After close to a decade of doing web strategy, I have come to the conclusion that I actually know very little about what constitutes good web strategy. And I don't mean this in some humble and wise "we are always on a path of learning" way.
I mean it quite literally.
Although I’ve been designing, re-designing and marketing websites and email campaigns for many years, I still have very little idea what makes people act the way they do when they go online. I have no idea what makes them "click." And frankly, I don't care to know what makes them click.
What we are doing when designing a website or an email campaign is actually very complex. We are creating an interface between a collection of various human brains (i.e. the people who visit our website) and technology. This system and process is so complex that it would be foolish to think we actually know why people do what they do when they come to a website.
Another more succinct way of putting it is contained in a very popular TED talk video about the "god complex." I have included the video at the end of this post, and it is well worth watching. In a nutshell though, the idea behind the video is that the human instinct is to attribute meaning to why a person or group of people act the way they do. But our systems have become so complex that anyone who thinks they can derive meaning from these systems has a "god complex" and is doing more harm than good by trying to derive meaning or motivation for a particular human behavior.
If we can't actually figure out the reasoning behind why someone does what they do when they come to your website, or opens an email or reads a post on Facebook, we have to look to an alternative approach to improving interaction over time.
The solution is actually really straightforward.
Instead of wasting time trying to explain why people do what they do and adhering to the accepted "best practices" that come along with this way of thinking, focus your energy on continuously testing new ideas and relying heavily on the objective data that results from those tests. A solid regime of constant testing and tweaking based on the results will, over time, build very successful web and online campaigns.
For example, I am sure many of you have been told by a consultant that making a "donate" button a different color than other buttons on your homepage will convert more visitors to donors. This is one of those "best practices" that I have seen work sometimes and fail miserably other times. Why? Who knows and who cares what the reason is. I can look at the numbers and see that when the button is a different color less people are clicking on it and donating than when the button is the same color. And that's all I need to know to improve my website - I do not need to figure out the "why."
One of the most common questions I get about email advocacy is: how often should I send an email message to my list? What is a good rule of thumb? In other words, what is the best practice.
My answer is invariably, send emails as often as you like until your data tells you that you are sending too many emails. For example, maybe your unsubscribe rate starts to go up or you see a drop off in your open rate. But then again, it might not be the frequency of emails that are causing these poor results. Maybe it is your subject lines, so you should test those too. There is no rule of thumb other than continuously testing and analyzing the results.
You know those pop-up light boxes that everyone hates? I have seen them used well and tweaked through continual testing until they resulted in a 300% increase in email sign ups and a 500% increase in donations. Will pop-up light boxes work for your site? You probably know the answer if you've read this far: Who knows? Test them and let the data speak for itself.
Luckily there are some very cheap and powerful tools out there to help you start a good testing program for your NationBuilder campaign. The one that is first and foremost in my mind, and one that I am huge fan of, is Optimizely.
If you haven't heard of Optimizely, you have to check it out. Optimizely was designed by a former Google Executive who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and wanted to run tests on the Obama website to measure engagement and conversions. In a nutshell, you start an account, cut and paste a piece of code into your site, and you can then change elements on any page of your website and test it against the original element.
For instance, you could change your "donate" button to say "donate now." What Optimizely will then do is show a random sample of visitors to your Nation one version or the other. After enough data is collected Optimizely picks a winner.
It is that easy. What I have been able to do with Optimizely is test and tweak and test and tweak a specific element of a page until collectively all that testing and tweaking yields a very powerful cumulative increase in visitor engagement and conversion.
There is actually one "best practice" that I have learned over close to a decade of online projects and I don't need Optimizley to tell me I am right. I know without a doubt that the best place to put your donate button is in the Top Nav, right beside the "who we are" button. It all has to do with the theory of eye tracking and the psychological motivation that derives from better knowing who someone is and a willingness to donate.
Just kidding. Test it.
Here's the God Complex TED talk I mentioned. Enjoy: