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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 at 8:04 am

Don’t Optimize First and Ask Questions Later

By Brendan Regan
December 30th, 2009

One of the things I’m looking forward to in 2010 is more and more people getting involved in optimizing their online marketing efforts.  This past year was really exciting in terms of Optimization gaining momentum (and budget) among many, many online marketing organizations.  It is, after all, the business that FutureNow has been in for over ten years.

As we all evolve our optimization approaches, one of the things to watch out for, especially for those who are just getting started using optimization tools and tactics, is what I refer to as “optimizing first and asking questions later.”

This means that you start investing in optimization (resources, new content, testing, etc.) without first asking the crucial “who,” “what,” and “why” questions related to your efforts. If you don’t know who your prospects are, how can you be thinking about optimization?  If you don’t know what you want them to do and have some informed ideas about what might be stopping them from being persuaded to do it, how can you design a proper test?  If you don’t know why their motivation is breaking down in the funnel, how can you develop more persuasive content?

I’ve seen some companies investing heavily in trying to optimize an aspect of their site, but when I ask, “What do you think is discouraging your prospects from converting?”, they don’t have a solid answer.  I guess that in some sense it’s my job to have that answer, or at least know the steps to take to arrive at one, but still I’d like everyone to at least have a reasonable and informed guess about what’s sub-optimal in their online conversion experiences.

The risks of this approach are:

  • Frustration – if you’re investing in optimization, and not moving the needle, it’s indeed frustrating
  • Losing your optimization budget – if you fought for an official optimization budget, and don’t get results, guess where that budget is headed: elsewhere.
  • Wasted time – if you take a ‘random luck’ approach to optimization, it will take you far longer to get the results you’re after
  • Wasted money – if you’re investing human resources in developing test variations, or making content changes at random, you may never get your ROI.  Also, every day that goes by where you’re optimizing the wrong way has an opportunity cost.  As soon as you get it right, you start making more money.  So delaying the getting it right costs you money!

Let’s take a specific example: You target the first page of your checkout process for optimization because it has, say, a 68% abandon rate.  Any decrease in that abandon rate would likely mean real dollars, so it’s a good place to start.  So, you go out and look at a bunch of “big name” shopping carts, take notes, and start changing your page to look and behave like theirs.  Or, you develop some test variations where elements on the page are different colors, different labels, different placement, etc.

Taking this type of approach, you may luck out and experience some optimization-like results, but you’ll never know why!  And, where do you go from there?  Any further experimentation could undo your results. That is optimizing first and asking questions later; it’s dangerous stuff, folks.

How to ask questions first, and optimize later:

  • Have a brainstorm with team members to capture possible reasons why your abandon rate is 68% on that page
  • Doing competitive analysis is a possibility to get ideas (but not a good idea to just start copying other online stores)
  • Ask your prospects via survey.  Comb your customer service transcripts for clues.
  • Develop marketing personas (free PDF), and use them to help you empathize with the questions or concerns your prospects might have
  • Look at the “scent of information” that prospects followed to get to the first page of your checkout.  Have you set expectations somewhere along the way, then forgotten to fulfill them or do some reassuring?
  • If you’re not comfortable with these efforts, outsource your online optimization to experts.

Once you’ve completed these types of exercises, and asked the sometimes difficult questions, then it makes sense to start investing in formal Optimization efforts.  Like studying before an exam, we know that even some basic pre-work will amplify the results you’ll see :)

[Editor's note: the phrase 'optimize first and ask questions later' is loosely based on a quote attributed to Hermann Göring ("Shoot first and ask questions later...").  Seeing as Mr. Göring was a bad man, we want to convey that we aren't trying to cast any positive light on his deeds.]

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Comments (39)

  1. You have some really good points here about optimization, it makes a lot more sense. I’ll have to share this on Blogger Den, I’m sure the community will be interested in it!

  2. Hi Brendan, excellent information and we anticipate employing some of the points. thanks again.

  3. hmmmm,,,, i think i have already made this mistake, now i am confused on what are my real targets and which traffic shall i choose… lol.. but now i am doing what is the right thing to do, and now i am concentrated and iknow my goals. thanks anyway, lol, why I didn’t found you before?

  4. When I very first started, I made so much mistake that I ended up asking questions A LOT later down the road. I sure learned my lessons!

  5. Good message, Brendan.

    Another tip is to repeat things that have worked recently. eg if better product shots have got results then make them even better or use better shots for more products, etc. And TEST of course.

  6. This is not only know-how, but also know why.
    Your post remind me of the “what, why, how, who” priciples mentioned in Bryan’s book, call to action. We are customers ourselves too.

