showing management continuous improvement metrics year after year, they simply put Michael and his analysts in charge of “core ecommerce flows.” That means he and his team have total control over the website from product search through checkout and customer care. They use a variety of tools to optimize the customer experience in as real time as possible with the responsibility to increase site conversion and improve online customer experience.

Expedia put the analysts in charge of the developers. And not a moment too soon.

I don’t for a minute imagine that numbers people can generate killer creative. But I do believe they can determine which killer creative elements yield the best results given proper tools and techniques. Is your corporate culture ready to place a little more faith in the science of marketing?

Jim Sterne is an international consultant focused on measuring the value of the online marketing for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, produces the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit and is co-founder and current chairman of the Web Analytics Association.

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