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How Kula Partners Followed A Structured Conversion Optimization Process Using VWO

The need for a structured, process-driven approach to conversion optimization (CRO) cannot be stressed enough. A structured CRO program is essential to deliver consistent and repeatable improvement in conversion rate and user experience (UX). Only a few organizations and agencies have adopted this approach to optimizing conversions; even fewer have been able to master it.

Kula Partners is one such agency that has actively practiced and advocated a structured CRO program. This story aims to highlight the optimization process followed by Kula Partners and how VWO helped it achieve success at each step of the process.

Based out of Nova Scotia, Canada, Kula Partners is a certified partner with VWO, offering services such as conversion optimization, inbound marketing, and web development. While optimizing conversions for its clients, Jeff White, Principal at Kula Partners, discovered that following a rigorous optimization process is what leads to success.

Synopsis of Kula’s Way of Optimizing for Success

The optimization process at Kula begins with identifying optimization opportunities on a client’s website or landing pages. It is done by closely analyzing website data and user behavior, using a variety of tools. Next, it hypothesizes ways to capitalize on each optimization opportunity. Hypotheses are then prioritized based on a few factors such as potential of improvement and effort in implementation. The hypotheses undergo A/B tests for validation, per its priority list. The results of A/B tests are thoroughly examined, and the learning is documented in a common knowledge repository. This repository is used to generate more hypotheses to optimize the website further. The cycle continues.

As Jeff puts it, “Optimizing a client’s site for conversion always starts for us with listening. We begin by implementing VWO heatmaps, clickmaps, and visitor recordings to see how people are using a site. Combined with analytics from tools such as Google Analytics and HubSpot, we’ll look for the pages that have the biggest opportunities for conversion optimization based on total number of visits and current conversion rates. Once we have a good understanding of how people are using those pages, we’ll implement a series of tests to see how best to improve the conversion rate. Sometimes this takes the form of simple changes to the body copy, button position and format. In other cases, it may mean making much larger bets and designing a wholly different, alternative landing page.

After we’ve an opportunity to implement revisions on a client site, we’ll continue to monitor the results to see how site visitors interact and refine the interface to improve the user experience even further.”

Since 2014, Kula has been trusting VWO for its optimization strategy. It has been using new features as they come up to achieve better conversions for its client websites.

Step-by-Step Process-Oriented Approach to Conversion Optimization

Let’s talk about how Kula puts its well-defined process into practice.

cro-process1

Step1: Identifying Optimization Opportunities

The first step in optimizing a website for more conversions is to establish baselines. This means setting up key metrics or goals that clearly indicate visitor actions and conducting quantitative analysis around these goals. Visitor actions leading to completion of a final goal (such as Checkout in case of eCommerce) are tracked as funnels. The website conversion funnel is extremely effective in spotting leaks—pages from which most users drop off.

Kula uses robust tools such as Google Analytics and HubSpot to track key metrics and discover potential leaks. These tools also point to high-value pages on a website—the pages that attract the highest traffic and the pages that contribute to many conversions.

Jeff says, “We identify opportunities for testing through a number of ways. We establish website funnels in tools such as HubSpot, Google Analytics and MixPanel. We then monitor conversion rates across the funnel to see areas that may be ripe for improvement. “

Step 2: Analyzing Visitor Behavior

After identifying potential leaks, the next step is to analyze how visitors are interacting with these pages on the website. This calls for a qualitative analysis of how visitors behave on the website. Such analysis provides significant insights about why visitors are behaving in a certain way. For example, if a lot of visitors are abandoning sessions on a eCommerce home page, a heatmap or visitor recording can be used to find out what category of products they were looking for and what specific problems they faced while searching for the product. Knowing what deters users from completing a conversion step is an opportunity for optimization.

At Kula, the team takes help of VWO capabilities such as Heatmaps, Scrollmaps, Visitor Recordings, and Form Analysis to understand the usage habits of visitors. It also uses VWO On-page Surveys to directly ask visitors for feedback.

Jeff shares, “As stated above, we always start our tests by observing the present usage habits of site visitors through heatmaps, clickmaps, and visitor recordings. If it makes sense, we may also gather subjective data through exit surveys. Once we have found where users stumble, we formulate specific tests to try to improve conversion.

Here’s how Kula analyzed visitor behaviors for their clients, using VWO’s advanced capabilities:

Using Heatmaps to Improve Traffic Flow

Kula Partners was working on optimizing the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) website by highlighting information for airport visitors at the forefront: arrivals and departures, parking information, and directions. Although the new website saw major traffic increase (more than 300%), the team continued to scout for more optimization opportunities.

