How are you best evangelising CRO into the wider company so that everyone understands the value and wants to meaningfully contribute to the success?

TLDR; You can’t do it alone. It must be democratised in the form of structure and mindset. If you educate, encourage failure, gamify and demonstrate humility, I think you’ll take a good swing at it.

Every week, I answer the top voted question in my Slido. There are currently 37 questions on there. Id love for you to upvote or contribute to ask a question about my experience or if I can crowd-source other opinions.

Please also leave a comment on this article and give me your opinion. The debate genuinely helps others and me in learning — especially if you disagree.

In 2011, Lea Hickman led product for Adobe’s Creative Suite.

She knew that she had to optimise the product for a more sustainable, demanding customer base. And research demonstrated that they needed to move away from a desktop-centric, annual-upgrade model to a subscription-based model supporting all devices. Mobile, eh?

What a task to convince engineers to moving away from annual upgrades to continuous development. Or to convince finance to moving from a license model to a subscription one. Or convince sales to moving away from a reseller model to a direct relationship with the customer. Who, by the way, are now needing to rent their software rather than own it. They were furious. There was even a Change.org petition which reached over 30,000 signatures within a few weeks of the announcement.

Lea articulated a vision, rather than a methodology. Instead of compartmentalising finance, and engineering and marketing; she communicated a mission where they would all reach, and, if anything, over-communicated it. She created continuous prototypes getting all others involved in a more democratised process designed to rally product teams and executives and keeping them excited.

Now, Adobe has more than tripled its’ market cap to $60bn, thanks in large part to this transition.

“This is one of the most impressive, nearly superhuman examples I know of a product leader driving massive and meaningful change in a large enterprise company.” Marty Cagan

Lea is, indeed, superhuman and, being honest, I think you can evangelise CRO all you want, but without the right structure and mindset, you’re a lonely island.

The things I take from this story are that:

  • There’s no such thing as over-communication
  • The clarity, story, proposition (the why) and the vision of the communication, is almost more important than the communication itself. Where do you want the company to be? Why?
  • She had permission
  • Democratising, empowerment and giving autonomy to others is vital for the vitality and therefore, buy-in

I’ve been in the position of looking outside in. Watching those CRO programs that fail and those that succeed. And I can tell you now, those that succeed are those that:

  1. Decentralise the optimisation process
  2. Have an optimisation mindset
  3. The ABCs of EFGH (Educate, failure, gamify and humility)

And that’s how I’m going to answer this question with experiences of my own.

Decentralise the optimisation process

So I don’t think you can do it alone. Sorry. Not even if you’re Lea. She had permission, for one, but she was also in a position of higher power.

Decentralisation is the best, arguably only, way you can reach the heats and minds above. Period. I’m all for centre of excellence centres by the way. That’s like an optimisation union. But a decentralised optimisation process is a structure where everyone optimises; or at least everyone can optimise.

In working with — must be over 100 digital companies by now — I’ve never seen a successful optimisation practice where it is centralised. By success I mean, listening to data and customers for every decision or release.

Amongst many reasons, I think that a centralised approach is discipline-led (of which optimisation is not a discipline, more on that later), and a decentralised approach is mindset-led. It’s an embedded belief; like a virus.

Think, too, about domain expertise. I’ll let Bhav explain.

“In my opinion, the limitations of a centralised team only become apparent when one moves beyond low hanging fruit and enters a space where deep domain expertise is required. We kid ourselves into thinking that a centralised team has the necessary subject matter expertise to solve real problems just because they have a designer, an engineer and a CRO person who has a couple of test ideas. Decentralised teams obsess over the area they look after and all they need help in is how to take all their domain expertise and knowledge and turn them into hypotheses and tests.”

Bhavik Patel, Product Analytics Lead, Gousto

But my overlying reason why decentralisation is the only route forward is that of autonomy and trust. A de-centralised approach decouples stakeholders from product changes.

