Daniel Burstein

Ask MarketingSherpa: Maturity of conversion rate optimization (CRO) industry

September 6th, 2019

We frequently receive questions from our email subscribers asking marketing advice. Instead of hiding those answers in a one-to-one email communication, we occasionally publish edited excerpts of some of these conversations here on the MarketingSherpa blog so they can help other readers as well. If you have any questions, let us know.



Dear MarketingSherpa: Hi there Daniel,

I quite like the sequence you have built, it’s quite relevant and well refined.

With regards to the personal note, very well done. I am guessing you get a mixed bag from this one.

I would like to ask a question, in your opinion, where do you think CRO is in the adoption lifecycle?

As an industry/set of processes do you think it is still early days or are we nearing the end or somewhere in the middle?

From: Kaleb Ufton, Director of Technology and Digital Marketing Strategy, EKOH Marketing


MarketingSherpa responds: The sequence Kaleb is referring to is the welcome email drip sequence, which includes emails written with a direct and personal tone, that marketers receive after subscribing to the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

But then he asks a thoughtful and provocative question about conversion rate optimization (CRO). If you’ve read previous Ask MarketingSherpa columns, you know they are usually how-to questions about topics like value proposition communication or finding clients.

Kaleb’s question is more challenging. It essentially requires the ability to predict the future. I needed a little help with this one.

Fortunately, I work every day with one of the pioneers of the conversion rate optimization industry—Flint McGlaughlin. So I walked down the hall to get his take on this question, and here’s what he had to say …

Moving away from just testing pages to testing for new products

I think CRO is in the advanced segment of the first stage and beginning to move into the second. I’ll explain:

When we began our research, no one had a conversion budget; there was no one to hire to do conversion work. There was no training available for conversion. Now companies everywhere hire conversion optimization experts and are testing, but they do it very poorly. Stage 1 has matured to the point where it has become a common practice, but the quality of the execution is definitely lacking.

Tests are often run with major validity errors that no one detects. The testing tools are still primitive, and the biggest problem in the industry is that people don’t know what to test. Having a tool doesn’t help you if you don’t know how to really use it. So I think we are in the advanced segment of Stage 1, and Stage 1 would represent the general adoption of conversion optimization. Clearly some industries are far, far beyond, but in general, things have advanced significantly.

Now, how far do we have to go?

We have a long way to go. Conversion as it relates to personalization is not even close to being executed properly. The next phase in conversion will come through the advanced development of existing technologies. AI (artificial intelligence) is making big promises but delivering far less in practice. There will come a time when it can do more.

In addition, conversion is moving away from just testing pages to testing for new products and also testing for entrepreneurial software rollouts (full stack testing). These are new fields with greater opportunity. I think there is a stage coming where the practice moves to new areas, and then there is a stage coming where technology makes new possibilities.

— Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute (parent organization of MarketingSherpa and MarketingExperiments), and author of the book The Marketer as Philosopher

Since this question requires essentially making a prediction, I wanted to leverage the wisdom of the crowds and get a few other opinions as well from your marketing peers and CRO practitioners. So here are some other thoughts on the state of the CRO industry …

A long way to go to truly be customer centric, data-driven and experimentation-led

Experimentation with scientific rigor has been around for a long time. Even in the marketing industry, David Ogilvy, for example, was doing A/B testing more than 50 years ago.

I think we are getting better as an industry at baking in [including as an integral part] an experimentation process and culture into our organizations. However, decisions and organizations are made and set up by people, with all of their cognitive biases and tendencies to use their lizard brains. Thus, CRO as a process is more pervasive than ever, but also there are ways in which it will always be fighting an uphill battle.

From silos to having teams based on channels instead of user journeys, data traps, HiPPOs, etc., we have a long way to go to truly be customer centric, data-driven and experimentation-led across industries.

When a company has the bandwidth to start looking at their site as a product itself, and they want to shift from being product-focused to customer-focused, this is where CRO as a process and practice comes in and excels.

— Ben Labay, Research Director, ConversionXL

You’ll see CRO strategies and tactics seamlessly integrate into other parts of the business

CRO has come a long way in the past five years, but I wouldn’t say it’s nearing the end. I’d like to think it’s somewhere in the middle. There’s no longer a set-it-and-forget-it mentality to A/B testing nor are we only optimizing based on hunches and button colors.