A heatmap report of the HIAA home page revealed interesting insights—68% of all clicks on the home page were on the Departures tab and only 6% clicked back to the Arrivals tab.

screen-shot-2016-06-01-at-8-54-27-am-1024x650

Kula realized that this made perfect sense. Most of the traffic on the website home page would be coming to check when their flight is scheduled to depart. Far less people would look at the arrivals; they would do that only before receiving someone at the airport.

Based on this insight, Kula decided to make Departures as the default view on the home page. As a result, it saw a 20% drop in the number of visitors that clicked the other tab, which was Arrivals in this case.

Using Website Surveys Directly Provides Insights from Actual Visitors

This time, Kula was optimizing the website of Tirecraft—a company providing superior tires, wheels, accessories, and automotive services. The objective in this case was to increase the number of quotes users submit on the website.

To do that, it first tried to understand what prevented visitors from submitting a quote. It went ahead with a website survey and asked the website visitors, “What stopped you from submitting a quote request today?”

Visitors could choose their answers from the following options:

  • I prefer to purchase this product in person.
  • There was no pricing information available.
  • I need more information.
  • I can’t buy the product I want online.
  • Other.

The result of the survey highlighted the major pain points that users faced.

tirecraft-exit-surveys

An overwhelming number of visitors responded with the second option “There was no pricing information available.”

Using Visitor Recordings to Optimize User Experience

Jeff shared an example of how Kula is using visitor recordings to help its clients.

We recently completed a large UX analysis project with a series of visitor recordings for a luxury extended stay apartment company with a national presence in Canada. Through this process, we’ve been able to develop a series of over 100 recommendations for improvement of the user experience. Our plan is to begin a series of extensive innovative A/B tests, starting with their product pages and moving to other areas of the site from there.”

Step 3: Planning and Prioritizing Testing Hypotheses

The insights and observations collected from quantitative and qualitative analyses act as fuel for the optimization engine. Our next key task is to manage this library of insights and build hypotheses for testing based on data insights.

A typical hypothesis statement looks like: Based on the observation that visitors are abandoning cart because they can’t find security seals on the checkout page, I expect that adding security seals on the checkout page will address the trust issues for visitors not completing the purchase.

There is a hypothesis aimed at addressing each optimization opportunity. Just as a thorough website analysis brings up multiple optimization opportunities, the hypotheses are also numerous. At most instances, it is not possible to validate all these hypotheses through A/B tests simultaneously. At that point, the hypotheses are prioritized on factors, including the potential to deliver positive results and ease of implementation. Prioritizing these hypotheses helps us pinpoint which tests to run first and which ones to park for future.

Kula also follows a similar prioritization model. Jeff adds, “Although we don’t specifically follow any single prioritization framework, our process most closely aligns with the PIE framework. As an agency with considerable dev chops, we’re lucky in that we can implement nearly any level of test no matter how complex. The question at that point is whether or not there’s enough potential lift in conversion to make the adjustment worthwhile.

The prioritization is usually implemented with the help of project management tools.

We record and detail our hypotheses for client tests using our project management tool, JIRA. We also maintain detailed notes about how to conduct tests and implement them in VWO, using Confluence, so that all Kula team members can quickly reference the correct processes.” explains Jeff.

Step 4: Validating Hypotheses with Testing

After the hypotheses are created and prioritized, it is time to test them. Testing a hypothesis helps you validate your thought process, and a winner assures the percentage of gain you’ll achieve by executing the change on the website. Based on the complexity of the change to be implemented, you should choose the type of test to run. For instance, it makes more sense to experiment with multivariate tests on websites with heavy traffic than on pages with low traffic.

Jeff talks about his experience with testing while he was working with rest of the team on creating a new version of the website to match the new positioning.

“We rolled out a version of the new layout for our HubSpot landing pages four months before we began designing the full site. The result was pretty solid—on our most popular asset landing page, we saw a conversion lift of nearly 10%. This gave us the confidence to deploy the design more widely.

Here is a screenshot of the test variations with the old version on the left and the new one on the right:”

kula_innovative_ab_testing-1024x987

Step 5: Analyzing Test Results and Documenting the Learning

The last leg of the optimization journey focuses on analyzing how the test results tie to visitor behavior and on saving learning from this analysis for future optimization.

Jeff explains, “When running tests, we review the results from VWO but also look at how GA and HubSpot are reporting on the changes in conversion or traffic behavior. We definitely document our results from previous tests in order to inform our future tests. These are also used in our presentations to clients on why/how we should implement CRO for their businesses.

