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If you keep shooting at the sky…

Best practices. Sometimes we seem awash in them. You can’t walk past a consultant without tripping over another best practice. And, don’t get me wrong, best practices areuseful. They basically give you a short cut around figuring things out yourself by making loads of mistakes. But I am here to tell you that best practices aren’t the end point for you—they are really the beginning.

You see, the best best practice of all is actually to make more of those mistakes, not less. I know that might sound funny, but the best practice that trumps all the rest is experimentation.

I’ve heard the criticisms of working without any best practices: “If you keep shooting at the sky, eventually a duck will fall.” And it’s true enough that taking random shots is not the most efficient way to bag your duck. But think about this: If every time you hit a duck you started firing in the same direction, how many more would you hit? A lot, right? With no best practices at all.

Best practices are important, but only as the starting point. If you know that it’s easier to find ducks at dawn than at mid-day, then acting on this best practice will help your odds. And obviously seeing a duck and aiming before you fire is a best practice, too, albeit an obvious one. But, too often, we stop there. Too often, we don’t experiment once we are doing everything “right.”

I wager that with our Web sites, we would be better off forgetting best practices altogether in favor of experimentation. That is, if we only did one or the other, I would favor experimentation. Because with enough random shots, I will eventually figure out what is working and gradually improve until I am out-doing industry best practices because I have discovered new best practices of my own that optimize my site.

To do that, you need a feedback loop—the equivalent of seeing the duck fall from the sky. That’s where your Web metrics system comes in. You need to know how to identify yourWeb conversions so that you know when something good actually happened. You need to be able to aggregate your traffic and your conversions so that you know why those good things happened.

And then you need to experiment. Change your content. Change your navigation. Change your call to action. Change your price. Change anything you can think of and see how it works now. Did more folks click on it or fewer? Did you get more conversions or fewer? Capitalize and expand what is working and reduce or eliminate what is not. Over time, this experimentation will lead you to the best ways of optimizing the conversions on your site.

But best practices and experimentation are not either/or propositions. You don’t need to make this false choice. Instead, start with the best practices whenever you can and experiment from there. Just realize that you will inevitably find that none of the best practices really are the best for your site. Almost always, you will find a way to improve on them for your customers for your site, even if that technique might not work anywhere else, and thus is not an industry best practice. But you don’t care. You just want to optimize your own site for your own customers.

I could have stopped here and had a nice little newsletter, but I won’t, because when I explain this concept to people, they get it. But only in their heads. Their guts are churning. “Too scary.” “I have to admit that we are making mistakes?” “My boss thinks I am an expert and I have to say that we are experimenting?”

Yes, it does take a leap of faith. Yes, it is a bit scary. Yes, it is not the easiest path to take, it’s just the best one. To get behind those thoughts that are holding you back, remember that your goal is to “Do It Wrong Quickly—and Then Fix It.

 

 

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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