culture of experimentation

How To Inspire A Culture Of Experimentation [Step-By-Step]

One of the major drivers of successful and innovative companies is their experimentation culture. To build a culture of experimentation in your own company, follow these steps.

Key Takeaways

By the end of this article, you should have the knowledge and resources to “check the box” in these areas…

  • A culture of experimentation begins with a willingness to ask the right questions and stay humble about the answers – data will drive your decision-making, not opinions. 
  • This mindset shift happens with a thoughtful step-by-step process where your company needs to get comfortable with failure and empower employees at all levels. 
  • It’s not an easy shift, but the results in conversion rate optimization, customer happiness, and employee engagement speak for themselves.

In our years of experience, we continually find that companies that pursue a culture of experimentation often have the best experience with conversion rate optimization.

We’ve observed time and time again that those who experiment the most are able to innovate the best. Regardless of whether each experiment is successful, each lesson is helpful because it can provide insight.

That’s because experimentation isn’t something you can do a few times a year, or when a new product launches, or when you redesign your website. You need to run wide-ranging, frequent experiments to find the most beneficial changes for your business.

And to do that, you need a culture where experimentation thrives at all levels and in all departments. For most companies, this requires a complete mindset shift, not just a few A/B tests here and there.

Take The Telegraph, for example. They’ve been delivering news and insights in the UK for over 160 years, and they were the first British paper to have an online version. But they needed to grow their subscriber base – and to hit their ambitious targets, lots of experiments were required to determine what worked for them.

Through rapid testing and a custom consulting program, we were able to experiment with many variables in the subscriber journey and implement effective changes that move the needle for their business. Once the data is in, it’s hard for leaders to argue with the results and stymie changes, and experimentation begins to become part of the organizational DNA.

The Telegraph isn’t the only company that has used experimentation to climb to the top of their industry. Amazon constantly forays into new markets, often with disastrous results (Amazon Fire phone, anyone?). Nevertheless, Amazon still has achieved dominance through their successful products.

Bottom line: Wherever you find growing innovative companies, you usually find companies that are willing to experiment.

Here’s why this matters to you: conversion rate optimization hinges on experimentation. You can’t sell your products unless you can get people to buy. And you can’t get people to buy unless you know what works and what doesn’t. And you can’t know that without strategic experimentation.

Mindset Shifts For A Culture Of Experimentation

How can you begin to create a culture of experimentation? By shifting your company’s mindset (no small task, but one that’s well worth the effort).

Aim to incorporate these three key phrases and you’ll notice the change, along with the benefits experimentation brings.

  • “I don’t know, but let me find out.” Staying humble is essential, especially for leaders, because you need to admit what you don’t know in order to run successful experiments and implement your findings.
  • “You can’t always win, but you can always learn.” Looking for the value in learning will help you accept the failures that often come along with experiments. You won’t uncover a magic bullet every time, but you’ll almost always learn something valuable you can use in the future.
  • “Don’t assume something is right just because you think it is.” Unlearning intuitive design is critical. Avoid assuming you know what customers think or want, and shift to testing before making data-backed decisions.

Ultimately, a culture of experimentation is essential to the success of your conversion rate and your company as a whole.

So how can you emulate The Telegraph, Amazon, and other innovative companies? How can you create a culture of experimentation in your own company?

Here are six steps in creating an organizational culture of experimentation. By implementing these steps, you’ll create an environment where testing, tinkering, optimizing, and even failing is integral to your DNA. When these are in place, you are primed to significantly increase your ecommerce sales.

Enjoying this article?

Subscribe to our newsletter to get more just like it, sent straight to your inbox every week.

Step-by-Step How to Build A Culture of Experimentation

Step 1: Get Comfortable With Failure

If you and your employees aren’t comfortable with failure, you won’t be able to create a culture of experimentation. As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon notes, experimentation inevitably leads to many failures and the occasional home run.

The home runs are worth the failures, but that doesn’t make the failures hurt any less.

Former Marketing Executive and Tech Advisor for Porch, Joanna Lord, described how they celebrated failure in the company:

“And every time you break the site, whoever breaks the site the worst gets Mr. Sparkles for a week. You put him on your desk and it’s like this badge of honor that you like did something so bold that you literally messed up the site badly.

And you know what I love? You see my CEO walk around the room and he’s high-fiving the Mr. Sparkles owner. And people are like, “What did you do? What did you do to get Mr. Sparkles?

But the reality is we’ve made it a positive thing. We’ve made it a badge of honor. You are living out the Porch-y way in being bold. What can you do in your culture to make it fun and acceptable? And almost, you know, become famous for it.”

The first step in creating organizational culture that embraces experimentation is making failure part of who you are. You’re going to launch products that just don’t work. You’re going to create new sections of your site where the conversion rate is abysmal. That’s not the end. Those things can be fixed.

If you want your employees to be comfortable with experimentation, they also need to be comfortable with failure.

Step 2: Start With Small Bets

You never want to experiment to the point where your company will succeed or fail based on a single experiment. Rather, consistently take small bets that will allow you to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

This small bets methodology has been crucial to Amazon’s success. Over the years, they’ve tested out various products and methods to see what resonates with customers and sellers.

The company crushed it with Amazon Prime and the Kindle… and totally flopped with Amazon Destinations (hotel booking), Endless.com (a high end fashion site), and countless others.

However, none of these failures dealt a significant blow to the company, and the successes generated exponential profits.

When you begin implementing small bets in your company, you’ll discover what works, then be able to double down on your successes.

