A Step-by-Step Guide to Evaluating a Conversion Optimization Agency

Here are the questions you should be asking full-service marketing firms to determine their ability to execute conversion optimization.

Conversion optimization is a proven process involving very specific steps, tools, and methods. You can’t wing it or rely on creative ingenuity. Those who know and adhere to the proven CRO process create online success. Those who don’t usually make things even worse.

Many marketing agencies are just now beginning to realize this. The problem, however, is that many of these agencies are taking shortcuts to try and develop CRO expertise. Maybe they read a few articles, go to a conference, or take an online course. They want to be able to advertise CRO as one of their many services.

That’s where we come in. In this white paper, we’ll explore the most practical ways to evaluate a conversion optimization agency.

We’re going to show you:

  • Why evaluating a conversion optimization agency is critically important
  • The questions you need to ask to determine whether an agency knows their stuff
  • The core areas you need to focus on when evaluating an agency

If you’re reading this, you likely are looking to hire a Conversion Rate Optimization firm to help you figure out why you’re not getting the conversions on your site that you want.

You’ve probably heard the statistics and stories…

  • Companies that invest in customer experience outperform the market by 35 points.
  • Barack Obama’s marketing team used Conversion Rate Optimization techniques to drive a huge amount of fundraising in his successful 2008 presidential campaign.
  • AirBnB credits their focus on user experience (a key component of CRO) as one of the key strategies that propelled the company to a $10 billion valuation.

But how do you choose a CRO firm? Lots of full service marketing firms say they do CRO, but how do you determine if they really know what they’re talking about or it’s just a bullet point on their website?

After all, anyone can talk a big CRO game, throwing around terms like “A/B testing” and “statistical significance”. But how can you be sure that they can solve your problems?

As Phil Williams, Optimisation Solutions Manager at Webtrends notes:

“In recent years I’ve come across numerous digital marketing agencies claiming to offer CRO services or calling themselves ‘specialists’ in CRO. It doesn’t take much digging to find that they are simply a generic digital marketing agency who have got wind of this new buzzword and figure it’s worth a shot at selling this. When you research who would be their optimization consultant it often turns out to be a digital marketer with a little SEO/PPC background but no real experience in CRO.”

That’s where we come in. In this white paper, we’ll explore the most practical ways to evaluate a conversion optimization agency.

We’re going to show you:

  • Why evaluating a conversion optimization agency is critically important
  • The questions you need to ask to determine whether an agency knows their stuff
  • The core areas you need to focus on when evaluating an agency

Let’s dive in…

Why Evaluating a Conversion Optimization Agency is Important

First things first: why should you even bother evaluating a conversion rate optimization agency? If a digital marketing agency says they do it, isn’t that enough?

Unfortunately not.

It can help to think of CRO like you think about auto repair. When something goes wrong with your car, there are specific steps that need to be followed in order to fix it. There is a standard process for replacing a belt or fixing a transmission. If you (or a mechanic) tries to wing it, you’ll probably mess things up even worse.

CRO is also a proven process involving very specific steps, tools, and methods. You can’t wing it or rely on creative ingenuity. Those who know and adhere to the proven CRO process create online success. Those who don’t usually make things even worse.

Many marketing agencies are just now beginning to realize this. The problem, however, is that many of these agencies are taking shortcuts to try and develop CRO expertise. Maybe they read a few articles, go to a conference, or take an online course. They want to be able to advertise CRO as one of their many services.

Unfortunately, the end result is that many agencies have a half-baked understanding of CRO, which then leads to them making CRO mistakes. These mistakes hurt you.

Bottom line: if you want the best results, the best experience, and CRO done right, you need to do some quality comparison before signing a contract.

11 Practical Steps to Evaluating a Conversion Optimization Agency (Step-by-Step)

So how can you know whether you’re hiring a marketing agency that really does know CRO? Here are 11 ways to evaluate whether your hiring a CRO rockstar or a CRO cover band.

#1 – How User-Driven Is Their Approach?

The site visitor is at the very heart of CRO. After all, the goal is to convert more site visitors into customers. Achieving this goal involves studying users, analyzing their behavior, doing focus groups with them, soliciting their feedback, and a host of other user-centered activities.

If a CRO agency doesn’t understand your users, there’s simply no way they can truly optimize your site. They need to be able to get a clear picture of how people are currently using your site if they’re going to identify and solve problems.

