The direct marketing industry has long appreciated the benefits of a “measure and optimise” approach. Mailings are tested according to a complex matrix of variables – should outer envelopes be branded or not? Have windows or not? Be franked or stamped? Which insert, copy and design works best?A/B testing of this sort is arguably even easier in online channels – whether you are sending emails, optimising search terms or booking a banner campaign. However, the fact you can try dozens of combinations in minutes can complicate matters horribly, argues Nik Margolis, head of digital and direct at DCH.
“You used to wait six weeks for the first responses to be captured, but online allows you to get there within six minutes,” says Margolis. “It requires a much closer planning team. Media optimisation is one thing, creative optimisation is another. They have to work together.
“We know changing the call to action in an email can double results,” he adds. “I’m not talking about the line or the ask here: I’m talking about the colour of the button. Take that into a banner campaign with 160 versions across Europe and the creative optimisation can break a planner.
“The only way to tackle measurement and optimisation online is to maintain the focus on return on investment. This means tracking all the way to conversion and beyond. Whether it’s the subject line in an email or the validity of database segmentation, it is only working if it’s driving ROI.”
Mike James, managing director of online audience network Adconian Media Group, claims web analytics can establish which creative executions are most engaging, or whether a 5% discount delivers better ROI than 10%. Results are dynamic and immediate, allowing instant adjustment.
Alex Attinger, commercial director of lead generation agency Attinger Jack, agrees that instant response is essential: “In online, post-campaign analysis is too late. In lead generation, tens of thousands of pounds are being spent each hour and this needs DM principles applied in real time.
“Many online marketers fail to analyse performance as the campaign progresses. This is often due to lack of resource but it is a false economy. Marketers are just beginning to wake up to this.”
However, Digital Marketing Group consultant Nick Fuller believes the wealth of available data can inhibit rather than enhance customer understanding.
“Measurement and optimisation in online has traditionally been about anonymous and aggregated audiences,” he says. “The output of such work has been used to vary content by broad user segments but it’s rarely been equivalent to what DM folk call personalisation, which must be driven by customer insight.
“Turning analytics into insight is still a rarity, even in the US. Again, different skills are necessary and a different focus from the way that online marketing has traditionally been run, away from anonymous and aggregate figures towards consumer behaviours.
“The crucial difference is being able to apply segmentations effectively. This is taking web personalisation to new levels and needs flexible tools able to hold data from both on and offline; apply it to decisions in real time; and use it to deliver content.”
Gareth Phillips, managing director of Syzygy, believes that too often the behavioural data gathered on online activity creates a set of hypotheses but no real understanding of why customers have made particular decisions. “This leaves marketers scrabbling around using their empathy and stats to define the changes to try next,” he says.
Phillips believes usability research methods can help to frame the right hypotheses, discover the answers and move online communications forward. “Web analytics can inform about behavioural trends, then qualitative research can fill in the gaps using a combination of in-depth interviews, studying online behaviour and eye-tracking,” he says. “You have to know what to measure and why you’re measuring it. It must be actionable, otherwise it’s a waste of time digesting the information. Research in itself is not insight.”
“It’s all about delivering ’actionable’ insight,” says Nick Jones, director of interactive services at COI. Jones will be speaking about how digital channels can transform user engagement at the Marketing Week NMA Interactive Summit on January 27 and taking part in a panel discussion on behavioural targeting. “We always advise clients to invest in usability testing, and spend time with real people,” he says. “There are also rich seams of behaviour to mine; social media offer a good way to take the temperature, for example.”
“Relying on guesswork to drive your test-and-optimise approach makes it slow and inefficient,” argues Peter Ballard, founding partner of Foolproof. “Getting close to customers through user research plugs the insight gap.
“A great example is combining user experience research with multivariate testing (MVT), which allows lots of variants of page content to be tested against each other simultaneously.”
Foolproof devised an MVT project for Anglian Home Improvements based on user research that revealed the messages and content were important to consumers when considering home improvements. The homepage was modified to include new calls to action, a new way of presenting special offers and a copy style that mirrored consumers’ own language. These changes increased conversion to enquiry by 41%.
“Foolproof has developed a deep understanding of our customers through user research,” says Judi-mae Galer, online marketing manager at Anglian Home Improvements. “They can advise us on the decisions we take as a result of MVT and protect the online brand experience for all visitors. The danger is if you merely followed the results of MVT you could end up with a site that compromises your brand promise or alienates visitors who aren’t immediate sales prospects.”
