Rules for Optimization

Know Where You Are Headed

The first step in optimizing a system—whether that system is your website, your marketing, a product, an app, or otherwise—is knowing why you are optimizing in the first place. It continues to shock me, but far too often people don’t really know what they are optimizing for. “We want more sales!” they say. But when pressed, it turns out the company actually wants something a bit different. Maybe they don’t actually have the capacity for more sales and what they really want are better quality customers, not a greater quantity. Or, maybe they think they want more sales, but since the company is brand new what they really need is recognition and trust among their target customer group. In that case, optimizing for authority and awareness are more pressing matters than optimizing for sales. Either way, these represent a big difference and significantly alters the tactics employed when optimizing.

The best way I’ve found to refer to this is as finding your company’s “true north”. It is the direction you are headed in and, ideally, this direction is something you have carefully considered. It can be hard to select that true north because you have to commit to that direction, to the exclusion of all other directions. Once you have selected your true north, then you can start the harder work of figuring out the path to get there. Depending on the location of your company’s true north, the paths (i.e. tactics, goals, plans, etc.) to get there will differ. Without a true north, you are wandering around aimlessly unsure where you are headed and nobody ever found success that way.

Say No

If you don’t know what you want and are wandering around aimlessly without a clearly defined true north it is easy to say “yes” to just about everything. Far too many sales reps are happy to take advantage of your aimlessness. A new CRM? Yes, of course, we need that. A website redesign? Yeah, our website looks a bit dated. Chat functionality? Oh, certainly and let’s do a chatbot too because I hear those are cool. Predictive analytics? For sure! Investing in social media sounds like a good idea as does an investment in content marketing. And on it goes with all the ways you can invest your time, money, and energy. But are these the right things or not? All of these bright, shiny objects sound pretty good and certainly will help you get somewhere. It just isn’t clear where that somewhere is.

But once you really know what you are optimizing for and have carefully selected your true north, then you can more easily say no. Or, said differently, you can more easily determine what you should say no to. Saying no can be ridiculously hard, especially when it involves firing an employee or terminating a contractor who no longer fit with the current path you are on. But it is easier to do these things when you have a clear understanding of your true north; it isn’t a haphazard decision. Of course, the reverse is true here too. Once you know where you are headed, you can also more easily determine what you should say yes too and can feel more confident you have made a wise decision.

Embrace Imperfection

Of course, just because it seems like a wise decision doesn’t mean it is a wise decision. Things are going to break and go wrong, in ways you can’t possibly predict. Websites, products, apps, marketing campaigns, businesses, and life are chaotic. There are a million variables that have to align just so and work correctly for you or your thing to succeed. You can tweak many of those variables when optimizing, but you can never control or test every variable (though to an extent, automated programs can help but there are even limits currently to how many variables these more automated approaches can test). As a result, things are going to fail and you’ll need to make adjustments on the path to your true north. But the imperfection of a big failure isn’t the hardest thing to accept. In today’s world, failure is quickly becoming a badge of honor. Rather, what can be hard to accept are the small imperfections that occur.

As you move quickly making changes (i.e. optimizing), things are going to break no matter how careful you are. You’ll end up with typos, broken links, weirdly-sized images, broken lines of code and more. One response is to be embarrassed or to panic or to fire those responsible. A better response is to accept these as part of the journey toward true north. After all, if you moved slow enough to make sure everything was perfect, you’d never reach your true north. Some clients of ours actually find the opportunity in these types of imperfections because they can learn how certain imperfections affect performance. One client’s conversion rate increased significantly on the landing pages containing a typo in the header (suggesting either their users can’t spell or nobody cared about the header anyway) while another client found that a broken link on their home page caused no issues at all since there weren’t any clicks on those links (suggesting these links could be pulled from the navigation).

Data Informs But Doesn’t Drive

A key to effective optimization is using data to help you decide what changes to make. Of course, too often, we look to data to “drive our decisions” and tell us what we should do. Data shouldn’t drive, though, because when data does drive, it can send you down weird paths. Instead, data should be the navigator, helping inform our decisions while we stay in the driver seat. Data’s job is to give you ideas about what your customers or users would like, your job is to interpret this data alongside your intuition and expertise to determine what changes you ought to test in order to reach your true north.

Part of why this happens is we are too quick to look at the data to help us decide what our true north ought to be. People will say, something like “I think my true north should be improving this number or that number.” Or, “I heard that it is better to have a higher bounce rate” or “I want people to spend more or less time on the site”. With that in mind, people make the metric their true north and they work hard to aim in that direction. Except, those are just data points, though and not a true north. Before looking at the data, decide on your true north then look at the data to see which numbers will most help you get there. Instead of worrying about the bounce rate or the time on the site, maybe you want more engagement? If so, increasing engagement seems like a reasonable true north. Only after you have that selected should you look at metrics like bounce rate, time on site, and others to help you determine the right path toward that true north.

Keep Moving Forward

The final rule for optimizing is to remember there is always more to optimize. There is always something new to test or something to change. Those changes might be external factors related to what your customers want or shifts within your industry. New competitors entering the scene might force you to rethink your path forward. There are internal factors too. That might be new products or services to introduce (or old products or services to terminate). The change factors might also be a result of trends in the data, especially when you spot new opportunities or problems. For instance, you might find in the data that people struggle with this or that thing, so changes to those things could ease that struggle. Technology presents a wide array of changes too as servers and systems constantly need upgrades and maintenance.

The reasons for changes are endless. And that is a good thing because it means you have an endless stream of opportunities to help you find the right path to reach your true north. The worst thing to do is to stop making changes because once you stop making changes, you run the risk of hitting a plateau or, worse, a decline. Problems creep into your system. Technology ages and breaks. All of this stagnation or decline takes you off the path to your true north. It opens the door for competitors to steal your customers. It opens the door to failure. Ultimately, you are never done optimizing, so always keep moving forward with one change after another.

What’s Your True North?

As 2018 gets started, take a moment to consider what your true north is? Is your true north a metric (or group of metrics) or something substantial about your business? Is your true north clearly defined or have you ended up on the wrong path struggling to know what to say yes or no to? If you know your true north, how are you progressing toward it…where do you need help optimizing? If you need help answering any of these questions, let’s find a time to talk.