Solving for a Conversion Lift: To get to the right answer, change the question


Working under the weight of business objectives and cutting our way through the jungle of organizational politics as we perform applied research for our clients, often makes me long for the good old university days of participatory action research.

That was the hot trend in anthropology at the time, and though it has given way to other methodologies, in my memory it lives on as an almost innocent form of inquiry; one that possessed both transparency and openness to what might be discovered.

That is not to say that landing page optimization research that we perform is closed-minded or pre-determined. After all, producing real business results for our client means that the research must be effective. In the business world, this is the measurement of being right. However, it is easy to overlook parallel developments in the academia, in particular in applied Psychology, where design and user experience is treated with no less of a scientific rigor.

Attending the Fifth Design for Conversion Conference (DfC) in New York City was an informative and entertaining way to reconnect with some of the top academics in the field. I will share what I have learned in a mini-series of blog posts that will follow, but today I wanted to share how, as part of the event, I was on a team that solved a specific optimization challenge for The Ladders (yes, that one).

What is the objective?

What I hope you will learn, or reinforce in your mind, as I did, is that some problems in marketing—as elsewhere—can benefit from the simple question “What is the objective?” before you launch headstrong into solving the most obvious problem, or one that was handed to you. The simple procedure of asking explicitly “What is the objective?” was one of the first tenets I learned in the MarketingExperiments research methodology, and I repeatedly find that it is as powerful as it is simple.

DfC organizers made the entire event workshop-driven, so that the attendees may apply the principles they learned from the speakers immediately, through alternating presentations and working sessions. They invited marketers with specific problems that they wanted to solve, and asked the teams made up of conference to develop and then present the solution to the “clients.”

The whole thing was organized as a contest, and running ahead (just in case you quit reading sooner), I just wanted to point out that my team beat the other six for the top prize.

The challenge

My team’s client was The Ladders. Their challenge was that a large fraction of their job seekers were setting their profiles as private, making contact information invisible to recruiters. Through surveys, they knew that recruiters were less likely to contact those users—meaning that the perceived effectiveness of this paid site would be lower. It appeared that not making one’s contact information immediately visible signaled lower motivation to the recruiters, so the latter would be less likely to bother trying to reach such accounts.

The way The Ladders approached this problem—and the way they positioned it for our team to solve—was to get more of the job seekers to set their contact info visible; making them appear more motivated, and therefore more likely to be contacted by the recruiters.

We did provide a number of tactical recommendations to get more job seekers to open up their profiles. The site’s language was creating anxiety about making one’s contact information visibly by means of offering something like “reasons not to dread opening up your contact info” and “why you shouldn’t worry that your current boss will find your resume here and fire you.”

Also, setting one’s profile as searchable was not the default or obvious thing to do—what we call friction at MarketingExperiments. There was no mention of this negative signaling to recruiters, which might have moved many of the “gray area” visitors to change their contact preferences.

The best way to win is to change the scorecard

However, these and other tactical recommendations were not addressing the real problem, as we realized from the very beginning. They also weren’t going to get us to the contest victory! As our assigned team coach Andrew Chak (author of Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Web Sites) reminded us, the best way to win is to change the scorecard. And so we did.

What was the objective? The Ladders is not in the business of getting as many job seekers as possible to make their contact information visible to recruiters. This is merely an intermediate step, which appeared to be a bottleneck in the overall conversion process.

The overarching business objective is to get as many users—both on the seeker and the recruiter ends—to pay to use the system. This means that both sides need to be able to get what they want—which happens to be the same thing: a connection of a job seeker with the right job.

To achieve that end, the recruiters need to be able to assess the job seeker as quickly as possible, and the current system was not making it as easy as could be. Without being able to qualify job seekers better, the recruiters were left with a large pool of potential matches, and it was simply easier for them to cut down that pool to a manageable number by only going for the applicants that had provided their contact information immediately (as opposed to the ones that had set it private, which required a few extra communication steps to get in touch).

So, again, what was our objective? Our objective became making it easy for recruiters to find the right candidates. That meant changing the process, so that the recruiter could get the information about the applicant that they really needed and allow them to narrow down the applicant pool by meaningful criteria, rather than contact info visibility. At the same time, the process for the job seekers could be changed to allow them to demonstrate career move “readiness” more explicitly, rather than through the indirect, tongue-in-cheek signal of contact info visibility.

This meant giving the job seekers a few questions to answer, and explaining clearly why these questions are being asked to help them find a job quicker. The MarketingExperiments meta theory of value exchange applies here well: for the value of higher likelihood of finding a job, the users are willing to do a little more work in completing their profile.

What is the real objective?

With the presentation skills of my teammates being no small factor, our solution got us the top prize. As both Eric Burd, VP, Product, from The Ladders and our esteemed judges (Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab’s director BJ Fogg, London Business School Assistant Professor of Marketing Dan Goldstein, and Vice Chairman of the Ogilvy Group-UK Rory Sutherland) agreed, fundamentally re-examining the problem (that is, asking “What is the real objective?”), rather than simply answering the question, was key to their decision.

I would be most curious to hear how other marketers have creatively avoided jumping over the obvious hurdles and instead re-defined their path altogether, to get outsized returns. Please use the comment feature to share your successes!

Related Resources

Online Marketing Conversion: “Free” is a pretty strong incentive

Conversion Rate Optimization Tested

The MarketingExperiments Quarterly Research Journal, Q3 2010

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  1. Kathy says

    I love the title of this wonderful article. – To get the right answer change the question. – I am always in awe of how true that statement is no matter what business you are in. I continue to benefit from practicing it

  2. Arjan Haring says

    Excellent article! So true.

    In meetings I am always the annoying guy that asks “What is the objective?”. Often accompanied by “And why is that important?” And if there are no angry looks yet, I will continue to ask why the answer to the last question was important.

    Looking forward to the next article.

  3. Gabriel Goldenberg says

    Brilliant – I love this kind of critical thinking :).

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