The AB Testing Process that Empowers Marketers

At Conversion Sciences, conversion optimization is so important that we think every site should benefit from it. We take every chance to teach businesses about it. The AB testing process is an important part of conversion optimization and is within reach of almost any business that prizes data-driven marketing.

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is a systematic process for increasing the rate at which website visitors “convert” into leads and customers.

When visitors arrive at your site, you want them to take a certain action. You might want them to subscribe to your mailing list, purchase a product, call your company, make a donation, fill out your contact form, or any number of things. CRO seeks to maximize the percentage of visitors who perform this desired action.

And as traffic becomes more and more expensive to acquire, CRO continues to become a bigger and bigger deal for online businesses.

When to Use Conversion Optimization

Conversion optimization has become an important part of digital marketing because available tools are becoming easy to use and inexpensive. Businesses generate more sales from the same traffic.

Businesses will turn to conversion optimization when:

  • Search ads, like Adwords get too expensive.
  • Their organic search traffic isn’t growing fast enough.
  • They aren’t getting enough revenue from their email list.
  • They want to compete with bigger companies on the Web.

Conversion optimization gives the business more control over its own destiny, increasing revenue and delighting more customers. AB testing is a powerful tool in the conversion optimization game.

Understanding Conversion Optimization

At a high level, a website’s basic revenue model looks like this:

Traffic x Conversion Rate = Revenue

Let’s say you are getting 100,000 visitors each month and converting 3% of them into customers. In order to double your revenue, you can either (A) double traffic by getting 100,000 extra visitors each month, or (B) increase your conversion rate from 3% to 6%.

As you can imagine, it is usually much cheaper to fix a few things on your site and increase the conversion rate than to increase traffic by 100,000 people. And this is based on a simple three variable formula.

In reality, many websites and online enterprises consist of numerous steps in a complex chain of conversion funnels.

Conversion funnels are complex, and it's easy to lose someone along the way without CRO and AB testing.

Conversion funnels can be complex, and it’s easy to lose someone along the way without CRO and AB testing. Image credit: Digital Marketer

Low conversion rates at any point in this lengthy funnel can gut revenue totals, and consequently, optimizing the conversion rate even slightly throughout the multiple stages of this funnel can result in a massive increase in overall revenue.

The AB Testing Process

The best data-driven marketers take a systematic approach to optimize a website’s overall conversion rate. And while that approach is fairly complex, the core process includes the following:

  1. Data gathering & analysis
  2. Hypothesizing & Prioritizing
  3. Design & Run AB Tests
  4. Interpretation & implementation

To summarize, you begin by gathering intelligence on the your target audience. Next, you predict a series of website changes that will improve the overall conversion rate and then test those changes with a live audience. You run tests to confirm or refute your predicions. Finally, you implement changes that improve the conversion rate and discard those that don’t.

1. Data gathering & Analysis

The CRO process begins with gathering and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data in order to achieve a well-rounded understanding of the website’s target market and how they are engaging with the site.

Data software, surveys, and usability tests are often used to collect and analyze this data.

2. Hypothesizing & Prioritizing

Once data has been collected, it’s time to hypothesize a series of site changes that will potentially increase conversions. Each idea for increasing conversion rate is called a hypothesis, or “educated guess”. These predictions are usually based off the data collected, “best practices”, and the personal experience of the data-driven marketer. The hypotheses you focus on will be based on your core testing strategy.

Changes are then made and compared against the original site in front of a live audience using a AB testing.
Each hypothesis should have the form:

If we    describe change   , we expect more visitors to    describe desired outcome    
as measured by   metric   .

For example:

If we add “Free shipping on all orders” to our product pages, we expect more visitors to purchase as measured by revenue per visit.
If we include the phone number in our headline, we expect more visitors to call as measured by web-based phone call rate.

Taking the time to write out each your hypotheses ensures:

  1. That you are testing something very specific.
  2. That you are testing something that results in a desired outcome.
  3. That you can measure the results.

Conversion Sciences enters our hypotheses into a spreadsheet and rates each on a scale of 1 to 5 for four categories:

  1. Based on my experience, how big of an impact do I expect this hypothesis to have? (1-5 with 5 being a big impact)
  2. How much traffic sees the page on which this hypothesis applies? (1-5 with 5 being a lot)
  3. How much evidence do I have that this hypothesis is really a problem? (1-5 with 5 being most)
  4. How hard is the test to implement? (1-5 with 1 being best)

Add 1, 2 and 3, then subtract 4 to get your hyopthesis weight. Do this for each test to get a ranking and sort the spreadsheet by weight. Those hypotheses with the highest weighting will jump to the top. These are your “low-hanging fruit”, the first things you should test.

3. Designing & Running AB Tests

This is where the new tools come into play. AB testing tools offer ways to change your website for some visitors, while leaving it the same for others. The tools allow you to do this without changing your website because the changes are made in the visitors’ browsers.

One visitor will get a page (A) as it is, then the next will get a version of the page (B) with your change. The tools manage this so that about the same number of visitors see each page. These AB testing tools then report on which version generated the most revenue and tell you how much more revenue you would expect to get.

If the original generates more revenue — we call it the Control — you can be assured your change would have hurt your site. If the modified version generates more revenue — we call it a Treatment — then you’ve found an improvement and can code it into the site.

AB Testing tools have a learning-curve. Most offer “WYSIWYG” interfaces for changing elements. Some tests will require that you have a resource familiar with Javascript, HTML and CSS.