Key Takeaways

  1. A process-driven strategy for optimizing conversions is the key to long-term success.
  2. To run the optimization engine for long-term growth, businesses need to adopt a structured approach that generates insights and learning that to act as fuel for this engine.
  3. The optimization process begins with first putting the baselines in place and finding areas of potential leaks. Next comes an in-depth view of how the visitors are behaving, that is, qualitative research. This is followed by recording and prioritizing hypotheses, which are validated through structured A/B testing.

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What Makes a Great Press Webpage?

press page

PRs and SEOs love press releases. You get an SEO boost, earning links from journalists in your space across a bunch of different sites. And you get traditional PR benefits. But focusing on your press page could bring much bigger dividends. Think of a press page in the context of broader strategy. If you’re emailing and phoning publications trying to get yourself or your client mentioned, you’re doing ‘outbound PR’ – the PR equivalent of cold calling. Surprise, surprise: journalists don’t really like it, and as Bloomberg’s David Lynch warns, ‘you’re going to strike out most of the time.’ A…

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What Makes a Great Press Webpage?

Whatever Steve Jobs Thought, Thermonuclear War Is NOT the Best Way to Get & Keep Talent

It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Except when it’s not. When Google brought out a smartphone OS in 2008 that let some competition into what had been an Apple-only field, the reception was mixed. Just like with any new tech product, a lot of people were sure they’d never feel the need for one. (I thought the same. Now I have a Samsung the size of a door. I wrote some of this post on it.) Some people were overjoyed – it’s just like an iPhone, except I can afford it. Awesome! And then there was Steve Jobs. Boy, was…

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Whatever Steve Jobs Thought, Thermonuclear War Is NOT the Best Way to Get & Keep Talent

Glossary: Anchor Text

glossary what is anchor text

The text (or characters) inside a website hyperlink. Anchor text can help inform search engines of a webpage’s subject matter. It’s a fairly simple thing to explain, however, anchor text is a controversial topic in SEO (search engine optimization). Let’s touch on that bit. The Old “Click Here” Lesson Up until very recently, if you typed the words “click here” into Google, one of the top results would be a result for Adobe Acrobat. Why? Because for the past 15-20 years, people have been publishing the anchor text: “Click Here To Download Adobe Acrobat” and making that anchor text a…

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Glossary: Anchor Text

How To Transform Your eCommerce Business With 11 Simple Tips

transform your ecommerce business

Online store owners swim in a sea of fierce competition dominated by Amazon and Best Buy, among others. You can’t always be number one. But with a strong desire and the right tools, you can become a leader in your niche. One of the best ways to get to the top is with a powerful content marketing strategy that blows the opposition out of the water. So, what are the secrets of creating and implementing an unsurpassed content marketing strategy that delivers the results you’re looking for? That’s what I’m about to reveal. Why Should You Prioritize Content Marketing Above…

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How To Transform Your eCommerce Business With 11 Simple Tips

We Want to Put You on a Plane to Call to Action Conference [CONTEST]

Image via Shutterstock.

If you’re an active social networker, you already know that travel photos and social media go together like… aerial shots of brunch and social media.

So when we decided to throw a social media contest together for our upcoming Call to Action Conference, it seemed only fitting to make it travel themed. Not just because we like taking 10-second mental vacations by staring at pretty pictures of pretty places. But because Unbounce has done a little travelling itself.

After expanding to the German, Brazilian and Spanish markets over the past year, we opened an official Berlin office in January. Four walls, front door, ever-flowing kaffee and all. We’re thrilled that this year’s conference is the first we’ll host as a truly international company — and we want to celebrate by putting you on a plane with a free ticket to Call to Action Conference 2017.

The details

What we want to know is:

What’s your favourite place in the world?

Tweet and/or Instagram a photo of wherever that may be (be it from your iPhoto gallery or Google Images, we can’t tell and we don’t care) with the caption:

“Fly me to #CTAConf @unbounce and make me love Vancouver as much as I love [insert location]”!

The winner will be announced at noon PST on Friday, June 3rd and receive a $1,000 flight voucher as well as a free ticket to Call to Action Conference, worth $999.

Click below for more contest details if you want them. And if you’re thinking, “What is CTAConf and why do I want a ticket to it?” then see what all the hoopla’s about.

