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The death of the generalist CRO agency


Here’s an uncontroversial statement: purchasing $15,000 worth of furniture online is different from signing up for a free trial of a project management app.

And both are different from clicking an article link, or subscribing to an email list.

But go searching for a Conversion Rate Optimization agency, and you’ll find folks willing and ready to optimize your site for any and all of these actions.

You’ll find a ton of them.

This will change.

CRO infancy

For years, the practice of using data, experimentation, and UX research to improve a website’s conversion rate … was new. Hip. Edgy.

Only the cool kids were doing it.

During this phase, there were a handful of tools, and a handful of practitioners.

“Doing CRO” was itself a niche pursuit.

As a business owner, you were lucky to find someone with the skills to run a successful experiment on your website.

But major players like Facebook and Amazon started experimenting aggressively. Obama got into the game.

Then Google released a free experimentation tool, and things really took off.

CRO puberty

Which brings us to present day. You can’t swing a funnel without hitting a CRO agency, and apparently you can’t open a marketing agency without asserting that you “do CRO”.

But this stuff is hard. 7 out of 10 tests fail. (Or is it 7 out of 8?)

It’s expensive, too. You’re looking at 5 figures per month for a testing tool and an agency to run it.

The current boom in experimentation is letting businesses down. For every legitimate, measurable, data-driven improvement, there are tons of failed tests, inconclusive results, and false positives.

You can already see the fallout. A couple of points that almost every marketer will concede:

We know that testing is important …

and

We want to be data driven …

But the painful lesson they’ve learned:

We tried, and it just didn’t move the needle.

CRO maturity (a prediction)

Where’s all this heading?

The multitude of agencies and consultants who take a “throw stuff against the wall” approach will largely be culled.

Businesses will be much more reluctant to release budgets for testing “because it’s important.”

And specialists will win the day.

No doubt there are a handful of 🦄 unicorns whose analytical chops, UX insights, and empathy are so off the charts that they can successfully optimize a law firm’s lead generation website on Tuesday and a media site’s ad impressions on Thursday.

But they’ll always be rare. The rest of us normal humans will win by focusing on specific user intentions, particular types of sites, and a subset of all conversions.

Optimizing a SaaS site for free trial signups doesn’t really prepare you to optimize a high-ticket ecommerce site for revenue per visitor.

Know what does? Optimizing 10 other high-ticket ecommerce sites for revenue per visitor 😁

This evolution is already in progress. See, for example, Draft - an agency that only serves ecommerce shops.

As a result of this focus, they’re able to produce incredible research and insights for ecommerce shops.

Got an ecommerce shop? You can seek help from an agency that’s worked with Microsoft, Lyft, and InstaGram. They’re clearly professionals, and they’re clearly connected.

But … WTF does optimizing for software purchases, rides, or screen time have to do with getting people to buy your product? Me, I’d go with Draft.

In my career I’ve optimized ecommerce, lead generation, SaaS, and media sites.

I’ve optimized for ad views, affiliate link clicks, purchases, average order value, subscriptions, trial signups, and at least a dozen other things that make people money on the internet.

Moving forward, my focus is one one particular flavor of conversion: leads.

Filling out a form as an initial step in a larger purchase process.

Because it’s different from buying shoes, or upgrading from a free trial to a paid plan.

Because businesses trying to get more leads are different from magazines and mobile apps.

Because this focus allows me to produce unique and valuable research for a specific type of marketer.

Because there are a ton of hideous lead forms, confusing (or entirely absent) value propositions, uninspired CTAs, and starving sales teams out there, just waiting for help.

Because I don’t want anybody to pay me to run heat maps and experiments on their website; I want them to pay me for growing their business and getting them more customers.

Because once we’re past CRO puberty, just knowing how to run tests on websites won’t count for a thing. Generalist CRO agencies will have a hard time staying relevant.

But if you’re optimizing your online publication for paid subscriptions, there will be a clear leader in the field.

If you’re optimizing your SaaS app for upgrades, there will be a known name with a proven track record.

And if you’re trying to get more leads from your website, well, 👋😁.

© 2022 Brian David Hall