Human Factors International has developed a usability methodology that incorporates persuasion, emotion and trust principles to understand people’s drives and identify the barriers to online engagement. “As decisions are not made entirely rationally, website design has to respond to the subtle emotional triggers that create engagement,” explains Nigel Grace, managing director of HFI.
“We worked with a motoring organisation to change customers’ perception of the brand from one that provided roadside assistance to one also selling financial services. Its original cluttered site design had a ’sell everything everywhere’ approach. Eye-tracking studies showed that users were overwhelmed,” says Grace.
Offline research can also be invaluable in refining websites. When Twentysix London began redesigning Game.co.uk’s website, its first stop was the retailer’s real-world stores. “They were friendly, open and well-branded with good signage, so we tried to replicate that online,” explains Twentysix managing director Paul Coffey.
“Intelligent use of customer insight, combined with a measure-and-optimise approach, leads the way to a virtuous circle of message development,” concludes Graham Ellor, director of planning at direct-to-digital marketing agency TDA. “Continual refinement enables more responsive marketing that works harder to influence the behaviour of target audiences.
“It’s important that marketers keep a finger on the pulse of customers’ shifting values and attitudes – and being able to achieve that cost-effectively is critical for marketing success.”
Case study: Sainsbury’s Bank
Sainsbury’s Bank works in product cycles so there are regular changes to products and it is vital that a positive user experience is maintained and usability is balanced with business objectives.
In 2007 a closer integration between channels began – with new designs to integrate the bank’s offering within the Sainsbury’s site.
Usability specialist User Vision was brought in three years ago to carry out usability and accessibility testing and audits, eye tracking, expert evaluations, focus groups, copywriting, wireframe creation and testing, process re-engineering, email marketing and competitive evaluations.
User Vision identified and fixed a problem with error messaging on home insurance, which was causing users to abandon the application process. This reduced the drop-off rate by 25%.
Introducing the key principles of usability at the start of the design process also increased the efficiency of the page, boosting the number of people moving on from that page from 70% to 95% and doubling referrers from Sainsbury’s.
Search pays off for handbag
– Challenge Women’s website Handbag.com’s approach to pay per click (PPC) involved bidding on keywords such as celebrity names or generic topics like ’fashion’ and ’horoscopes’. The cost per click (CPC) was high as thousands of businesses bid on these popular words every day. It wanted to develop a focused paid search strategy to increase page impressions and reach new audiences cost effectively.
– Implementation Handbag called in Greenlight to reconsider the target keywords and form detailed groups on specialist topics, involving thousands of keyword variations around each specific topic rather than a handful of generic terms.
Once the campaigns had been set up into the detailed keyword groups, they were rolled out in Google and monitored daily by Greenlight analysts. Each campaign was tracked and refined continuously to ensure optimum performance. The campaigns were integrated with Handbag’s editorial strategy, in terms of creative content and timing, so that as editorial content was refreshed on the site, the campaigns were updated.
– Results The PPC campaign increased the number of impressions from 48 million to 245 million impressions a year later. Another important goal for Handbag was to achieve more impressions cost effectively. The campaigns drove down CPC to their lowest point, with a reduction of 42% over a year.
Usability testing techniques
– Card sort: Users put a set of cards based on web content or business function into groups that suit their needs
– Questionnaire: Users are asked predefined questions based around their experience
– User testing: A tester observes users as they undertake predefined tasks on a client’s, and possibly competitors’, websites
– Work-based user interviews: These take place in a user’s normal working environment using their normal equipment
– Expert review: A usability expert reviews client (and competitor) websites against a set of tasks or business objectives, and makes recommendations for improvement
– Eye tracking: This records what the users’ eyes scan as they navigate websites
– Focus groups: A group exercise exploring users’ opinions.
Top usability tips
– Good usability increases conversions
– Test, test, test. Even small-scale analysis is valuable
– Don’t lose sight of what works – keep the good stuff and improve
– Use the right calls to action and keep them to a minimum
– Don’t force registration unless it’s a key objective
– Learn from the competition
– Make your site usable for buyers, browsers and returning customers
– Never leave a user stranded – ensure help is easy to find
– Don’t reinvent the wheel – design convention assists usability
– Make an impact – use persuasive, easy-to-read text
Compiled by Robin Moore, usability consultant, Coast Digital