Data-driven hypothesis and testing, user feedback loops, real-time personalization, and standard statistical methodologies are now the norm in CRO.

As adoption continues, you’ll see CRO strategies and tactics seamlessly integrate into other parts of the business including, but not limited to, lifecycle and content marketing, customer experience personalization, data science strategies, UX/UI design, and product roadmaps.

— Justine BaMaung, Conversion Rate Optimization Manager, ActiveCampaign

CRO is just a more complex discipline in comparison to SEO or PPC

I would say late early adoption, broadly speaking. Whilst I think major brands have been playing with it for a while and tech startups are using it out of the gate, it’s only recently that it’s entered the radar of the vast majority of ecommerce websites.

One of the reasons for this is that CRO is just a more complex discipline in comparison to SEO or PPC, for example. Whilst the goals associated with SEO are relatively straightforward (doing A or B will result in rankings increasing or decreasing), CRO can quickly become far more confusing. Small A/B tests require work and can often have no effect. Bigger tests may have an effect, but it’s not obvious which part of the change caused it, and in the meantime, your traffic and revenue are potentially at risk with every test.

For me though the biggest factor in the lack of industry adoption in CRO is that conversion rate as a metric is directly connected to web traffic. For smaller sites, with web traffic in just the hundreds or thousands, the number of conversions they receive might make it difficult for A/B tests to produce results that are statistically significant. This means that the large ecommerce approach to CRO isn’t one that can work for smaller websites, and I [have] yet to see a universal alternative that I think can.

—Arron Richmond, Digital Marketing Executive, High Speed Training

Most companies seem to have some kind of CRO strategy — whether it is a good strategy is a whole separate question

I think CRO is very much in the middle of the adoption lifecycle, heading into the late majority phase. I don’t think we’re into the laggard phase just yet because there are still many industries that are holding out (i.e., some non-profits we’ve worked with insist CRO isn’t right for them, even though they most definitely have conversions that could be optimized).

Almost every company I work with these days knows what CRO is and understands the basic principles. For example, five to seven years ago, most companies I talked to and worked with had no clue what conversions were, fewer still were measuring conversions, and only a handful had a plan to increase conversions. Now, almost every company knows what conversions apply to their site, knows that they should be measuring them (if they are is still sketchy, especially for small companies), and most companies seem to have some kind of CRO strategy — whether it is a good strategy is a whole separate question.

My final thought on your question is that, as a discipline, CRO is much better defined by practitioners. There are standards around what makes sense to measure or not, what usability and UX (user experience) principles do and don’t apply, etc. In watching the adoption of CRO over the years, it transitioned relatively smoothly to mobile and is now transitioning just as well onto other devices.

— Matthew Edgar, Partner & Consultant, Elementive

I had my own thoughts to share with Kaleb (and now you as well) …

In wide use by humans, but technology is just getting off the ground

I think we’re in the beginning of the early majority stage, to use the technology adoption lifecycle as an example. While it has reached a level of mass appeal, it’s certainly not a common practice yet.

But I think we’re also in the innovators stage of scalable technology application. Right now, it requires significant human involvement. The question is, how will AI-type technology mature to evolve CRO? We’re in the very early stages of that now, and it is an open question to see how far things will go.

I also asked Kaleb for his opinion, and here’s what he had to say …

Only scratching the surface of what AI can do

I agree with your assessment in terms of the adoption of CRO.

I think that we are only scratching the surface of what AI can do in this space.

I suspect in the next 2-3 years we will see suites of AI based-personalization. My rationale is as follows:

  • AI is already being used to generate content.
  • AI is already being used to optimize paid ads at some level (on platform and by marketers).
  • AI is getting better at contextual awareness (though we are still a way off).
  • AI is capable of making correlations humans miss given enough data and processing.

It is a matter of time before someone puts these things together into something that tracks behavior across sites, correlates user data and serves subtle changes to sites based on inferences. This is likely to be the first step, an AI-driven recommendation engine that is recommending UI/UX changes based on 100+ people like you who purchased this exact product.

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

You might also like …

MECLABS Institute Landing Page Optimization on-demand certification course – Learn how to identify what changes you could make to your landing pages to increase conversion rates

Marketing 101: What is CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization)?

Four Ways Dell Quadrupled Home & Home Office Online Sales Conversion Rates (First mention of conversion rate optimization on MarketingSherpa — November 18, 2003)


Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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