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We Want to Put You on a Plane to Call to Action Conference [CONTEST]

How to Get Links For (Almost) Free: SEO Hacks For Tight Budgets

seo hacks

SEO can be expensive, but there are plenty of promotional opportunities that are free and cost-effective if you focus on value exchange and relationships. (Never invest in low-quality spam though — make sure any link building is strategic and carefully supervised). Warnings aside, there are ways to hack around tight budgets and achieve more for less with your link building. You don’t always have to invest in expensive advertising and publishing fees to gain good SEO traction. Here are some ways to get links, mentions, and shares without spending too much money (or time). Most of these tactics will help…

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How pilot pesting can dramatically improve your user research

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Today, we are talking about user research, a critical component of any design toolkit. Quality user research allows you to generate deep, meaningful user insights. It’s a key component of WiderFunnel’s Explore phase, where it provides a powerful source of ideas that can be used to generate great experiment hypothesis.

Unfortunately, user research isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Do any of the following sound familiar:

  • During your research sessions, your participants don’t understand what they have been asked to do?
  • The phrasing of your questions has given away the answer or has caused bias in your results?
  • During your tests, it’s impossible for your participants to complete the assigned tasks in the time provided?
  • After conducting participants sessions, you spend more time analyzing the research design rather than the actual results.

If you’ve experienced any of these, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Even the most seasoned researchers experience “oh-shoot” moments, where they realize there are flaws in their research approach.

Fortunately, there is a way to significantly reduce these moments. It’s called pilot testing.

Pilot testing is a rehearsal of your research study. It allows you to test your research approach with a small number of test participants before the main study. Although this may seem like an additional step, it may, in fact, be the time best spent on any research project.
Just like proper experiment design is a necessity, investing time to critique, test, and iteratively improve your research design, before the research execution phase, can ensure that your user research runs smoothly, and dramatically improves the outputs from your study.

And the best part? Pilot testing can be applied to all types of research approaches, from basic surveys to more complex diary studies.

Start with the process

At WiderFunnel, our research approach is unique for every project, but always follows a defined process:

  1. Developing a defined research approach (Methodology, Tools, Participant Target Profile)
  2. Pilot testing of research design
  3. Recruiting qualified research participants
  4. Execution of research
  5. Analyzing the outputs
  6. Reporting on research findings
website user research in conversion optimization
User Research Process at WiderFunnel

Each part of this process can be discussed at length, but, as I said, this post will focus on pilot testing.

Your research should always start with asking the high-level question: “What are we aiming to learn through this research?”. You can use this question to guide the development of research methodology, select research tools, and determine the participant target profile. Pilot testing allows you to quickly test and improve this approach.

WiderFunnel’s pilot testing process consists of two phases: 1) an internal research design review and 2) participant pilot testing.

During the design review, members from our research and strategy teams sit down as a group and spend time critically thinking about the research approach. This involves reviewing:

  • Our high-level goals for what we are aiming to learn
  • The tools we are going to use
  • The tasks participants will be asked to perform
  • Participant questions
  • The research participant sample size, and
  • The participant target profile

Our team often spends a lot of time discussing the questions we plan to ask participants. It can be tempting to ask participants numerous questions over a broad range of topics. This inclination is often due to a fear of missing the discovery of an insight. Or, in some cases, is the result of working with a large group of stakeholders across different departments, each trying to push their own unique agenda.

However, applying a broad, unfocused approach to participant questions can be dangerous. It can cause a research team to lose sight of its original goals and produce research data that is difficult to interpret; thus limiting the number of actionable insights generated.

To overcome this, WiderFunnel uses the following approach when creating research questions:

Phase 1: To start, the research team creates a list of potential questions. These questions are then reviewed during the design review. The goal is to create a concise set of questions that are clearly written, do not bias the participant, and compliment each other. Often this involves removing a large number of the questions from our initial list and reworking those that remain.

Phase 2: The second phase of WiderFunnel’s research pilot testing consists of participant pilot testing.

This follows a rapid and iterative approach, where we pilot our defined research approach on an initial 1 to 2 participants. Based on how these participants respond, the research approach is evaluated, improved, and then tested on 1 to 2 new participants.

Researchers repeat this process until all of the research design “bugs” have been ironed out, much like QA-ing a new experiment. There are different criteria you can use to test the research experience, but we focus on testing three main areas: clarity of instructions, participant tasks and questions, and the research timing.

  • Clarity of instructions: This involves making sure that the instructions are not misleading or confusing to the participants
  • Testing of the tasks and questions: This involves testing the actual research workflow
  • Research timing: We evaluate the timing of each task and the overall experiment

Let’s look at an example.

Recently, a client approached us to do research on a new area of their website that they were developing for a new service offering. Specifically, the client wanted to conduct an eye tracking study on a new landing page and supporting content page.

With the client, we co-created a design brief that outlined the key learning goals, target participants, the client’s project budget, and a research timeline. The main learning goals for the study included developing an understanding of customer engagement (eye tracking) on both the landing and content page and exploring customer understanding of the new service.