If the user is not central to an agency’s approach, they’re not truly doing CRO. They’re probably doing a watered down version that involves a few well-known CRO techniques, like A/B testing. Don’t hire them. When you only use a few CRO techniques, you can do more harm than good.

True CRO is a robust process with a number of specific steps. Any attempts to skimp on or shortcut that process can come back to hurt you.

#2 – Does The CRO Agency Provide One Service Or Multiple?

CRO is an extremely detailed, in-depth process. It requires a significant amount of time and attention, both of which can be scarce at agencies selling multiple services. Their attention is always divided as they shuttle from PPC to SEO to web design, and finally, to CRO.

When an agency’s attention is divided, CRO can significantly suffer.

Why?

Because high-quality CRO is both a framework and iterative. In other words, it involves a specific process using specific tools and methods, and this process is carried out (iterated) multiple times. Dropping in and out of such an intense process usually results in missed details and sloppy work.

It can’t be boiled down to a set of hacks or tactics or a list of best practices. You can’t read an article like “7 Ways To Increase Your Conversion Rate” and suddenly know how to optimize your site for more conversions.

The quality of your CRO will directly correspond to the expertise of the team working on your site. Because CRO involves a combination of factors, such as web design, copywriting, and data analysis, you typically need a team of people, each with a different area of expertise.

Again, to quote Phil Williams:

“I’ll put this plainly. If you want serious results don’t skimp on expertise. There are two main aspects to this – consultants and developers. Make sure your CRO partner can offer you consultants who have multiple years of experience and have a proven track record of designing well thought out tests.”

An agency that is focused exclusively on CRO is able to devote the time, people, and expertise needed to execute conversion optimization at a high level.

#3 – Does The Agency Ask You Questions About Traffic Levels, Current Conversion Rate, Average Order Value, and Revenue?

True CRO is extremely data-driven. Your site analytics are evaluated, hypotheses are formed, tests are run, and then specific actions are taken as a result of those tests.

But here’s the thing…

If those tests don’t reach statistical significance, you can come to false conclusions. An abnormal spike or drop in traffic or conversions could significantly alter the testing results. In other words, if your site doesn’t receive enough traffic or conversions, statistical tests can be inaccurate, leading you to make incorrect optimization decisions.

If an agency isn’t asking about your current traffic levels, average number of conversions, conversion rates, average order value, and revenue, it indicates that they probably don’t allow tests to reach statistical significance.

This, in turn, means you’re not going to get much ROI from their CRO work. In fact, depending on how wrong their CRO conclusions are, you could actually end up hurting your revenue if you implement their changes.

#4 – Do They Have Case Studies Showcasing Tangible Results for Clients?

When CRO is done properly, there is always a trail of evidence. The initial data is documented, hypotheses are formed, tests are done, and the results are documented. This cycle repeats again and again, with the new data being recorded each time.

The end result will be a thoroughly documented trail of increasing conversion rates and revenue. Because CRO decisions are driven by data, a CRO firm should no problem demonstrating that their approach works. It should always be clear why a particular change was implemented.

If a firm doesn’t have evidence of successful CRO campaigns, it should be a red flag.

#5 – Are They More Experience-Driven or Data-Driven?

There’s a myth, perpetuated by shows like Mad Men, that real marketers are creative geniuses who rely on hunches and gut feelings. That they get sudden flashes of inspiration that lead to epic marketing campaigns.

Crazy stories about how a single change generated millions in additional revenue only work to further this myth. When it comes to CRO, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more you rely on marketing hunches and “inspiration”, the worse results you get.

The best CRO firms are those who firmly attach themselves to the data and shy away from intuition and educated guesses. They know that the only optimizations worth implementing are those that are statistically proven to work. If the data doesn’t back up a test, it shouldn’t be implemented, no matter how strongly someone feels about it.

Bottom line: every recommendation a firm makes should be based on the data – the clicks and movements of your specific site visitors.

If they’re not speaking in those terms, you should be wary of hiring them.

#6 – Where Do Discounts Fit Into Their Process For Improving Conversions?

Implementing discounts is the lazy person’s way to improve conversion rates. Discounting products will probably improve conversion rates, because everybody loves a good sale, but they don’t increase your revenue.

Yes, you made more sales. Congratulations. But you didn’t make any more revenue because you sold your products for less. Essentially, your increased conversion rate did nothing for your bottom line. This defeats the point of CRO, which is ultimately about boosting your revenue.

