Are you interested when and where Conversion Optimisation started? I was definitely curious where the concept was born. It’s not a new practice by any means – despite it increasing in popularity now more so than ever. Surprisingly enough it is something that’s been around for generations, perhaps without us quite knowing it.
Examples of Conversion Optimisation in it’s early years … or not
There are plenty of examples I could cite as to where conversion optimisation came from.
One of the earliest examples I’ve read about is Leonardo Da Vinci’s failed kitchen automation design. This was an example of marked improvement in the operation of a system or process. C. 1430 Da Vinci was employed to create a kitchen feast like no other in which he created conveyor belts, to automate the process, and a sprinkler system, for the safety of the workers – both of which are cited as the first uses of technology. Ironically, both failed, but is this one of the first instances of conversion rate optimisation? Well, possibly. Considering that no testing or measurements were undertaken, perhaps this is therefore a marked improvement on the user experience rather than optimising a conversion process. Indeed, Ali Rushdan Tariq discusses this in more detail writing about Brief History of User Experience Design citing the very same example.
Keith Lovgren, Director of Conversion Rate Optimisation at Elevated.com, continues saying that paddlers started to put fruit in front of their stand to cause more people to stop. This is an example of persuasion engineering, sure, but not necessarily conversion optimisation as a concept.
From these two examples, in order to funnel down to the mythical origin of this concept, we’re going to have to define it first in order to cite relevant examples.
What is Conversion Optimisation?
Conversion Optimisation is the process of increasing the percentage of people that fulfil an action (or ‘convert’) through a series of marked improvements over a period of time. That’s my definition of it – not cited anywhere. What that ‘process’ is, differs from individual to individual – I have quite a methodical process on conversion rate optimisation for example. Ultimately it boils down to a series of analysing data and testing to determine the most efficient approach over a period of time, sometimes known as continuous improvement.
What are some of the first examples of Conversion Optimisation?
One of the earliest examples of conversion optimisation I can find (at least that is recorded), is in the early 20th century by a statistician name R.A Fisher. He was hired by an agricultural research centre in order to determine what effect various external factors had on the growth of plants and crops. He continued to design experiments to determine this – soil type, sun exposure, precipitation etc). They were both controlled and randomised and from this he analysed and evaluated results to optimise plant growth; what were the preferred conditions and what factors influenced growth the most.
We can look at how examples such as this dovetailed into commercial gain such as those seen in marketing, advertising research, product testing and eventually A/B testing.
A/B testing was initially known as ‘split testing’ or ‘bucket testing’. If we look at this in more detail, we could date ‘split testing’ back to 1747 where A/B testing was used as a cure for scurvy. The British Royal Navy ship surgeon, James Lind, tested different solutions over a period of time against infected crewmembers to cure scurvy. Apparently, citrus fruits were the answer.
This became further prevalent after the appointment of Dan Siroker on Obama’s campaign team in 2007. The approach of Siroker was very much akin to the way Obama liked to work – with feedback and data and as such continually improved the campaign website, some say, single-handedly helping him to victory. You can read the story in it’s entirety here but discusses both an A/B strategy as well as tactics explored such as the use of photos oppose to video and changing the wording of buttons to reduce commitment.
It’s interesting that this concept has spanned across a plethora of industries. We were just talking about the agricultural and political industries, for example – but what about the entertainment industry? ET was screened before test audiences and the response of which forced the ending to change – instead of not making it home, testing indicated that the audience wanted to see the hero succeed and therefore managed to phone home. This technique is still used today with, for example, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story originally was meant for GloboGym to win despite rooting all the way through for the Average Joes. Again, test audiences were quite negative towards such an ending and therefore it was changed at the last minute. There are loads of examples at DenofGeek.com of alternate movie endings that I recommend you check out.
What about online specifically?
Wikipedia has its own examples when it stated that in the early 2000s as competition grew, “internet marketers had to become more measurable with their marketing tactics. They began experimenting with website design”. This is not surprising, like Wikipedia stated, due to the proliferation in competition. But as these tests became more transparent and successful, such as the infamous $300m button, more and more people started to adopt such an approach.
From what I’ve read, the first indication of an online A/B test was run than none other than Google. “Google data scientists ran their first A/B test at the turn of the millennium to determine the optimum number of results to display on a search engine results page” according to Wikipedia although fails to cite this. Fast-forward to now, it’s such a necessity and so prevalent that in 2011 Google ran more than 7,000 A/B tests.
In summary, like with most origin stories, determining the origin and history of conversion optimisation is difficult because of the somewhat broad definition of the term. In addition, as with most things, setting an exact start date for the advent of a new approach is difficult because of the continuous evolution of that concept.
As a result, the answer is, we’re unsure; there will always be grey areas when answering such a question. But hopefully the above has given some good examples of early approaches to conversion optimisation.
More about Conversion Optimisation
- 4 User Experience Fails That Impact The Conversion Of E-Commerce Sites
- 7 Ways To Use Eye Tracking To Improve Conversions
- 20 E-Commerce Conversion Rate Optimization Guidelines
- 5 Main User Experience Barriers To Sales Conversion And How To Overcome Them
(Lead image source: Paul Quinn)