Using the defined learning goals and research budget, we developed a research approach for the project. Due to the client’s budget and request for eye tracking we decided to use Sticky, a remote eye tracking tool to conduct the research.

We chose Sticky because it allows you to conduct unmoderated remote eye tracking experiments, and follow them up with a survey if needed.

In addition, we were also able to use Sticky’s existing participant pool, Sticky Crowd, to define our target participants. In this case, the criteria for the target participants were determined based on past research that had been conducted by the client.

Leveraging the capabilities of Sticky, we were able to define our research methodology and develop an initial workflow for our research participants. We then created an initial list of potential survey questions to supplement the eye tracking test.

At this point, our research and strategy team conducted an internal research design review. We examined both the research task and flow, the associated timing, and finalized the survey questions.

In this case, we used open-ended questions in order to not bias the participants, and limited the total number of questions to five. Questions were reworked from the proposed lists to improve the wording, ensure that questions complimented each other, and were focused on achieving the learning goals: exploring customer understanding of the new service.

To help with question clarity, we used Grammarly to test the structure of each question.

Following the internal design review, we began participant pilot testing.

Unfortunately, piloting an eye tracking test on 1 to 2 users is not an affordable option when using the Sticky platform. To overcome this we got creative and used some free tools to test the research design.

We chose to use Keynote presentation (timed transitions) and its Keynote Live feature to remotely test the research workflow, and Google Forms to test the survey questions. GoToMeeting was used to observe participants via video chat during the participant pilot testing. Using these tools we were able to conduct a quick and affordable pilot test.

The initial pilot test was conducted with two individual participants, both of which fit the criteria for the target participants. The pilot test immediately pointed out flaws in the research design, which included confusion regarding the test instructions and issues with the timing for each task.

In this case, our initial instructions did not provide our participants with enough information on the context of what they were looking for, resulting in confusion of what they were actually supposed to do. Additionally, we made an initial assumption that 5 seconds would be enough time for each participant to view and comprehend each page. However, the supporting content page was very context rich and 5 seconds did not provide participants enough time to view all the content on the page.

With these insights, we adjusted our research design to remove the flaws, and then conducted an additional pilot with two new individual participants. All of the adjustments seemed to resolve the previous “bugs”.

In this case, pilot testing not only gave us the confidence to move forward with the main study, it actually provide its own “A-ha” moment. Through our initial pilot tests, we realized that participants expected a set function for each page. For the landing page, participants expected a page that grabbed their attention and attracted them to the service, whereas, they expect the supporting content page to provide more details on the service and educate them on how it worked. Insights from these pilot tests reshaped our strategic approach to both pages.

Nick So

The seemingly ‘failed’ result of the pilot test actually gave us a huge Aha moment on how users perceived these two pages, which not only changed the answers we wanted to get from the user research test, but also drastically shifted our strategic approach to the A/B variations themselves.

Nick So, Director of Strategy, WiderFunnel

In some instances, pilot testing can actually provide its own unique insights. It is a nice bonus when this happens, but it is important to remember to always validate these insights through additional research and testing.

Final Thoughts

Still not convinced about the value of pilot testing? Here’s one final thought.

By conducting pilot testing you not only improve the insights generated from a single project, but also the process your team uses to conduct research. The reflective and iterative nature of pilot testing will actually accelerate the development of your skills as a researcher.

Pilot testing your research, just like proper experiment design, is essential. Yes, this will require an investment of both time and effort. But trust us, that small investment will deliver significant returns on your next research project and beyond.

Do you agree that pilot testing is an essential part of all research projects?

Have you had an “oh-shoot” research moment that could have been prevented by pilot testing? Let us know in the comments!

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How pilot pesting can dramatically improve your user research

7 Advanced Google Shopping Strategies

Google Shopping

I definitely don’t envy anyone that has to compete on Google Shopping. To be successful, it requires quite a bit of spreadsheet chops, constant adjusting and a deep understanding of your customer lifetime value. It’s possible that lowering your prices to just the right point will significantly build your customer base in the long run. Although it may seem like you’re losing money on first-time customers that come from Google Shopping, you’re ultimately profiting on their future business. In a sense, you’re turning that first-time monetary loss into marketing spend. It’s definitely tricky. And yes, it is a science project….

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7 Advanced Google Shopping Strategies

Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Conversion Rate Optimization [INTERVIEW]

Move over Don Draper, the modern day agency marketer needs to be more of a Renaissance (wo)man.

Sure, they need to be creative enough to craft a compelling pitch.

