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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010 at 4:31 pm

The Art & Science of CRO

By Brendan Regan
August 26th, 2010

Do You Have What it Takes?

…conversion [rate] optimization is the science and art of creating an experience for a website visitor with the goal of converting the visitor into a customer.


Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Create a good experience and your visitors will convert. But is it really that simple?

This post will explore why I believe CRO isn’t easy at all, and can’t be done successfully by just anyone or any company. Anything that combines “art” and “science” is going to be tricky to execute. Read on to understand how to build a balanced skill set (if you want to be an individual CRO practitioner) or a balanced in-house team (if you want CRO to be a permanent part of your company’s approach to doing business).

1brain hemispheresWhen I think of “art and science,” I always relate it to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left brain owns “science,” and the right brain powers “art.” In terms of optimization, if you go too far to the right, you’re relying on aesthetics and cleverness. If you go too far to the left, you’re relying on technology or paralyzed by too much data.

Here are some of the skills needed to be successful in CRO, and which side of the brain they live on.

SCIENCE, a.k.a. Left-brain

  1. Basic understanding of statistics – CRO needs to be data-driven, and much of the data we use to do our jobs comes in the form of ratios, percentages, confidence levels, etc. This left brain activity is needed, if only at a basic level, to optimize. This doesn’t mean you need a PhD, it just means you need a basic understanding of principles.
  2. Basic understanding of mathematics - CRO requires a fair amount of calculations to prioritize activities, to estimate test durations, and to understand financial impacts. If I think about how many percentage change calculations I do per day, it’s scary :)
  3. Ability to control variables – The left brain is what keeps tests from spinning out of control with too many variables. Learning to “isolate variables” is invaluable, and your right brain won’t help you here.
  4. Ability to work with code – You don’t need to be a programmer to do CRO, but you need to understand how code works (and doesn’t work), how to administrate tests, etc.
  5. Analytical thought – Before you make any changes or run any tests, you need to do analysis. It usually starts by looking at web analytics data, but the left brain trick is being able to recognize patterns and anomalies in data. Otherwise, you’re just staring at reports and not taking any action.
  6. Project management – The left brain powers the discipline needed to stay on task, coordinate efforts of various resources, and execute on a continuous basis. The ability to juggle priorities among a diverse team of implementers, by the way, is the number one factor shared by our most successful clients.
  7. Attention to detail – Sometimes, the changes we make or tests we run don’t behave according to the hypothesis. Why? It’s usually some small detail that influenced behavior. The left brain lets us be detailed enough to notice that the copyright on a page is out-of-date, and may have caused a lack of credibility, which in turn soured test results.

ART, a.k.a. Right-brain

  1. Web design – Good design communicates effectively and influences behavior. At the very least, it puts people at ease, and makes them trust our marketing efforts. If it’s done well, it can even evoke a certain mood that makes people more inclined to take the actions we want them to take. Ever seen a design done by a very left-brained programmer? No offense, but it’s not pretty :)
  2. Psychology – The way people say they’ll behave (on surveys or in focus groups) is never the way they really behave when online. They behave according to the motivations of the moment. Even though analyzing the data from your website is a left-brained task (see Left-Brain item #5, above), the understanding of the psychological factors that drive online behavior is the playground of the intuitive right brain.
  3. Role-playing – Whether you use personas, segments, roles, or use cases, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your prospects is a crucial right brain skill. Else, you’re just designing for yourself, and your narrow viewpoint won’t satisfy your whole target audience!
  4. Application of best practices – You may think the application of best practices is left brained. After all, it’s really just mimicry, right? Not so. The application of best practices takes right brain creativity to make sure you’re not simply copying other sites. The best practices must be synthesized into what works for your unique site.
  5. Bucking the best practices – Sometimes, best practices under-perform in our tests, which reminds us that they’re guidelines, not rules. Sometimes, you have to go counter to the prevailing logic or trend in order to find the solution that works best. This “outside the box” creativity is born out of the right brain.
  6. Copywriting – Good copy beats bad copy every time. Without the right brain, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare’s sonnets, and we wouldn’t have PPC ads, headlines, and calls to action that increase our KPIs.
  7. Post-test analysis – While pre-test analysis lives mostly in the left brain (see Right-brain item #2, above), we find that post-test analysis tends to draw on the right brain’s imagination. If one variation vastly outperforms others, or if the hypothesis isn’t validated, you really have to get imaginative to analyze why visitors responded in a certain counter-intuitive way.

In conclusion, if you want to be a CRO practitioner, you have to be very “balanced” between the two hemispheres of your brain. You practically have to be bipolar ;)

If you want to build an in-house team to do CRO full-time, it’s not likely you’ll find a lot of applicants who are that balanced. But, you can hire intelligently to make sure your “dream team” has an even mix of left-brained and right-brained talents.