  7. You have good points for addressing this issue…the optimization is very effective if all questions are answered and analyzed accurately.

  8. You show the right direction. Especially at the beginning of a project, however, it is usually very difficult to suppress the urge to fast results. Better planning allows long-term success easier. Quick action at the beginning of a project satisfies the customer only briefly.

  9. This is an interesting post. Paying attention to conversion and starting with optimizing the sales page for better conversion can save PPC marketers a lot

  10. yes i will do with your mind

  11. [...] GrokDotCom / Marketing Optimization Blog January 1, 2010 — translatorpower via Posted in Uncategorized. Leave a Comment [...]

  12. Cart abandonment is one thing marketers never really focus on. They look at their rankings, but don’t seem to notice how much business they are losing from prospects who have already found their site. Great post and hopefully it will come to the attention of online sellers.

  13. I didn’t know the importance of keyword research at first. Now that I realized the importance of optimizing my site around high demand keywords, I want to smack myself when I first started.

    Kai Lo

  14. Good stuff! The company I work for have arranged ‘optimization’ meetings for exactly this purpose. Also, there are some good tips here – old but good!

  15. I completely agree. Too many clients want to rank well in the search engines, but without any understanding of whether it will yield sales. I typically ask them to test PPC first, find some golden nuggets and then start optimizing for those converting keywords. Otherwise I can drive them traffic, but driving sales requires more than guesswork.

  16. Your article is really informative and even I follow your principle. I usually say newbies, Before starting optimizing your website you must know why you are doing optimization and after you must know how to do optimization

  17. I am a newbie and this is good advice. I think that trying to figure out your key demographic first is the best step. If you don’t know your demographic, you website will not succeed.

  18. I am new in SEO, and after reading this I saw some of my first ideas was totally wrong :-( . Thanks a lot for advice, it is much easier to change things in the begining.

  19. it’s really important that you know what you do before optimizing, That’s why you always need to ask questions first!!!! Thanks for this post!

  20. When I decided to invest money in SEO, I knew it was a long process and i wanted to be sure that the company I hired would do the right thing. So they asked the right questions and now my SEO is running just fine!!!!

  21. I didn’t know the importance of keyword research at first. Now that I realized the importance of optimizing my site around high demand keywords, I want to smack myself when I first started.

  22. You have to keep in mind both things: Keyword Research and Commercial Intent.

    Just because you get high search volume does not mean those people are looking to make a purchase of something.

    I had a site that had high search volume but nobody was clicking ads.

    The commercial intent is just as important as keyword research.


  23. to know about the prospects is most important thing for optimization.Thanks for such a great knowledge sharing.

  24. To be able to satisfy your customers, you really need to ask the good questions before doing anything else. They count on you to make their business profitable on the web.

  25. Analysis and asking the right questions first will save a lot of work later as you will know what to optimize later

  26. Hi.. Brendan, excellent information and we anticipate employing some of the points. thanks again.

  27. Saving time and money is gold in SEO. that’s why you ask questions first and then you optimize. Thanks for sharing

  28. hmm, that is a good aproach to ask before you do, if you are even not clear after reading this post you should ask via comments and the community will help you alot.

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  30. SEO means a lot more than Optimization. But ofcourse, the advices of a SEO is the first thing you should do when start such a campain

  31. If you don’t know what you want them to do and have some informed ideas about what might be stopping them from being persuaded to do it, how can you design a proper test?

  32. @Sutures: Not sure I totally understand the question, but you need to know what you want them to do before designing a valid test. Then, you need a hypothesis on what might persuade them to take that action. Then you can design a test to validate (or invalidate) your hypothesis.

  33. You’re an angel! Just what I was looking for. I don’t know why I didn’t check with the W3C site to see if they offered something like this

  34. excellent article. So much time is spent increasing traffic through rankings in search engines where a couple of changes to a site could make your ROI increase.

    Some great points

  35. Again, excellent post. In the past, notably on my first web project, I failed to ask ALL of the proper questions before optimizing and it ended up being a tornado down the road. You live and you learn though.

  36. Questions are guide to have an exact way of doing it. It gives as an idea on what to do first and what will be our actions.

  37. tips to help conversions. What you should do is sit back and think about the products you bought online and why you bought. It was the current mindset you were in at the time. Made a article or something on tv made you think you needed that product or it was going to solve your problem. Dont try to reinvent the wheel. Figure out why you bought something and were you went to buy and what you searched and you will find buyers.

  38. That is a good approach to ask before you do, if you are even not clear after reading this post you should ask via comments and the community will help you a lot.

  39. He is 100% right, you can’t do anything if you dont document yourself and taking things step by step instead of pushing yourself in the hole.

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