Step 3: A/B Test Everything

One of the easiest ways to start making small bets is to A/B test everything, from your web pages to your email subject lines.

A/B testing gives you a huge advantage in that you can measure everything. You can see which buy button customers prefer, which emails generate the most clicks, and which pages customers spend the most time on.

You can measure these things down to fractions of percentage points, and then implement the ones that create the biggest results.

It’s one thing to have a gut feeling that something will work – it’s another thing altogether to see the data, which often proves gut feelings wrong.

Don’t rely on what you think will work. Take small bets by A/B testing everything, then let the data guide your decisions.

Step 4: Collaborate and Hypothesize

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas which can then be tested is to implement regular brainstorming sessions to design new tests. This ties in closely to taking small bets and then A/B testing them.

In order to find good ideas, you need to generate a large volume of ideas. You can’t effectively make small bets and A/B test unless you have a pool of ideas to choose from. Some of these ideas will be bad, but that’s precisely the point. You usually have to wade through the garbage heap in order to find the gold nugget.

So, for example, let’s say that you’re trying to determine why sales have fallen in the past month. You may hypothesize that your sales emails have been consistently less effective and drive fewer conversions than in the past.

But until you test that hypothesis, you won’t know if it’s true. So you dig into your data and examine the trends over the past six months. Then you create new emails and test those conversion rates against the older ones.

If your hypothesis is true, you’ve found at least part of the answer. If it’s false, create a new hypothesis and go through the same testing process.

Step 5: Appreciate The Effort

Initially, your employees will probably feel uncomfortable experimenting, especially if it hasn’t been part of the culture. Their first failures will be difficult, and they’ll be tempted to throw in the towel.

In order to combat this natural instinct, it’s essential that you highlight and publicly appreciate their efforts, even if they result in failure.

Praise employee experiments in your experiment brainstorming sessions. Personally encourage those taking small bets and risking failure. Even consider gamifying things, so that employees receive some sort of reward for their experiments and ideas.

If an employee takes a risk on a particular product to see if it drives more sales, applaud their gumption, even if it didn’t convert more.

Your employees will follow your lead. If they see you encouraging and celebrating effort, they’ll be more likely to dive in headlong.

Step 6: Maintain An Innovation Mindset

One of the biggest hindrances to creating a culture of experimentation is the institutionalization of things. Methods and policies crystallize, and you eventually begin doing things because “that’s always the way we’ve done it.” This inevitably leads to stagnation.

Startups are constantly changing, always adapting to what their customers want and trying to discover the best way of doing things. In fact, some of the greatest startups (think Uber, Warby Parker, etc.) have succeeded precisely because they challenged the status quo.

If you want to create a culture of experimentation in your company, you must seek to maintain a startup mentality. This means you need to be willing to consider ideas that are different and don’t line up with standard operating procedures. You can’t shut something down simply because you’ve never done it that way.

Make room for new, even radical ideas. These are the kinds of nuggets that often lead to the biggest successes.

Additionally, you need to maintain the constant testing mentality. You can always drive more sales and increase your conversion rates. Don’t fall into a stagnant rut and get comfortable. Constantly test new things – new designs, new copy, new email formats. You never know when you’ll strike a gold mine.

Results When You Adopt A Culture Of Experimentation

Once you’ve done the hard work of implementing these steps, you’ll find the results are well worth the effort.

The Telegraph team learned more than just what works on their CTA pages during through their experimental culture – they also gained deeper insights into the perspective of their customers.

Their conversion rate increased because of these insights gleaned from experiments, and so did the quality of their conversions.

Creating a culture of experimentation also means that you conduct more experiments, and so find more innovative solutions.

Booking.com has a culture that is unusually dedicated to experimentation, and about 10% of their experiments yield positive results – but since they run such a high volume of experiments, the total number of improvements is quite significant.

And you may find that long-standing debates between teams or team members are definitively resolved with data. After going around and around in circles on a decision because of strong differing opinions, your experiments can yield clear answers because you put your best ideas in front of your users – and now you know exactly what they think.

Smarter decision-making in less time is the end result.

A true culture of experimentation results in greater autonomy for employees as well, which can increase engagement. Instead of going along with decisions from their leaders that they don’t agree with, employees have the power to ask questions and find answers themselves – that’s powerful.

Will you step outside of your comfort zone with a culture of experimentation?

Creating a culture of experimentation will make you uncomfortable. It will force you out of your company ruts and on to uncharted paths. There will be times when you fall on your face. And it means your organization’s decisions need to be driven less by ego and more by data, which isn’t always an easy transition for leadership.

But you can’t achieve great things if your goal is to avoid rocking the boat. Successful disruption occurs at the intersection of curiosity and risk. Amazon, Google, and others have succeeded precisely because they were willing to fail. They know that big wins emerge from the ashes of failure.

Will you embrace risk or will you stay comfortable?

For help developing and fostering a culture of experimentation, contact The Good. We love helping companies like yours optimize your conversion rate with tactics like rapid testing, A/B testing, and ensuring you’re asking the right questions and making data-driven decisions.

Enjoying this article?

Subscribe to our newsletter to get more just like it, sent straight to your inbox every week.

About the Author

Jon MacDonald

Jon MacDonald is founder and President of The Good, a conversion rate optimization firm that has achieved results for some of the largest online brands including Adobe, Nike, Xerox, Verizon, Intel and more. Jon regularly contributes content on conversion optimization to publications like Entrepreneur and Inc. He knows how to get visitors to take action.