It’s a maxim we’ve all heard and one we’re likely just as sick of.
A saying which, if you spend any time on LinkedIn or other self-promotional platforms, you’ll find adorning countless updates, “motivational” images, and influencing all kinds of statuses.
A belief so ingrained in the modern business psyche that it’s become almost synonymous with success.
What’s the belief I’m referring to?
Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that with 10,000 hours of practice, you can become an expert at anything.
It’s an approach almost every successful person recommends. Countless hours of hustle will have you mastering your craft and reaching some new, deeper level of understanding.
There may be some truth to the saying, but it’s not the most productive method for progress.
Practice Doesn’t Necessarily Make Perfect
Practice doesn’t always ensure perfection.
Within certain areas the 10,000 hours rule holds true. Sports or activities requiring muscle memory and strength, sharp reflexes, or repetitive actions will benefit from extensive practice. According to a recent study from Princeton:
“We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.”
But the key there is less than 1% for professions.
Which when you think about it makes complete sense. Businesses develop far faster than sports or music, and so a more adaptable approach is required.
If we assume an average 8 hour work day, 10,000 hours of practice is going to take roughly 5 years to complete. If you practice today’s best practices for 5 years you may well master them, but at that point you’ll be the master of a long forgotten, increasingly useless task.
You’ll overlook the upcoming developments in video marketing, AI, mobile optimization and god knows what else will soon appear on the development horizon.
The persistence to master a certain task in business is admirable, if somewhat misguided. Tenacity and the ability to adapt to new challenges is a far better approach for improvement.
A persistent brand implements the same tactic over and over until it works (or doesn’t) or they’ve “mastered it”. However, the tenacious brand examines the results of their actions. They analyze their approach and improve iteratively based not on how many times a campaign has been implemented, but on how successful each test is.
10,000 hours sounds like a lofty goal, something to aspire to for those wanting to improve their skills. But for those who want quick gains, the best method is not to practice for 10,000 hours, but to aim for 10,000 experiments.
Experimentation is Key to Progress
If there’s a mantra your business should adopt, it’s the below from Paap Laja of ConversionXL.
“Every single day without a test is a wasted day. Testing is learning. Learning about your audience, learning what works and why. All the insight you get can be used in all of your marketing, like PPC ads and what not.”
Testing fuels growth in a way practice cannot compete with because it helps hone your focus.
With practice, you’re simply trying to improve at a single task. But experimentation helps identify which tasks are worth practicing and which are wastes of time that need to be cast aside.
Think of it as course correction. You know the destination (a revenue/growth/conversion goal) but you’re still figuring out the path. Each experiment you undertake and analyze shifts your course to help you more quickly reach that end goal.
It puts me in mind of the ever-relevant quote from Bruce Lee I’ve included below.
With practice, you’re simply trudging forward, never cutting the dead weight of what doesn’t work which slows overall progress.
But the miniature course corrections from iterative experimentation are key to effective and swift growth in business. That’s not my opinion, but something that’s been proved time and time again.
Take for example Thomas Edison. The man many believe responsible for the “invention” of the lightbulb. Which is bullshit because Edison didn’t invent it.
He was a real latecomer to the lightbulb game.
The first electric light was actually created in 1809 by Sir Humphry Davy. Edison made his breakthrough discovery in lightbulb tech in 1879.
Even lagging 70 years behind Edison was the first man to make lightbulbs viable for in-home use.
Through exhaustive experimentation.
It actually only took Edison 14 months to create the lightbulb he’s known for. 14 months to achieve something no-one else had in 70 years.
Within those 14 months, he ran no less than 1200 experiments. And that’s what made the difference, Edison’s experimental mindset and his ability to adapt and overcome.
It’s no different with modern businesses.
Some of the biggest players in the world believe solely in the power of experimentation. Jeff Bezos famously said:
“Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day…”
And in an SEC filing he further explains:
“Given a 10% chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in awhile, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Mark Zuckerberg:
“One of the things I’m most proud of that is really key to our success is this testing framework … At any given point in time, there isn’t just one version of Facebook running. There are probably 10,000.”
Too many brands continue to pursue tactics, campaigns, and processes that are nothing more than practicing the same old actions regardless of success.
Experimentation isn’t something that could help your brand to gain a few more conversions or new customers. It is the core methodology you need to employ.
Experimentation is at the center of rapid growth and effective research. You learn far more from numerous tests than you ever will from sitting behind a desk, attempting to master a discipline which will soon become outdated.
How to Experiment Like the Big Players
Effective experimentation is not a crapshoot. It’s not a case of looking at the current best practices offered by some bloke online and implementing them in exactly the same manner.
That kind of approach never works because it’s too similar to the 10,000 hours of practice. You’re simply looking at what’s already working and implementing it as is within your framework.
We all saw this with the almost famous button color test. A few years back a study discovered a 34% increase in conversions thanks to a big orange button.
What followed was an orange-tinged nightmare.
Rather than look at the test and say “you know, maybe we should test 5 button colors to see what works best”, every brand turned to an Amazon-esque orange button.
And you know what happened? Very few people experienced gains anywhere near 34%.
There’s no experimentation there. No intention to figure out what’s working and what’s not with your audience, it’s simply a continuation of a method someone else has discovered.