Finally, the secret, third option is to hire objective, trained, third party help. If you go that route, you’ll want to get a feel for whether or not they have the right mix of skills. If you go with FutureNow, we’ll not only tell you about our “skills mix,” we’ll even tell you our Myers-Briggs personality types! How’s that for transparency? ;)

Add Your Comments

Comments (48)

  1. Interesting thoughts – personally I’m more of left-brained person, I analyse all the data myself but hire someone to do my designs and sometimes writing. It’s definitely important to have a good mix of both.

  2. The biggest thing is having or hiring someone who can see where your website weaknesses are. Once you fix the big website mistakes, then finding the smaller ones is where the real skill comes in. We can all make the changes coding wise but the real question is ‘What to change or what to test’. Experience is good but in my opinion it is good to always get some outside help, so that they can give you a different perspective on your website, conversion funnel, category page layout, etc….. and yes even getting another company later on will also help find issue the 1st company did not fine either. Test, Test, Test…….

  3. Conversions, conversions, conversions. It seems to be the only thing REALLY worth think about in the whole SEO world. After all, what good is increased traffic with no conversions.

    One thing that has helped a lot of my clients greatly is to give them the idea that a landing page to a website is the first step in a “path” that will ultimately lead into the conversion.

    So if you design content, text–page-jumps all with this path in mind; it definitely helps to sway the customer to where you want them to be.

    Ultimately having a CRO team is something I’d love to experiment with, but just doesn’t seem too feasible.

  4. The graphic accompanying this post showing the brain hemispheres is backwards. Left is right and right is wrong. Starting the article this way does not help the credibility.

  5. I agree with RPG on this one. Like them, I found in my travels that it’s much easier to have employees concentrate on what they are more “wired” to be, and if that is left brained (developers) or right brained (designers) you have employees concentrating on what they enjoy and understand the best. For the company its’ win win!

  6. informative and useful posting about right and left brain. I think you right about SCIENCE, a.k.a. Left-brain , Now I am engineer and dominated to use left-brain( in my jobs need mathematics,analytic,leadership and management).

    last time I join management training, trainer said if you want become success people you must use right and left-brain balance, its correct or not?
    please advice.

  7. The unfortunate thing is I find most “web people” are not right brain enough. They are good at desinging websites and other web things but really don’t know much about marketing things. A good combo is what it takes.

  8. Maybe wiki should show us how to do it, they seem to infer that its as simple as A-B-C. It’s difficult, well, it’s ain’t easy that’s for sure. Good sales copy, targeted traffic (the big one), a genuine product that people want, low competition. On and on it goes. Sometimes it feels like madness trying to get it to work, but then again, maybe we tend to over-analyse it.

  9. It is amazing how there is a correclation between right and left brain people and intriverted and extroverted people. In my opinion extroverted people fit the role of the logical right brain, where are introverted people fit the role of the left brain type people. There is an intetereting study about wealtl dynamics that goes into that exact topic.

    Good outlining article thought, thanks.


  10. I’m more of right-brained guy… How do you think, it is possible to improve the left side?

  11. @David Stutzman: How left brain of you to notice! Good job. My apologies for the error, and the graphic has been updated. Thanks.

  12. Brilliant analysis, very good stuff. I am mainly left-brain oriented, although I’m glad to see that I satisfy a couple of the right-brain skills too.

    Very interesting stuff anywhoo. *Googles whether it’s possible to improve right side of brain* ;)

  13. I am not very creative so who knows, but you can definitely increase creativity and other things by exposing yourself to art music and traveling more…

  14. I am typically a right brain sort of a guy but typically it seems like trial and error is the best way to find the best conversion rates for different types of web sites. You will always have your best convertors in the same place, but it seems to me that you need to slide things around a bit in the other slots depending on how your web site content is laid out.

  15. I think that the key is to make sure that all pages attract both sides of the brain. You have to play to a users emotions aka there point of pain, and the numbers/logical side. Good post enjoyed the read.

  16. CRO. A very impressive topic and equally impressive reader comments. The details are where it is at and that is where 95% fail in their efforts at conversion rate optimization.

  17. Well I guess my left half of the brain is much bigger than :) . I like exact stuff and i love statistics. I do not like very much writing articles and designing, it is difficult for me. But I can hire someone. Too bad it is hard to find good and professional people.

  18. Good article, maybe too comlex for small companies who service small companies, but it’s good to understand how it is and whether we will aply it in oour work and whether the effort pays off is another thing.

  19. Far too many websites are blatant SEO efforts, written for Google, not the consumer! Conversion not placement is what is most important, as long as your website is in the search results. I would rather rank number 8 for a search and convert my traffic, vs ranking number 1 and not convert.

  20. Well put Chris. It’s frustrating as a user to see so much space wasted on SEO efforts. While its important, moderation is key.

  21. I love this kind of information. It’s funny but when I work on my dual monitors I have the one on my right full of entertainment stuff or whatever and the one on my left full of work stuff. Good article I love psychology!