But they also need to be data-driven. They need to be well versed in analytics and the latest MarTech trends. And when budgets get tight, agency marketers need to be able to convince their clients to not cut out conversion rate optimization.

Few people know this better than Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 different countries. Mitch is a best-selling business author, international speaker and agency thought leader. But he’s also a full-stack marketer who has been doing display advertising for longer than Google itself.

Mitch Joel, president of global digital agency Mirum and author of Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete.Image source.

Since Mitch entered the digital marketing world, a helluvalot has changed — and not just in agencyland. As technology evolves, so too are consumers and the way they interact with our brands. At the Call to Action Conference in June, Mitch’s keynote, Algorhythm: How Technology Connects Consumers To Brands Like Never Before, will dive into how to future-proof your brand and embrace disruption to become a digital leader.

PSST. Hey blog reader, we like the cut of your jib. Get 15% off Call to Action Conference tickets by using discount code “blogsentme” at checkout. Offer expires May 12th.

Ugh, why can’t it be June already?

To tide you over, here’s a fascinating interview with Mitch from the Call to Action Podcast. Unbounce Director of Content Dan Levy sat down with Mitch to discuss:

  • How the agency world has evolved over the past 15 years.
  • Mitch’s experience selling his independent agency to the largest holding company in the world.
  • How everything from search results to PPC and even the talent you hire for your agency are all extensions of your brand.

Check out some highlights from the interview below. (This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.)

Dan Levy: You’re known as a bestselling business author, speaker and agency thought leader, but you got your start in the online marketing trenches doing ad sales and even PPC marketing for a site called Mamma.com. Can you take us back to that time? What did the online marketing landscape look like and what did you learn from that experience?

Mitch Joel: Actually, yes, I did do that. But my start in digital came much earlier when I was publishing music magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually was tangentially at the same time very engaged in digital media: first web browser, BBSs, stuff like that. And I actually put those magazines on the “internet” — like air quote internet — because back then, there wasn’t even really an internet.

I remember one of the cover stories for my alternative, cool, fun publication was called, “The Net.” The innovation at that time was hyperlinks. I literally was posting things on the internet from the magazine that couldn’t have hyperlinks. You couldn’t link from one page to the other. That really kept me on the trajectory where eventually I helped launch the sales channel of what at the time was one of the largest meta search engines on the internet. And again, it’s hard to imagine a world before Google. But this was pre-Google. And so the meta search engine would basically grab search results from engines like Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, and create a meta — or a better — search result that we could actually aggregate faster.

My role back then was selling sponsorships on the homepage, it was selling banner advertising. And it was also very early days of selling — literally the first time of being able to take a search result and having a banner that’s related to the search show up in the search result. And to tell you how early and nascent it was, I had to physically go into the code of the search engine to code the banner in. I don’t recommend that in this day in age. Like I don’t think anyone at Google is going into the master code to embed a search result. But that’s how early the times were back then.

DL: Wow. What did you learn from that experience that you brought forth?

MJ: Well I learned to take chances. I can tell you that when they approached me about the opportunity, my first question was, “What’s online advertising?” I mean, we are talking about a time when that first banner ad on HotWired — which became Wired — had just run.

The first banner ad, ever. Image source: Wired.

I didn’t even know what it looked like, what it felt like, what it could be. I think my pedigree in selling traditional print ads and having a construct of what it means to run a media company is what pushed me there. So it was — to this day, it was a great move. And I’m so grateful, I still have a lot of friends in my life now who came from there. A lot of people who’ve become — who’ve ascended in this industry to run major, major web initiatives are people that I hired. People that I brought into the industry. So I have a lot of pride in that.

And I also learned that — again, when I think about it, I don’t know why I took the job. All logic would dictate that at the time, I should not have taken that job. But I took the job and it wound up being great for me because it brought together what I was doing professionally on one side. And on the other side, it brought together my passion for digital. I often say that I was very early into many things. And when we started Mirum, which back then was Twist Image in 2000 (I joined in 2002). At that point in my career I said, even though I might be a little early in this space, I’m going to ride it out.

DL: Performance marketing and brand marketing are often seen as being on different sides of the digital marketing spectrum. Do you think that’s true? Do you see those two disciplines as coming closer together in an age where Facebook has gone from a social media network to just another performance marketing channel?

MJ: I think you’re right. The evolution — and by the way, Google structured themselves — for a long while, and they may still — around brand and performance. And that’s common. Where I think the confusion comes from is that within real behavioral performance-based marketing, there are heavy and hefty living around brand and experience that we often dismiss because we think that performance is still about getting the right search word, getting them to the right page.

