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How Split Tests Can Be Good For Your Web Site Conversion Rate


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Direct marketing professionals don´t guess. They base their decisions on statistics and calculate what their return on their investment will be. They rarely get it wrong because of what is known as split testing or test runs. Why then do web ´professionals´ rarely if ever pay attention to this incredibly powerful strategy? This article is about how to run a split test or A/B test on your web site and how it can only affect your web site conversion rate in a positive way.

What has direct marketing got to do with it?

I used to work for one of the biggest direct mailing houses in the UK. They used to send over 100 million letters for many dif
ferent companies to different types of prospect every month, over 1 billion letters per year. Their success was largely down to their methods of testing. If they had a mail shot of 100,000 sales letters they would do a test run on 1000 targeted people and measure the response. It´s fair to say that if they got a 2% response from that 1000 people that they would get the same response from the same target market. So from 100,000 people they would bring in 2000 sales. In that way it was very easy for this company to justify the expense that they incurred on sending the mail shot and optimizing the sales letter. The customers of this company knew what the return on investment (ROI) was going to be. So they lined up to get this company to sell their products. There were still times when it went wrong but never by so much of a difference that a customer would lose money. This was all because of the testing. This company would never do a mail out without a measured test run and they never tested to less than 1000 people. Incidentally the highest conversion rate we achieved while I worked for the company with this method was 4% sales conversion from 1 million sales letters (40,000 sales) resulting in a profit for the customer of over $200,000.

What has this got to do with web marketing?

In the direct marketing there was a cost incurred for the test run, the letters needed to be optimized, printed, posted, measured and potential ROI calculated. On the web you can do the same testing and achieve similar results without it costing you anywhere near as much. Why? Because on the web it´s easy to test and optimize your web pages in the same way simply by using a good measurement system to measure the results.

What is a split run?

A split run is where you measure a new idea or way to sell a product against a control or default which you know works. So you might have two pages of sales copy one which you know sells 2% to a targeted audience and another which is selling the same thing but is an unknown quantity.

How do you do this online?

First you need to invest in a decent measurement system. Something that accurately records the number of people arriving at your website and the pages they land at. Second you need to have a system or web developer at your disposal that allows you to alter your pages as you require. This is your investment. If you aren´t prepared to invest in your own future then you should question whether you want to have a web site to sell pro ducts or services at all. Then you need to define what variables will make a difference to your web sales strategy.

Here´s where it gets interesting

You can write a web sales page in much the same way as a direct mail letter and there are plenty of small businesses out there that do this quite effectively many of which ´have´ done tests and measured response. The ones that succeed do that. That however is a single web page. A web site is different to a direct mail letter or single web sales page. On a web site your landing pages should convince the browser that continuing further into your site is worth their effort. In other words you try to stop people from what is known as ´bouncing´, in other words arriving at the site and looking, but finding nothing relevant and leaving.

In the case of a web page or a web site split testing can and should be applied to the following content sections in order to best cater for your readership. Remember that it´s not ´your´ website, it´s your visitors experience that counts. The better their experience is the better your chance of improving your conversion rate.

1) Headlines

We have done tests on headlines that improved readership conversion by 36%. In other words from using a better headline we stopped 36% more people from leaving our website. We tested by using a split test. Our home page we knew converted (got people to click through to another page) around 50% of our audience. We thought that this was poor for our main landing page and so wrote a programming script that alternated between two headlines to see if it made a difference. We ran this split test until 1000 people had visited the page. We knew that 500 had seen the default headline and that 500 had seen the new one. Of the 500 that saw the new one we saw just over 100 left without doing anything (bounced). This meant we had a distinct improvement especially when we compared it to the default page which was consistent in its mediocrity, only 243 people from 500 actually went further into our website. So we switched the headline and the following month 86% of our new visitors arrived and went further into the website. The reasons for this are quite logical, people read headlines, if the headline doesn´t strike a chord, the reader will not bother reading the rest of the page, they just leave. So headlines in your website are vital test subjects.

2) Links

Links within content can be split tested. We used 2 versions of one link that got us a 100% improvement in click through. The thing with links isn´t particularly where the link goes it´s the attractiveness of it. When you use a link like a headline or as part of an explanation which draws the reader deeper into the site then the content where that link goes should continue the process. In our split test our default link used to say ´click here to read the rest of this article´. Our tracking system reported that the link got 49 clicks from 500 visitors or just under 10% conversion. Our split test was to use the headline of the article as a link which was ´Without Conversion Rates, You Don´t Know If Your Mickey Mouse Or Mickey Mantle´ in stead of the default link and we improved click through to 102 from 500 just over 20%, in other words a 100% improvement. Again our method was a simple php script which alternated between two versions of the link.

3) Navigation systems

We have just finished testing navigation on one of our websites. One test was DHTML with drop down menu´s which meant that anyone could get to any section of the site with one click of the mouse. The other was a simple set of links on the left hand side, less effective on the amount of clicks required to get to a page but very obvious as a bunch of links which you´re supposed to click. Because of this split test we are going to change our entire website structure to reflect the simple links on the left hand side. We found that from the 500 who looked at the ordinary simple navigational links 30% more people clicked them. The DHTML while built to potentially make it easier seems to be less effective from the results we´ve seen. While this is true of our site it differs for others, sites where it is important to find things easily will likely benefit from DHTML menus of this sort, but our site doesn´t really need it.

I could go on. You could test different versions of graphics, you could test subscription and sales forms, you could test background/text combinations, link colors, buttons (buy now, order now, buy, order) you can even test paragraphs of content. There is nothing on a website which cannot be split tested.

In summary - how do minor changes like this effect conversion?

Apart from the improvements in click through and readership the changes effect sales.

The targeting you use in headlines gets more immediate readership, this means that there is a chain reaction toward the improved linking which gets more click through, the more click through you get results in more interest in your products and services and therefore the better prospect and sales acquisition rate you get. In other words more sales conversion. There are of course things you can miss but split testing shouldn´t be a new idea for the web, it should be the norm.
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Steve JacksonAuthor: Steve Jackson, Editor - Conversion Chronicles

Steve Jackson is the Editor of the Conversion Chronicles, a website conversion rate marketing newsletter dedicated to improving website conversion rates. In 2003 he co-founded Aboavista the first web analytics consultancy in Finland and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Satama Interactive. Satama Analytics unit is a web conversion and web analytics consultancy based in Finland with offices across northern europe. You can get a free copy of his e-book sent to you upon subscription to the Conversion Chronicles web site.