4. Interpretation & Implementation

After running a series of AB tests, results are analyzed and interpreted and additional tests may be run. The goal is to identify a slate of changes that yield statistically significant improvements in the site’s overall conversion rate.

Verified improvements are implemented as permanent changes to the website, and then new hypotheses may be made and tested until the target conversion rate is achieved.

What You Can Do With an AB Test

When evaluating page elements to test and improve, CRO specialists typically start with “best practices”. Best practices are techniques that tend to work for many websites. Testing page elements based on best practices will often improve the site’s conversion rate immediately, and they provide a good baseline from which the data-driven marketer can plan and implement more tailored tests.

It’s important to note here that “best practices” do not work for every site. Especially on your mobile site, there really aren’t any best practices. This is why AB testing is so important.

That said, it’s good to have a basic understanding of best practices when attempting to optimize conversions on a website.

1. Develop an Effective Value Proposition

Your website must convey a value proposition that gives the visitor a reason to stay and explore. The value proposition is constructed out of copy and images.

The value proposition doesn’t have to be unique, but it must describe the reason you occupy space on the Web. It should include who your offering is targeted at and why they should care about it.
Your value proposition may also include pricing, delivery, return policy, and what make you unique.

Each of your visitors will come in one of four modes: Competitive, Methodical, Humanist, or Spontaneous.

  1. COMPETITIVE visitors are looking for information that will make them better, smarter or more cutting-edge. Use benefit statements and payoffs in your headings to draw them into your content.
  2. METHODICALS like data and details. Include specifics and proof in your writing to connect with them.
  3. HUMANISTS want information that supports their relationships. They will relate to your writing if you share the human element in your topic.
  4. SPONTANEOUS visitors are the least patient. They need to know what’s in it for them and may not read your entire story. Provide short headings for them to scan so that they can get to the points that are important to them.

Your goal is to write copy directed at whichever of these groups visit your site.

In addition to understanding what motivates your audience to buy, it’s also important to understand what stands in the way of them making that decision.

Most buyers can be broken down into two categories based on two different fears:

  1. Transactional buyers
  2. Relational buyers

Transactional buyers are competitive bargain hunters whose greatest fear is paying a dollar more than they need to. They aren’t looking for “cheap”. They are looking for the greatest possible value they can find for the lowest possible price.

In order to appeal to transactional buyers, your copy should be focused features, price, and savings. 

Relational buyers, on the other hand, are focused entirely on quality. Their greatest fear is buying the wrong thing, and they are more than happy to seek out expert help and pay a premium in order to assure they receive a quality product.

In order to appeal to relational buyers, your copy should be benefits focused with educational content, copious social proof, ratings, and reviews to demonstrate that selecting your product is a guaranteed win.

Things to test:

  • The language on links and buttons.
  • Headlines and subheadings.
  • Wording of discounts and specials.
  • Description of return policy and shipping policy.
  • Adding bullets and highlights to copy.
  • Change copy that talks about your company into visitor-focused copy.

Remember that nobody cares about your business or products until they’ve found what they are looking for. People only care about how your business can solve THEIR problems. Remember to keep the copy and messaging consistently focused on the customer on every platform and at every point of interaction. Personal stories and intros have their place and can be quite effective, but again, only when the context is customer benefit.

For further reading, check out these great value proposition examples and the case studies on their implementation.

2. Design to Help Your Visitors Choose What’s Next

Design is important to your conversion rate but not for the reasons most people think. Your site’s design should be focused two things:

  1. Highlighting your persuasive copywriting
  2. Helping the visitor choose to act or to take the next step in their journey

Visitors should have an idea of what your landing page is all about with five seconds of arriving. They should then be taken through a streamlined journey rather than needing to browse around and find their own way.

A simpler, more intuitive, and more straightforward site design a great place to start.
Things to test:

  • Making links and buttons with calls-to-action stand out.
  • Move important information, such as free shipping offers “above the fold.”
  • Swapping columns.
  • Increasing the size of images.
  • Placing security badges near the “Add to Cart” button.
  • Increasing the font-size of important information like price and stock.

These are some places to start.

3. Focus on Entry Pages

A good conversion funnel isn’t just a webpage. It’s a combination of ads, search results, blog posts, email marketing, social media, webinars, and much more. Each of your campaigns will bring visitors to your site on different pages. Start on these pages and find look for ways to help visitors choose the next step.

For ecommerce sites, product pages are often the entry page for search traffic.

For ecommerce sites, product pages are often the entry page for search traffic.

For many sites, the most common entry pages will be:

  • The Home Page
  • Category and Product Pages for ecommerce sites
  • Post pages for blogs
  • Signup pages for webinars, reports and other offers

The Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages report in Google Analytics will tell you which pages are your most frequently visited entry pages.

Google Analytics offers a list of entry pages, which they call "Landing Pages"

Google Analytics offers a list of your entry pages, which they call “Landing Pages”

If you can get more visitors into your site from these entry pages, reducing your bounce rate, you will have more opportunities to win prospects and customers.


AB testing is a tool that is within reach of more and more marketers. It is powerful because it

  • Ensures you aren’t making changes that hurt your online business.
  • Helps you understand what your visitors are really looking for.
  • Disciplines you to make smaller stepwise changes to your site.

To continue your journey into the world of CRO, check out Conversion Sciences Free CRO Training.

If you have any questions or if you noticed I left out some key info, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments. And of course, don’t forget to share this post with any of your colleagues who could benefit from an introduction to AB testing.

Jacob McMillen
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