But actually if you step back from that, the meta message is that it has to be a very relevant and cohesive brand experience. And I was somebody who wasn’t just buying generic brand keywords back in the day, to just keep that going. I actually believe that — a saying I’ve used since the early 2000s is that the first page of search results is a brand experience.


You can’t separate PPC & brand marketing. The 1st page of search is part of your brand experience.
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So there’s that. That sort of dismisses the idea that performance is not about branding. And you’re right — fast forwarding to today, a lot of my clients and a lot of people I meet when I do speaking events will say that social media is primarily a paid channel, because of what Facebook has done to throttle the content and have you pay against reach. Which I think by the way is a great model and clearly the market would agree with that idea.

But you can’t have any results — whether you’re paying for it or it’s organic — unless it’s a really good experience.

Whether or not that’s through a search result, an email marketing initiative, a great landing page *hint hint wink wink* to you guys, or a good old piece of content. I really don’t care. I’m actually agnostic to that.

DL: Where do performance channels like PPC and landing page optimization and conversion rate optimization come into the picture with the kinds of big brands that you work with? Are those things part of your offer? Do you factor them into how you pitch and bill clients?

MJ: Well it depends on whether someone’s going full bore with us or not. Like any other agency, we work on specific campaigns, specific projects, longer initiatives and then full-on mandates. And even the full-on mandates have sort of splits and fits and starts.

The way we started our company, we only wanted to work with large national and multinational brands and we’ve stuck to that model for what’s coming up onto 17 years. Because of that, being of startup size back in the early 2000s, most brands already had large media companies at play. And those media companies even back then were feeling very threatened by digital and would make those offerings.

So we would come in and grab pieces and parts of it and really focus on the behavioral side. Let us handle the drive to optimization, landing page, unique spaces, unique experience while the media companies were really checking boxes around “online video,” “search,” affiliate marketing” and stuff like that. So from my pedigree, I stand very firmly and aligned with what performance can do in terms of optimizations and moving things forward. I feel like I’m banging against the wall when everyone says, “Well we do that.” I think people do do that, but they don’t really do it.

I still really believe that a lot of the work we see is what I call “rearview mirror.” You know, we did it, we’re running these keywords to a landing page, and let’s see how it did. Post. I believe, and I know that Mirum as an agency believes it, all of that optimization, all of that data, all of that opportunity is now in the passenger seat. When you do it well and you actually are optimizing and driving and creating unique experiences on landing pages and stuff like that, you’ve moved it from the rearview mirror to the passenger’s seat and you can fix it and go so that there always is a positive result, not a result that says, “Oh, that campaign just didn’t work.” I can’t believe we still use that language in business today!

DL: Right, as if a campaign or an experience is a success or a failure — only if it meets your hypothesis. And the learnings aren’t a factor or don’t have anything to do with it at all.

MJ: Right and it’s frustrating for me because I feel like we often lose business or can’t grab the business because there’s a sentiment that we already have someone doing that work. But when you dig into what that work is, you see that there actually isn’t a lot of that stuff that we’re really talking about. They say they do that, it’s on their decks, and it’s on their site. But — and I don’t know if it’s a failure of the brand or a failure of the agency. I’m not sure where it happens. But there is a vast majority of very powerful brands really not doing enough.

DL: Do you think the problem is that optimization is seen as a discipline or a branch of marketing instead of just a mindset?

MJ: Yeah. One of my close friends is Bryan Eisenberg, who I really believe is one of the forefathers of this optimization space. He’s written books about it, “Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?” and intent and scent and all that.

My relationship with Bryan is going on for close to 20 years at this point. And he would often say things like, “You know, here we are talking about all this stuff. And the first thing a brand will cut on a budget is the optimization. Hands down.

And it’s mind-numbing and it’s mind-blowing to both of us — and years later it still remains the same — because that’s actually where you make money. And I don’t know why brands, agencies don’t get it. I don’t get how they don’t get it.

DL: Can you talk about the role content played in getting Twist on the map? I imagine that your book and your blog and your podcast were all part of ultimately attracting the attention of WPP and making that acquisition happen.

MJ: It’s a yes and no story.

It’s a yes story in the sense that it’s very interesting when they’re doing financial and product assessments to see an agency that has been so consistent for a decade. Creating the blog, the podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, that lead to 50-60 paid speaking events a year. That lead to two best selling books — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but represented by a major New York literary agent, onto a major — largest book publisher in the world, onto the global deal. And other things that come from media appearances and stuff like that.

DL: Yeah, I think that from my perspective, Twist Image and Mitch Joel were kind of one and the same.

