22/02/11

By Mark Simpson, founder and President of Maxymiser (www.maxymiser.com)

It’s hard to be dynamic as a marketing department if your innovative ideas and the way you treat them rely on the regular intervention of technical specialists. Yet the more consumers are influenced by and put their business through the Internet, the more marketers’ hands are being tied by technology.

But web marketing is now a highly sophisticated game, and any consumer-facing business with a significant web presence knows only too well just how crucial it is to not only get the content, visuals and site performance right, but to ensure that this is all put together in such a way that conversions of site visitors to paying customers is fully maximised.

This means adapting site content so it performs better for visitors, the most effective way being by using real, live behaviour to test and personalise offers, page layouts and site navigation routes. This is done by presenting different combinations of pages to different customers so the results can be exploited to arrive at the best possible composition for individuals.

The trouble with these disciplines of multivariate testing (MVT) and personalisation, however, is that, in almost all instances, it relies heavily on the involvement of IT resources. It is IT specialists who will need to apply all the relevant tags, and then remove them all again as changes are made — for every web page. Not only is this process highly inefficient, it is also very costly — in terms of the sheer specialist manpower involved, which ultimately will be charged to the marketing department’s budget.

These are the substantial hidden costs of web conversion optimisation if the wrong choices are made - and they apply even if the optimisation platform being used was very low in price, or even ‘free’ to deploy.

The other downside of being so dependent on internal technical experts for web enhancement is that there is no guarantee that the support will be there when the marketing team need it most. Take the high seasons (eg Christmas, Easter, August), when consumer purchasing is often at its highest - for example when retail sales are on, holidays are being booked, and credit card limits are being extended. These are also times when back-office departments have reduced capacity because staff are on holiday, or - even worse - IT goes into lockdown. If targeted new web pages cannot be optimised for sales conversion during these peak periods, the company will be throwing away huge volumes of business.

The more customers shop online, the greater the losses when the web design, content and flow isn’t as good as it could be — or as good as a competitor’s.

The risk of taking shortcuts

The alternative until now has been to stab in the dark, running promotions that have not been optimised, tweaked and honed, hoping for the best. But this is a huge risk, given that rivals may have found a better solution, with the result that business is now coming to them from your direction.

This rather desperate approach — closing your eyes and hoping for the best - also wastes the significant investment that the company has made in optimisation tools and techniques. If these can’t be used when they’re needed most, what good are they?

The answer must be for companies to reduce their dependence on internal IT staff to manage the mechanics of their online marketing activities. This is possible using specialist conversion optimisation solutions and service providers that separate tags from testing, allowing marketers to take back control of their web activities.

Significantly, employing an external testing and optimisation vendor relieves the business from a huge cost-of-ownership burden which is inherent in supposedly cheap or even free web conversion optimisation platforms.

In the US, a major bank has cited costs in excess of $1 million a year associated with the IT element of its marketing-related web optimisation activities. By contrast, in the UK, organisations such as EasyRoomMate, which brokers flat-share arrangements, have found that using a more intuitive solution, put in the hands of the marketing department itself, add up to an annual web optimisation cost which is substantially cheaper than running activities based on apparently ‘free’ tools.

Taking back control

As online commerce has matured, there is no question that live testing and iterative tweaking of web pages is the key to high conversion rates, and to reducing the often appalling customer leakage as visitors drop away due to cumbersome site navigation, unintuitive page design, and generally poor performance.

If this flow of lost business can be stemmed without recourse to technical help, the cost of managing these activities drops significantly, allowing marketers to do much more with their already stretched marketing budgets.

By working with a dedicated online conversion and testing vendor, marketers can reinstate their own control — over costs, returns, capabilities and speed of turnaround, enabling the business to be more dynamic, responsive and opportunistic in its online activities.

Since a majority of customers have a lot less disposable income in the current climate, businesses can’t afford to let any leads slip away, so they need to be more strategic with their approach to keeping and converting web customers. The trouble with e-commerce is that there are no shop assistants to shout after the customer as they slope towards the door. Once the online opportunity has been closed, the chances are the customer won’t come back. They’ll be busy book-marking one of your rivals that has a faster, sexier site.