  22. Thanks Jason, I had to learn the hard way that being the first search result is not always the best, if you have to sacrifice the integrity of your content to achieve it.
    I allowed a web site optimizer to dictate my web site key words once. It got me 2 spots higher, from number 3 to number one, but my conversion dropped, and I had to hard sell every customer, when my website used to do it for me. Surfers are gonna cick on different web sites, not just the number one web site.
    As long as my web site is on page one, near the top 1/2, I am good to go!

  23. This is really interesting, especially with the articles I’ve been reading about Farmville.

    They have experts who are trained in designing “compulsion-loops” which is the main design and function of Farmville, to get people hooked.

    I wonder how psychology will end up integrating itself into web-concepts in the future–I assume it will mean a lot eventually.

  24. It’s so true that conversion optimization must be data driven as well as guided by good design principles. Too many SEM consultants will focus entirely on analytics and forget that most end users rely on their other senses to make purchase decisions.

  25. Interesting thoughts – personally I’m more of left-brained person, I analyse all the data myself but hire someone to do my designs and sometimes writing. It’s definitely important to have a good mix of both.

  26. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s worked long enough in the web.

    The fact is, good design and content will ultimately propagate better CTRs. It’s as simple as the more interesting and more pleasing something is to the eye, the more likely someone will stay.

    Especially when it comes to the all important conversion rate, a lot more is needed than just the customers foot in the door so to speak. You really need to get them to the checkout with the right stuff.

  27. You really need to get them to the checkout with the right stuff. It’s definitely important to have a good mix of both. This is really interesting, especially with the articles I’ve been reading about Farmville.

  28. Great article! I think you’re spot on. Just relying on data and crunching numbers will never be enough to successfully model (and in the next step manipulate) human behaviour.

  29. Great article, how much time do you spend on a daily basis optimizing a site, or do you tackle it in sections?

  30. @Thomas Craig Consulting: the question about how much time spent daily is a tough one that probably differs greatly from company to company. The 2nd question about “tackle it in sections” is a bit more straightforward. We segment qualified traffic by Early, Middle, and Late Stage buyers, then work backwards. We start by optimizing for Late Stage prospects, then Middle, then Early. This post goes into the prioritization of Late Stage a bit more:

  31. I once came across an advice that there are aspects of marketing which are more of a “sports” than science. Which is the case with conversion rate optimization?

  32. Good read brendan, although I always look at is as a science and rarely an art. The bottom line is it takes that flair and sometimes doing something unpredictable to hit the nail on the head.

  33. I think if you are blogging of topic which is very interested to you U don’t have to worry at all about the conversion, it comes naturally. Just blog on the topic which you are knowledeagable that automatically gets converted to BIG VALUE for your visitors that would ultimately results in TRUST and would naturally increase your conversion. Instead of getting in to nitty gritty of what is science and art of CRO i think one should focus on VALUE creation Just blog for what you Love to share and have much knowledge

  34. SEO optimizing has become kind of art, but still people want to see a pleasent site more than a state of the art designed web.

  35. @Viajaratope
    I find most SEOs are not very good with conversion friendly design, I find that pleasant design is automatically going to be conversion friendly.

  36. It’s frustrating as a user to see so much space wasted on SEO efforts.

  37. For those of us who are more left-brained, can’t sufficient A-B testing compensate for some right-brain weakness?

  38. @EAT Club Blog: Maybe. If you can’t decide what to test (right brain), your testing program will quickly come to a halt. Testing random variations with no creativity (left brain) will likely not give you the necessary ROI to continue the efforts of testing. That’s an extreme case, though.

  39. I have read many blogs about CRO but this is quiet good from others. What do you think about unique selling point & punch line.

  40. @Website Developers India: use the search box on our blog to search for “unique value proposition,” “UVP,” and “unique selling proposition,” and you’ll find plenty of relevant posts.

  41. many websites are blatant SEO efforts, written for Google, not the consumer! Conversion not placement is what is most important

  42. I think the art and science of optimization is never persistent, there are always new types data and information which requires different set of skills to overcome. It will always develop through time and there will always be new discoveries on the subject

  43. I wonder if there is a way we can exercise, for lack of a better term, the neglected side of our brain? Has anyone heard of something like this.

    Either way this post was enlightening. Thanks!

  44. I believe that conversion rate optimization is more an art than a science. It is steadily becoming an issue of numbers. The more people who see what you offer, the more accurate you become with predicting the results.

  45. I think that the key is to make sure that all pages attract both sides of the brain. You have to play to a users emotions aka there point of pain, and the numbers/logical side. Good post enjoyed the read.

  46. Ive found that it has been more efficient for us to hire opposites.. This post rings very true.. We completely have a separate hiring process for our creatives than we do our analysts. They tend to work very well together and compliment each other in ideas. Having a good manager in between can put their ideas in motion and create the “big picture”

  47. C.R.O uses a wide variety of techniques, including persuasive Copy writing, Credibility-based Web design, and Multivariate testing of alternatives, to convert prospects into buyers.

  48. The graphic accompanying this post showing the brain hemispheres is backwards. Left is right and right is wrong.

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