When I was working with a large retailer, I remember the concept of a new checkout being discussed between the product and ecommerce teams. The approach was clearly centralised as the statements were along the lines of:

“We need these 5 features releasing within the checkout to hit the target of a 65% progression rate”

A decentralised approach would have gone along the lines of:

“Hey product team can you get us a 65% progression rate in the checkout in the next 4 months?”.

Therefore, letting them work out how to achieve this, thus creating autonomy. Thus creating empowerment.

A final note on structure, there’s a cracking series of interviews undertaken by Andrew McInnes. He interviewed over 20 growth leads at companies like Uber and Pinterest to identify which was the best growth model — an independent or a functional one. The answer?

“Choosing a growth team model based upon cultural, organisational, and strategic fit may be the better path forward. Don’t select for growth. Select for fit.”

Have an optimisation mindset

What is an optimisation mindset?

Let’s not forget that experimentation is not optimisation. All experimentation is, is a method (a rather sexy one at that) to validate a decision by adding data. It’s sexy because a) it is (or can be) accurate and b) gamifies the decision making process. Who will win? A or B? By virtue, experimentation is a game. We’ll come on to this later.

Experimentation and optimisation aren’t terribly dissimilar as they champion data-driven user-first cultures. So I’m going to throw this diagram out there which is excellent

Structure is a pre-requisite, perhaps, but mindset will determine it’s success.

“Even [with the right structure], leadership would need to buy into a data driven and iterative mindset to drive growth. If leadership does not, you will fail no matter how you structure your growth team.” Andrew McInnes

It sounds platitudinal, but conversion rate optimisation is a mindset, or culture, not a discipline. Structure is needed, but without mindset (or belief) you have nothing.

When I started User Conversion in 2015, I had the single mantra of: conversion rate optimisation is not a specialism, it’s a series of specialisms that work together. Here’s a screenshot from something hidden in our About Us page in 2015.

Fast forward to today, and I still thoroughly believe this. Perhaps even more so. I believe that a single person should not be responsible for “optimisation”. Sorry “Optimisation mangers” but if you’re on your own in a business … you can try and do what Lea did but its very rare (and she was already in a high product position). It will take years, you do need to bring others along the ride with you, you will need that permission.

Look at the biggies and, for the sake of argument, look at experimentation as a methodology, instead of optimisation. There’s a theme to them all and it is one of mindset.

“Netflix runs on an A/B testing culture: nearly every decision we make about our product and business is guided by member behavior observed in test”

“Microsoft’s Analysis & Experimentation team consists of more than 80 people who on any given day help run hundreds of online controlled experiments on various products”

The ABCs of EFGH (Educate, failure, gamify and humility)

OK, OK, we’ve spoken about structure and mindset as being foundational prerequisite. But let’s assume you do need to evangelise CRO. How do you best go about doing that?

Think > Feel > Act.

You want your business to behave in a different way, they must think in a different way. And if you’re not a lonely island, and you do have — at least concepts — of a decentralised structure in place, then we’re in prime position to change behaviour by affecting the think and then the feel.

Well. It’ll be hard.

“Experimentation culture is something you earn, you don’t buy. Why? Because culture is completely changing the way you build your products or services.” Craig Sullivan.

1. Educate

Educate is the think, to precursor the feel and act.

What is the purpose of optimisation within your business and how does it link to the wider business goals? Think about Lea continually reiterating that vision. And over-communicating it.

Break it down further (and I’m doing this because AB testing is often seen as the definition of optimisation). What is the purpose of experimentation within your optimisation process? The answer is is is designed to validate a change by adding more evidence.

We should know by now the purpose of experimentation is not to ‘win’ or ‘lose’ but to learn. It’s hypothesis testing at its very core. “Was I correct in this statement of thinking?”

Some of the ways at User Conversion that we’ve encouraged this mentality is to remove ROI from the equation of individual test analysis — and explain why (I won’t go into this RN). In our test analysis, demonstrating “primary metric analysis” “secondary metric analysis ”followed by three simple questions:

  • What did we learn
  • What does this mean
  • What next

I remember an old conversation with the fabulous Annemarie Klaassen stating before she even took a job at X company, she dictated how she would report on experiment success for this very purpose. The company wasn’t called X, I just forgot the name of it.