If you want to see massive gains and rapid growth with your experiments, they have to be your experiments. They have to be created by you for your audience. You can’t expect to copy others and see the same results they did when your own site, brand, and audience create a completely different playing field.
With that out of the way, I’m going to cover the fundamentals you need to know before running even a single test.
1. Set Up Effective Tracking
Before implementing anything, make sure you’re tracking everything you can.
The basis of a good optimization and experimentation strategy is actionable data. You’re not running off gut feelings, hunches, or industry authority findings here.
You’re optimizing from the success and failure of your own tests with your audience. To achieve that, you’ve got to be able to understand exactly what actions cause a positive change.
But don’t make the mistake so many marketers do and simply track a single conversion. You’re experimenting to improve your business, not to find out if the blue button gets way more clicks.
You should be tracking the immediate conversion, but also looking far beyond it. ConversionXL put together this killer image which, although looking scarier than it is, gives a good overview of the data collection necessary to discern actionable insights.
Tracking such a wide array of data is key because, without it, you could be forming assumptions on what will work rather than picking out what truly has the best chance of success.
2. Understand What Underlies Successful Tests
It’s easy to get lost in data. To see your actions represented as nothing but numbers, percentages, graphs, and charts.
What you have to remember is that the statistics you’re collecting are indications of how real people are acting.
It’s the people that are important, and the underlying reason for all successful marketing tests is often down to basic human psychology.
As Neil Patel puts it in this piece:
“Psychology gives you the most direct path to changing a user’s behavior, which is the central goal of conversion rate optimization.”
The psychology of persuasion (an awesome book you should definitely read) underpins everything you do.
You have to understand the customer and what makes them tick. You have to understand how the brain works and how you can best appeal to the modern user’s attention span and needs.
You’ve got to understand various cognitive bias if you want to devise tests and experiments with real potential.
3. Always Have a Hypothesis
So you’ve got some data and, after working through it, think you’ve found yourself an experiment with potential.
But don’t just jump in with some half-baked, off-target, poorly devised plan on how you’re going to increase revenue.
You’ve got to come up with a real hypothesis. A hypothesis that isn’t a guess or something fun to try out, but is an informed decision and follow-up action based on your research.
A good hypothesis brings everything together. It details:
- The problem
- The change you’re going to make
- How this will affect the user
- What change you expect it to bring
For example, let’s revert to a super simple problem and imagine a button isn’t getting clicked on your site and you’re going to test more benefit-focused copy. The Hypothesis might look something like the below.
Problem – Primary download button isn’t being clicked.
Hypothesis – If we change the copy on the button to focus more on what the user receives, they’ll perceive it as a benefit rather than a cost, and we should see conversions increase.
It’s a super simple example I know, but it gives you everything you need to stay on track and to accurately measure the results.
4. Go Beyond Surface Level Changes
Too often CRO articles like this are focused on surface level changes or, more accurately, tactics. There’s little talk of the underpinned strategy or core product elements and how you should be trying to make changes there as well.
Button colors, headline formulae, and image selection are some of the common topics covered in CRO.
These things can work and are often worthy tests, but CRO isn’t just about these surface level actions. A good CRO strategy experiments with other areas of the business, areas which could have profound effects on a user’s experience and overall opinion of your brand.
“Conversion is expanding beyond just the core user experience. More and more, people are using experimentation as a way to optimise not just sales – but also pricing, functionality, and product.”
This sort of deep testing doesn’t just transform conversion rates, but can also transform your business.
Talk to your audience, run qualitative testing in the forms of surveys (or even picking up the phone), find what elements they want improved and run tests on them to see if you can’t only increase conversions, but customer lifetime value, referrals, or any other key metric that contributes to revenue.
CRO is about more than increasing clicks, it’s about improving user experience.
Which neatly brings me onto this last point…
5. Don’t Optimize for Conversions
The web is filled with bullshit case studies that spout confusing statistics (another good book to read would be How to Lie with Statistics)
I’m pretty sure that I could sell my PPC services to you on the merit of how, as recently as last month, I optimized a client’s account to achieve the below:
- Dropped CPC from ~$7 to ~$1.50
- Increased daily clicks by ~450%
Sounds pretty awesome right. And, on those statistics alone I could set myself up as some form of PPC guru for those who aren’t too familiar with it as a strategy.
But the truth is, those increases didn’t lead to anything meaningful. We saw a slight increase in conversions, but no real difference to the client’s bottom line. Most of the leads we captured never turned into customers.
The good news is we’ve changed tactic and are seeing better results. But the point remains that you shouldn’t be aiming for simple conversions.
Because conversions alone don’t pay the bills.
Over everything else you should be optimizing for revenue.
I don’t care if you grow an email list to 50 million people in a week. I don’t care if your PPC campaigns drive three times as much traffic as they once did at a fraction of the cost.
What I care about is how it’s all impacting your bottom line. How those increases are affecting revenue.
Cause if they’re not, then the test hasn’t been successful, it just looks like it has.
Experiment Often, Fail Frequently, and Grow Consistently
Conversion optimization is often defined by successes.
And yet, equally important are the failures you must experience to find what isn’t working. If you want to improve the speed with which your business is growing, don’t be afraid of failure.
Run as many tests as you’re comfortably able to manage if you want to grow like the big guys.
Once you’ve hit the 10,000 experiments mark you won’t need to claim you’re an expert because everyone will already recognize your success as the undoubted work of one.