MJ: Totally. And we built it that way. We always saw from day one, back in 2003ish, when we started the blog, that Twist Image (at the time — now Mirum) would be managing three brands:

  1. that Mirum brand,
  2. Six Pixels of Separation (which we sort of considered the sort of “content engine” — so blog, podcast, articles, speaking, books)
  3. and then Mitch Joel, this media face. This warm, hopefully friendly and personable face to an agency, which again, now seems very obvious.

But if you go back 10+ years, nobody was really doing that. They didn’t really have that. So the fact that we were sharing content, having conversations with people who just didn’t have a voice before — you know, we were having hour-long conversations with business or marketing thought leaders. That you didn’t get an hour with. You’d be lucky if you had one famous enough to get 10 minutes on Charlie Rose. Suddenly, someone is spending an hour with them, having a conversation like they would over a coffee, and publishing it to the world.

There were these assets there that were built over time, and again, I do know that when it came to the opportunity for us to be acquired, one of the metrics was the fact that there is revenue generation that comes out of the content engine. That doesn’t just create media attention and a level of fame, whatever that might be. But that there actually was revenue behind this thing. And that was very surprising and shocking to them.

DL: Meaning what? It gets clients in the door?

MJ: I mean, yeah, think about it. You pitch for business development, you spend weeks, months pitching. And business development is a cost center. It costs every agency a lot of money to business develop. You don’t win every pitch. It’s a very small percentage. And you hope that the ones you win make up for all the money you spent. When you’re offsetting that cost with speaking gigs, book deals, article writing and stuff like that, it’s really interesting that you’re creating this voice and building a platform and it actually is driving business, it’s driving revenue — both in terms of client and raw revenue. We get dollars to speak and write books. It’s not vanity.

It was always about creating equity in the brand, that would have one of two roles. That one day, we would be acquired. Or if we’re never acquired, we’re running this business in a way where all of the top players would want to acquire it. And there would be extreme value in the brand.

I like building businesses that build equity as they grow. And this channel of speaking, writing, etc — it wasn’t a core component of what we were acquired for, but it was definitely on the list.

DL: It reminds me of the Rolling Stones model, where you’re the front man, but ultimately, you share those profits evenly. I know they’ve credited that as their longevity for them as a band. It sounds like the same thing for the longevity of Twist, and now Mirum.

MJ: Yeah, and I try to not have it be ego-driven. I look at it like — my job, as a media entity, is to be extremely personable. And to know that I’m managing Mirum, Six Pixels and Mitch Joel. And I conduct myself accordingly. If you look me up on Facebook, there isn’t a ton of personal stuff. There’s a ton of personable stuff.

DL: If you had to give agencies who are looking to set themselves apart from the crowd and spur growth for both their clients and their own business one piece of advice, what would it be?

MJ: I really think it is much like a great book. A great book works not because the topic is unique. I feel like more often than not you’re reading a topic that somebody else covered in one shape or form.

It’s the voice. I don’t see that much in terms of agencies having that unique voice. Do I think we achieved it? Partially. And I think it’s because it’s a journey — you’re constantly changing it, moving it along. But if I were to go across — and we did this exercise when we were trying to figure out the branding for Mirum, Twist Image — I would jokingly tell people, “You could take the website of all our biggest competitors, take off the logos, throw them in the air, and whatever website they fall on, you’d still be pretty much right.” The services, types of case studies, type of work we do. And still to this day, I think that story rings true.

The ones that stand out, though, are the ones that have a unique voice. It could be a unique individual — I’m thinking of people like Bob Greenberg at R/GA. It could just be a unique story to tell. So if you look at an agency like WK, the fact that they’ve been large and independent, the type of work that they’ve done it’s like the voice of the agency is the work that they do. That type of thing is the only component of your business that you can have that is the defendable against a competitor. It’s how you express yourself, tell your stories, the type of team members you bring in, the type of work that you do, the stories you tell in the marketplace, where you network, what you attend. That’s the big one.

The secondary one is get involved in your industry. What  drove this business at Mirum was the fact that we got involved in places like Shop.org, the National Retail Federation, Canadian Marketing Association, Interactive Advertising — I could go on and on. And we didn’t just join and become members. We got involved. In fact, we just had a conversation at lunch about an association that I’m super interested in. And the answer we all came to was: “Not unless we can get deeply involved.” So, what you find out is that by giving (because you love this industry and you want it to be better), you do wind up in some way receiving. We don’t get involved to get results. By getting involved and being active, it just happens.

DL: Well Mitch, it’s always a real treat to talk shop with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MJ: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.

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Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Conversion Rate Optimization [INTERVIEW]