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Cheat Sheet: Seven Ways to Make Website Optimization Really Work for You

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Optimization is moving deeper into online media. But its rapid growth has spawned divergent ideas of what it is and what it can do. Simply defined, site optimization is a real-time process of identifying site visitors and serving them content and advertising that is most likely to make them take a desired action.

Here's a look at seven best practices for website optimization. Consider it a crib sheet for marketers seeking to navigate a potentially complex process -- and better collaborate with their technical teams.
1.
USE A PORTFOLIO APPROACH


Use a portfolio approach
Illustrations by Scott Dunlap
Conventional thinking asserts that optimization deals with one creative concept and the offer accompanying the creative targets a specific audience. But in my view, digital assets and audience segments should be treated as a portfolio where risk, yield and offers can be managed. To best leverage optimization, multiple creative concepts and offers should run simultaneously to multiple audiences to produce a more relevant dialogue with each segment that will achieve higher conversion rates.

Differentiating assets to get a clear read of results is critical for success. A common reason why elements such as graphic design, messaging or offer are not differentiated enough for a portfolio approach is the concern that too much variety will cause the creative to be off-brand and confuse users. This is simply not true. A portfolio of differentiated assets can be created and be completely on-brand and comply with style and/or messaging guidelines. The challenge is to have the courage to have multiple concepts in use at the same time.
2.
FOCUS ON AUDIENCES


Focus on audiences
When you use the wrong metrics, it's easy to lose focus on whom you're marketing to. It's people, remember? Optimizing for audience profiles, behavior and trends is the only way to ensure a consistent and growing lift in conversions. Optimizing based on traffic -- the number of clicks or page views, for example -- often results in increased performance, but it limits insights into why lift is accruing and, more important, misses the most essential point -- the people.

When focusing on audience segments, results can be counterintuitive. It is not uncommon for publishers to find audience segments that simply do not fit the expected corporate view of a good customer. Moreover, creative concepts that the marketing team doesn't necessarily favor may outperform the favorites in some or even most segments. And that's OK. Marketers can leverage such insights to inform many other parts of the marketing continuum including offer development, product development, and message and creative development.
3.
KEEP IT HONEST


Focus on audiences
Transparency is crucial to success. Therefore, it is important to monitor and communicate the success of optimization. A control group, sometimes called "business as usual" (BAU), is important because it is a constant benchmark for the performance of your optimization program. An honest metric of lift over control is the best way to prove your program's worth.
4.
DEFINE SUCCESS


Define success
Defining success at the beginning of a program can be a bit of a cliche, but it is a worthwhile step. It's critical to establish measures during the planning phases of your optimization program and to maintain those measures consistently throughout the program. The increased level of transparency in how the optimization program is measured and judged will give the program an increased level of credibility to executive sponsors.

Defining success and measuring consistently will also allow you to correct your experiment quickly as you'll be able to diagnose shortcomings sooner than if the metrics are consistently being changed to spin a story and show artificial lift. The discipline may be difficult and the transparency a bit too revealing, but the effort will be rewarded with a more successful program.
5.
GIVE THE LEARNINGS LEGS


Focus on audiences
Share the great deal of intelligence that results from your optimization project with other members of your marketing organization. Audience insights including demographic profiles and behavioral trends should be shared with market researchers and compared with results from quantitative and qualitative studies. And share them with brand stewards and agency partners to help guide new creative development both with media teams (to help guide targeting) and with product development (to inform strategy).
6.
KNOW WHERE TO OPTIMIZE


Focus on audiences
If optimization is done well, it should achieve results no matter where the placement, but in order to achieve maximum ROI, choose a section of real estate that is above the fold and as large as possible. Also, when choosing which page to optimize, the home page is almost always the best choice. A good second choice is a product or section home page.
7.
COUNT CROSSOVER TOO


Focus on audiences
The most direct way to evaluate performance is to identify the lift realized from direct conversions. Because the optimization program focuses on audiences and developing a relevant dialogue with individual users, the increased level of engagement can lead to users unexpectedly converting to products or services for which you're not optimizing. This is crossover; watch for it closely. While not a direct measure of success, consider it a fringe benefit.

No doubt, the optimization process can be challenging. It disrupts cultural beliefs in what is effective and how campaigns should be managed and measured. And optimization offers a high level of transparency and accountability, both of which can be intimidating for marketers. But remember this: A clear communications plan that stresses the value proposition of optimization, consistency and transparency of measurement will pay for itself with more effective online marketing.
Heath Podvesker
Heath Podvesker is VP-client services at [x+1], an online conversion optimization firm. Formerly VP-planning director at Wunderman and a frequent industry speaker, he has presented at Harvard Business School's Cyberposium on trends in marketing technology.
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