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Bryan Eisenberg

Back when dot-com mania was at its peak and marketers crowed about the number of "hits" they were able to attract to their web sites, a voice of reason came out of the darkness and said, in effect, that it's not about the traffic. It's about what you do with the traffic, and -- hello? -- more important, whether that traffic makes money.

That voice was Bryan Eisenberg who's gone on to become a noted speaker, columnist, blogger, co-founder of the Web Analytics Association and author of a string of best-selling books. A new one is in the works: Trim the Fat will draw analogies between what's needed to improve website conversion and the author's recent shedding of 50 (!) pounds.

And Bryan will share those insights at Econsultancy's inaugural U.S. event in New York on Oct. 8, the Peer Summit, as both a keynote speaker and a moderator. We caught up with him for a preview of what he'll be sharing with attendees.

Bryan Eisenberg: The work that goes into keeping the fat off a person is true of business. It's so easy to indulge. It's so easy to sit back and wait for traffic to come to you and be passive when you really have to be active. Commit to a lifestyle of constantly optimizing, constantly tweaking. Most people aren't willing to do that kind of hard work.

Yet we've seen this work for so many small businesses. A friend of mine sells photography courses online at BetterPhoto.com. He sent an e-mail saying so far in September they've sold 481 courses, far surpassing anything they've had in the past 18 months. We love helping the little guys, the entrepreneurs who really can make the difference in their organizations. You're not going to see changes overnight.

Q: It's like turning the battleship?

A: I prefer to think of it as turning the dinosaur. Dinosaurs have huge bodies and tiny brains -- small relative to what the size of the body is. It's part of this bigger challenge in business today. If you had $1 million to invest 50 years ago, who would you invest in? It was GM, the company with all the distribution and the marketing muscle and innovation. Fast-forward 50 years and it's Japanese cars. Those companies didn't focus on innovation but on continuous improvement. You don't have to have great innovations if you can keep executing on a regular basis and keep improving. It's the same to keep a lifestyle healthy. Am I going to eat that dessert, or be satisfied with a salad and a small meal?

Those are the decisions you have to make. But businesses  aren't structured to make those decisions. They aren't rewarded to make them.  Businesses are meant to keep the status quo. In a recession, status quo is fine. It shouldn't be fine. There's so much excess, so many things that don't work effectively but we keep them going.  People don’t realize how much things are evolving. We've seen fundamental shifts in Google AdWords in the April-May zone effecting traffic and conversions. It's the way Google has been playing around with some of their match types. You must be constantly evolving, as search behavior has evolved. You remember when you never get past the first six or seven results. Now Google is going to start adding video into results, adding display ads. The nature on online is constantly changing, consumer behavior, purchasing are changing. If we're not changing how we're marketing every day, we can't keep up.

Q: Is that going to be the topic of your speech?

A: That's going to be a big topic. It boils down to resources. The way resources are allocated the focus is always on traffic acquisition. The companies that have the most significant gains are the ones who invest in customer experience and communication.

Most websites don't have a traffic problem. Plenty of people are coming to their websites. They just aren't having the right experiences. Customers aren't getting their questions answered or accomplishing tasks they want to accomplish. How do you prioritize resources and shift budget around? If all companies focus on is improving every day, or every week or every month, you just have to start. People ask what I've done to lose weight and I tell them I bike 15 to 18 miles a day. But I started by walking 10 or 15 blocks. You have to start somewhere. You have to continuously build. It has to become a habit. You have to find the budget.

A large computer company just contacted me to do this. They're taking the money out of their Yahoo ay-per-click account that hasn't been converting and said let's apply it to Google: let's create a better landing page for a specific keyword. We're going to shift content around, were going to shift budget around because our current approach isn't working.

To do this you need a business resource to drive it, C-level or marketing to make the case. You need some creative resources: copy, design, paid search ads, landing pages design. Bring in someone from the outside. Your internal team is too close, they've been doing the same thing over and over. Their "new ideas" are just variations on the old ones.  You need an analyst: someone to identify where opportunities are, what needs to be fixed, improved, what to do more of and less of. Finally you need the tools and the process in place. There's not excuse anymore, today you can get the tools for free. Google provides a great testing tool. Google Analytics is great for optimization.

Tools aren't the issue anymore. You need process. And process is really what I'm going to teach people at the Peer Summit. How are you going to persuade visitors to take action?

The internet is not a passive medium. It's participatory, you've got to get your users to keep participating. They don't sit back and listen to your message, they have to keep clicking. How do you plan for this momentum to continue throughout your website?

Often marketing gets it, but then they have to work with the IT department, or what I like to call the Business Prevention Unit. They won't change the forms you have joined to the campaign.  The second you have those disconnects the visitor says, "What's wrong here?" and they bail.

Yet this technique has made companies like Overstock.com $25 million from changing a single image. It's made Dell millions and millions of dollars by changing two words. Once you understand you're speaking to a persona, a particular type of person, rather than crafting a page for an average visitor your messaging becomes much more targeted and much more effective. When you're targeting a particular persona you'll always do much better than having generic ads.

Q: It's a gospel you've been preaching for a long time. Are you seeing a shift from the traffic to the persuasion mentality?

A:  Unfortunately it's really hard work. It's a lot of hard work. Everyone tells you they want to lose weight, but you have to do it to truly do it. The problem with really getting good at this is finding the people who can do certain aspects of it.  It's still very hard to find analysts who can do this. I started the Web Analytics Association with [fellow Peer Summit keynote] Jim Sterne and Andrew Edwards about six years ago now in part to train more analysts to do this. We actually have made a dent,  but it's still not enough for the demand that's out there.

Do it bite size by bite size. Not like those people who go to the gym for a couple of weeks and get sore and achy and never go back. That's what you want to avoid.  I sat with three different Fortune 50 companies last year that are all burnt out from multivariate testing. Multivariate testers do what I call slice-and-dice optimization. You cut up all the elements of a page and test every one of them and have 6 million variations to test. You can certainly gain insights that way, but it's a drain on resources. It's not the right approach. Most of our tests don't go past 12-15 variations because we're testing really specific things.  In conversion optimization marketers have got to say "We don't know everything our customers do." And that's a hard thing for marketers to admit.

Q: It stands the broadcast marketing model on its head, doesn't it?

A: As marketers we have been broadcast to our whole lives. We grew up with the boob tube, being spoken at as opposed to spoken with. You've learned all those rules. It's hard work to change what's ingrained in us.  To realize no, this is a conversation and I've got to be an active listener.

Twitter is a big cocktail party. You can grab people's attention. But the reason why so many social media efforts fail is it's not about attention. It's about networking and getting people comfortable enough so they want to learn more about you later.  Twitter is a broadcast vehicle, not social like Facebook. 

I'm very grateful to Google. They've gone ahead and given people free analytics so they have numbers they didn't have before. But you've got to use them. It's like getting on the scale and seeing you've gained two pounds, but not doing anything about it. I get on the scale and literally shift my diet based on what I'm learning about myself.

Q: Any final thoughts on either your Peer Summit keynote or the topics you'll be moderating at the event?

A: I want to conclude on something else. I've been a subscriber and a fan of Econsultancy for around 10 years now. I had the great fortune of coming over and speaking at a couple of London conferences. I speak at a lot of conferences in the world but these conferences have a feel, a style, a caliber of attendee that really is second to none and not like anyone else's events. I'm really excited about being part of this first event in New York, my hometown and now Econsultancy's new home away from home. I hope people will catch that same passion for Econsultancy content that I have over the years.

Rebecca Lieb

Published 21 September, 2009 by Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb oversees Econsultancy's North American operations.

Follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

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