2. Failure

Failure is the feel, the precursor to act.

I could write a book on failure. Some have. Failure is what makes us truly feel something. We often say “I feel it’s a failure” rather than “I think it’s a failure” I won’t delve too much into the concepts of failures because I think it’s widely versed. But I would recommend encouraging it, and celebrating it.

I remember a story from Simon Elsworth and the team at Sky that stated when they first ‘started’, all the heads of got round a table. Of the 7, 8, 9 or so teams that were there, the experimentation team was the only was that talked about their failures, in comparison to all those who talked about their successes.

Another recommendation is to turn your tales of failure into stories. Stories help us engage. I LOVE stories. For those of you that don’t know me, I love Disney. Like. Obsessed. And so I’m fascinated with story-telling and will always point you in the direction of Creativity Inc or Andrew Stantons TED talk. But telling a good story can help us feel more and therefore be more engaged, especially when it resonates.

My most read article I’ve written is about why I sold User Conversion — at the heart of the story, it’s a success story about hustle and coming to terms with my own shortcomings. But people do empathise making the story that much stronger. The book, Pixar: The Rules for effective Story Telling , actually goes into great depths of how their films have moments of physical or emotional life-or-death moments which creates conflict, and therefore emotional attachment to character and story. Apply the same to your mission.

3. Gamify

Gamify is the act. Well. It’s actually the best way to change mindset by acting.

Jamil Qureshi said it’s the best way to change behaviour, and I really like him.

“We must take away the existing parameters that we believe hold us in place, and play the game of ‘what if’ more often. What if we had an unlimited budget? What if we had no budget? What if we gave this away for free? What if we charged for this? All great journeys start with a question. Move outside of what currently holds us in place to create new possibilities.”

Duncan Wardle says the same too in, I’m going to throw it out there, the best talk I’ve ever seen. I’m slightly bias as it’s a talk about Disney, but listen to how he describes the What If scenario mapping in relation to Blockbuster, Fantasia and Car washes.

[image courtesy of qoorio.app/o/agne.nainyte/i/qg2n55-s5]

But really, experimentation is the ultimate game. It’s A vs B. It’s win or lose (despite what I said before). It’s aha moments. And although experimentation is just a form of optimisation, it is the sexiest form. Let’s be honest. It is. It’s sexy because it’s competitive and a game by it’s very nature.

4. Humility

A lot of optimisers I have seen have pride; which teeters over into ego. Myself included. We all have ego. They focus on others’ failures. With a microscope. Demanding that they change through a critical lens. “You’re doing that wrong” “What, why didn’t you test that first” “Hold on, the button is … RED”

Such criticism creates isolation. Can you imagine continually forcing the need or drumming the message of “failure” to a product team who, inherently, want to succeed?

Really, optimisers need humility. The emotional intelligence to coach others through the why and how to reach the outcome. I should change this section from educating to coaching really. Mark Leach always taught us that there is a distinct difference between being “passionate” about something and “caring” about something. I think he was on to something.

Less about ego, but consider who you’re speaking to. Like Craig said, culture is earned. My good friend Manuel says that (in a wicked article here)

“democratising [testing] is about people first and understanding them” Manuel Da Costa

Summary

Let’s answer your question.

In order for everyone to “understand [conversion rate optimisation’s] value and meaningfully contribute to its success”, one must democratise. Because to behave you must first think and feel. To think and feel, you must empower.

You democratise through structure and mindset as foundational to your efforts.

I’d recommend following the model of EFGH.

  1. Educate; continually relate back to the vision and over-communicate
  2. Failure; celebrate and encourage through stories
  3. Gamify; what ifs remove the art of the possible
  4. Humility; demonstrate care, not passion.

Finally

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Stories and advice within the world of conversion rate optimisation. Founder @ User Conversion. Global VP of CRO @ Brainlabs. Experimenting with 2 x children