Which is Best: Hiring a CRO Agency, or Buying CRO Tools?

How can you tell whether you need a CRO agency or just a CRO tool? We'll show you.

Driving a ton of traffic to your website will only deliver more sales for your business if you’re able to convert those visitors into paying customers. 

When it comes to the question of whether to seek outside conversion optimization assistance or to do it in-house, the matter comes down to weighing the costs against the benefits.

Businesses often find that in-house CRO teams and programs fail to deliver the expected ROI and benefits due to the fact that optimization gets pushed down the priority list in place of other “important” tasks.

But why hire a CRO agency to boost flagging sales when so many excellent CRO tools are readily available? Can’t you leverage the do-it-yourself approach and get the same results? 

At The Good, we often speak with ecommerce marketing executives who are wrestling with that decision. After all, if you can spend less and get the same results, you’ll obviously opt to save the money. 

In this Insight, we’ll look at both sides of the CRO agency versus CRO tools battle. Our aim here is to deliver the arguments for and against as objectively as we can, so you can make the right decision that fits the needs of your business. 

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

The value of CRO tools

CRO tools are be really valuable to smaller online businesses that don’t necessarily have the traffic levels to support running A/B tests. Heatmap generators, user-testing platforms, and A/B testing tools can all be valuable additions to a ecommerce manager’s toolbox if they take the time to learn how to properly use them, and can commit to using them regularly.

Tools take care of the tactical. They take care of measuring the statistical significance of a test and serving up the winning variant. They help perform testing procedures in a single day that may have taken months to complete (if they were possible at all) just a few years ago.

CRO tools provide plenty of value when it comes to the technical challenges of conversion optimization… but tools and tactics will only get you so far.

The limitations of CRO tools

Tools can help you accomplish tactical CRO tasks quickly and accurately. Properly set up, they can identify visitor patterns, tell you which version of a webpage is more likely to get the desired response from prospects, and more.

But tools are tactical elements. They can’t think strategically like a CRO specialist is able to.

There’s a difference between having the ability to run A/B tests, and knowing which test will serve the greatest benefit to your website experience. Even tools that are using machine learning and AI magic are limited to rearranging the design that is already present on your site. They aren’t adding strategic and creative insights to the mix.

Relying on CRO tools to make improvements to your website instead of hiring a CRO agency is like taking aspirin for a broken bone. You know you should see a physician, but the aspirin is easier, and it saves you money.

Here are some of the significant limitations of CRO tools:

  • Tools are only part of the equation: Data on its own is not useful; it’s what you do with the data that can push sales up or drive them down. CRO tools won’t can’t teach you how to read data in the same way a CRO strategist is able to.
  • Tools are limited in scope: You can only dip your toes into what you’re able to test with WYSIWYG tools. Solid testing often requires backend web development experience in order to execute complex A/B tests.
  • Tools don’t provide vision: They’ll give you lots of dots, but they can’t connect those dots for you. It takes someone who has solid CRO experience and has delivered verified CRO results at the helm.

In other words, tools provide results… but they’re limited results. To do the true work of conversion rate optimization (get more sales), you need a qualified observer and strategist. The value of a CRO strategist just can’t be replaced with a handful of testing tools.

The value of working with a genuine CRO agency

First, let’s clarify why we say “genuine CRO agency”: Many companies actually specialize in digital marketing or website design, but they add CRO to their list of offerings to enlarge their stated capabilities.

Typically, those agencies will have Google-certified PPC managers and artistically-gifted graphic designers on staff, but they really don’t have anyone with the depth of experience necessary to qualify as a CRO specialist. Many marketing managers think CRO is easy. They know the theory and they have a few tools, so they hang out a shingle.

Don’t get sidetracked by the claims or prices that come from unqualified agencies. They will cost you sales and precious time. They may even damage your reputation or get your site penalized and buried in search results. Fair warning issued. Before you select a CRO agency for your ecommerce website, make sure you read our Insight on the questions you need to ask beforehand: 9 Crucial Questions to Ask a Conversion Rate Optimization Agency

Why professional CRO help is irreplaceable

We’ve given you a list of reasons why tools aren’t the complete package for conversion rate optimization. Here’s an extension of that list from the CRO agency perspective.