Good CRO will increase conversions independent of discounting. It relies on systematically identifying roadblocks to purchasing and then removing those roadblocks one by one. The result is both an increase in conversion and revenue.

If an agency talks a lot about implementing discounts to improve your conversion rates, it should be a red flag. A true CRO doesn’t need the crutch of discounts to significantly improve your overall conversion rates.

#7 – What Is Their Defined Process for Conversion Optimization?

Truly effective CRO always relies on a defined process for improving conversion rates. The agency should be able to lay out, step-by-step, their basic optimization process.

In some ways, it’s like a recipe. Even the best chefs rely on proven recipes to produce their dishes. A chef that randomly throws together new ingredients each time he cooks probably won’t be particularly successful.

The same goes for an agency selling CRO services. If their approach is limited to conducting random tests based on their experiences, you’re going to get poor results. What worked for one client won’t necessarily work for you.

Rather, you want a CRO agency that has a methodical and iterative process to ensure that you get consistent, incremental, and sustainable growth.

#8 – Do They Begin Their Process With A Deep Look At Your Data?

An optimization process that doesn’t start with a deep look at your data is like an army going into battle with no knowledge of the enemy. It’s a recipe for disaster.

An effective conversion optimization process always, always, always starts with a deep-dive into your data to understand where the problems are. It involves studying the analytics to understand where customers are getting stuck, what bottlenecks are occurring, where carts are being abandoned, and a host of other problems.

There is a quote attributed to Einstein that goes, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

The same goes for CRO. Before you can start implementing solutions, you need a well-informed roadmap. How do you get this roadmap? From the data.

If an agency’s first step isn’t looking at your existing data, something is amiss.

#9 – Do They Use Vendor Lock-In To Get You To Stay?

When CRO is done properly, a number of tools (analytics, heatmaps, etc.) are used to improve the overall conversion process. A CRO agency should be able to recommend the best tools to you without managing the vendor relationship.

In other words, the CRO firm shouldn’t be the one providing the data collection tools. Rather, they should be helping you establish your own accounts with these vendors.

Why does this matter?

Because if you don’t have independent access to the tools, the CRO firm will probably get to keep all your data once you leave, which essentially puts you back at square one. You won’t know what tests you already tried or what the results were.

A good CRO agency can – and should – manage tools as part of the engagement, but ultimately you should be the one who owns the data and has the relationship with the vendors. If this isn’t the case, be wary of hiring them.

#10 – Do They Interrupt Or Align With Your Current Development Partners?

Because CRO involves performing tests on your website, your developer will inevitably get pulled into the process. A good CRO agency should be able to create and run tests within their own toolset, without needing to involve your developer much at all. In other words, they shouldn’t require your developer to make significant changes to how they do things, to run A/B tests.

When a winning test is determined, the CRO agency should then provide your developer all the assets necessary for implementing that test into your site’s source code. This should include all the details of how and where the test should be implemented, text, colors, new buttons, layout instructions, etc.

Your developer shouldn’t be required to put in more than a few hours per month implementing these winning tests into your site’s source code. The last thing you want is a CRO firm that is disruptive to your developer.

#11 – Do They Focus On Long-Term Or Short-Term Results?

Ultimately, true CRO is about focusing on long term results. Quick fixes that produce small jolts to your revenue are good, but ultimately you’re after long term, significant results.

This means at least two things for the CRO agency you choose:

1. They will focus on the highest impact areas first. In other words, they’ll identify the areas that have the most potential to produce revenue and then systematically work to improve those areas. There may be areas that could produce a quick uptick in conversions that aren’t the areas of highest impact, but these will be initially ignored to focus on the areas of your site that matter most.

2. They will be willing to devote enough time to each test to ensure that it really will produce a significant positive ROI for you. It can be tempting for agencies to jump the gun and implement changes before the tests achieve statistical significance. They want to deliver results, and if something seems like it might work, they move quickly to implement it. This is a mistake. Truly effective CRO requires that a certain amount of traffic and conversions occur before reaching conclusions.

You should be playing the long game when it comes to CRO. That’s how you truly unlock its power.

Do Your Homework

Even though you may be eager to start increasing your conversion rates, it’s always best to do your homework upfront so that you avoid headaches down the road. An agency may be able to throw around various CRO terms without having any substantive knowledge of how the process should really work.

As you look to hire an agency, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you understand their methodology and what drives their processes. Yes, it may take longer to find the right agency for you, but it’s worth it.

If you have more questions about how to choose the right CRO agency, please contact us.