This is a short list of the services a CRO agency can provide (but tools alone can’t):

  • You get creative problem solving: A qualified CRO agency team can deliver creative ideas from diverse experience backgrounds. Each member provides fresh perspectives and unique insight that you’d never be able to find internally.
  • You save time and money: A qualified CRO agency manager can help you avoid directionless or low-impact testing plans that waste resources. Qualified CRO teams provide expert experimentation programs that quickly identify the conversion blockers in your customer journey and begin delivering results that move the bottom line in the desired direction.
  • You get quicker results: Nimble development cycles allow the CRO team to change focus as they get more data and feedback from ongoing tests. Testing that feedback fuels more ideas, iterations, and rapidly hones in on the best configurations for broader design patterns. They build on what works and drop what doesn’t work.
  • You get more breadth: CRO specialists can listen to visitors (literally). They can either watch visitor interaction live, review past actions, or even speak directly with your website visitors to gather information to a depth that tools are incapable of reaching.
  • You avoid A/B pitfalls: A/B testing is a specialized development mindset. If you build tests without experience you’ll likely track the wrong things, incorrectly track the right things, or miss out on key insights. Working with a professional CRO agency ensures that not only are your tests being built properly, but the data tracking in Google Analytics (or whichever analytics tool you’re using) is setup to report accurate and clear results.
  • Your CRO agency keeps you headed in the right direction: Goals can be misleading, and it’s not uncommon for us to speak with online businesses that have set the wrong goals for their website. A good CRO agency will help you define worthwhile goals and objectives before the engagement begins. It’s the agency’s job to ensure that those goals are met, while also keeping you aligned on what you initially set out to accomplish at the start of the engagement.

Why an in-house testing team may not be as effective

The team that designed or approved the design for an ecommerce site are the worst candidates for the job of conversion rate optimization.

Why? Because they bring a lot of unconscious (or even conscious) predetermined judgment, confirmation bias, and tunnel vision to the work.

  • A CEO or owner may have a limiting presupposition of who their clients actually are. That mistake, no matter how passionately it is believed, will limit the company’s sales and growth.
  • A designer may have sunk hundreds of hours into a feature that is actually tanking the conversion rate. Seeing and admitting that mistake is the last thing that person wants to do.
  • Someone who’s been looking at the same website every day for years may be missing some obvious mistakes. They may be incapable of perceiving any problems on their website because they’ve spent so much time with it.

If your in-house team hasn’t been able to significantly boost your conversion rate thus far, how are they going to suddenly see the problems now?

It’s like trying to read the label from inside the jar. For a brand who’s built their own eCommerce website–and know it backward to forward–it’s almost impossible to understand what the user experience is like for a new-to-file customer. When designing their website experience, they organize things around how they perceive them, not how a consumer who’s new to the website will perceive them.

Hiring the right CRO agency helps you circumvent those issues. Not only that, but the conversation between the CRO agency team and your in-house team can provide valuable education that will help them minimize pitfalls in the future.

Hire a CRO agency or buy CRO tools: which do you choose?

When you want to drive results for the long-term health of your company, you’ll be much better off working with a genuine CRO specialist than simply turning to a tool. Buying a robust set of CRO tools alone may save you money in the short term, but that decision will cost you in the long term. 

Don’t sacrifice the long-term health of your website by being short-sighted. 

One more thing: as we mentioned in the introduction, working with a CRO agency may not end up being the best choice for your business right now. If you don’t meet the monthly traffic requirements to conduct effective testing, you’d likely be better off allowing your business more time to grow before moving forward on a full-scale testing program. 

In any case, conversion optimization should no longer be looked at as an “option” for ecommerce businesses, it’s a necessity.

With the ecommerce landscape growing more and more competitive each year, CRO is now an essential piece to every sound online business strategy. 

About the author: 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.

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