There’s a term in scientific research called “social desirability bias”. It’s a term that’s used to describe the tendency of a respondent to answer a question in a way that will be viewed favorably by society. Its effect on research is usually an over-reporting of good behavior and/or an under-reporting of “bad” behavior. In short, if you ask people if they are willing donate their organs after death (as one organization did) 72% will say yes. Yet, only 38% actually do so.

There’s a similar trend in optimizing web content for conversions.

In September of this year, conversion management solutions provider, Maxymiser, conducted a study of marketers looking at their Web site and Web content. A huge majority -- at 79% -- strongly agreed that testing content is a critical aspect of web site design and content decisions. Additionally, 42% said that the number one priority for their Web site was “converting visitors”. However, only 27% actually make changes to their Web site content based on testing results.

This result matches well with a statistic from Forrester, cited by Web analytics vendor WebTrends, that only 26% of marketers actually test Web content for conversion metrics.

And if content testing and optimization is such a huge priority for marketers, it’s not showing up in application usage trends either. Data from BuiltWith.com – the site that analyzes technology profiles from millions of Web sites – shows that Google Website Optimizer usage has flatlined for the last two years with no appreciable growth. The data is similar with applications like Adobe’s Test & Target and Autonomy’s Optimost as well.

GoogleOptimizer.jpg

http://trends.builtwith.com/analytics/Google-Website-Optimizer

So What’s the Challenge?

Interestingly, there seems to be a disparity here as well. Again, according to the Maxymiser survey, while a large percentage of marketers believe that content optimization strategies are most important, only 37% plan to allocate any dollars to conversion management strategies. “Budget constraints” are the most often cited barrier.

Forrester, however, identifies other challenges to adoption. In the Q3 2010 Forrester Wave report on Online Testing, analyst Joe Stanhope identifies “four critical factors” that marketers need to consider before choosing a vendor. These include “Services”, “Integration Support”, “Testing Algorithms” and the dreaded “Application Usability”.

At least two of these come up often when speaking with Web content optimization vendors and their challenges with selling or retaining customers. One senior executive with a leading content testing and optimization software company (who chose to remain anonymous) pointed out the challenge with adoption in the marketing department. “The problem is twofold,” he said. “The first challenge is that it’s often very hard to get the testing code of the application into the customer’s Web site. Whether it’s integrating with some existing CMS system, or delegating it to IT -- setting up tests with existing Web sites can often be more time consuming and difficult than it’s worth to the marketer.”

“The second challenge”, says this executive “is that marketers just don’t’ know what or how to test. The concept of testing and optimizing content is very appealing to marketers. But, actually sitting down, creating a test plan, executing it and gleaning meaningful results from that test is, again, time consuming and requires patience. And, pressure for ROI in today’s ‘real-time’ world it makes it difficult to be patient for statistically meaningful data.”

These two factors are almost certainly a big reason that almost all of the content optimization software vendors offer services on top of the software. The vendors are intimately connected with ensuring that the customer actually performs tests on content -- and gets value out of those tests. Otherwise, they’ll just discontinue using the software.

Is There An Answer?

Shifts in the Web CMS market are providing answers to some of the integration challenges. A number of Web CMS software providers are now starting to include Web content testing and optimization tools into their software suites. Adobe’s acquisition of Day and Omniture (with its Test & Target solution) -- and Autonomy’s acquisition of Interwoven (itself having acquired Optimost) are two of the biggest certainly. But even smaller, Web CMS companies such as Sitecore, Ektron, CrownPeak and Fatwire are starting to make content optimization a much bigger piece of their offering.

On the services standpoint -- external agencies and vendors seem to be the answer for many marketers. According to the Forrester Wave Report, “48% of organizations leverage external agencies, consultancies, or vendors to support their online testing programs”.

(Editor's Note: Also from Robert Rose, Will the Future of Enterprise 2.0 Follow That of Web Content Management?)

It Needs To Be Easy

As content optimization and content management begin to merge -- a few things become clear. The first is that it’s not just E-commerce (or sales conversions) that can make use of online content optimization. There are wonderful case studies of publishing companies such as The Huffington Post applying testing to headlines to generate higher readership. And, as content marketing continues to grow in importance, both B2B and B2C marketers can leverage content optimization to create more effective thought-leadership oriented web sites to drive marketing results.

The second thing that becomes clear is that if content optimization is to ACTUALLY grow -- it will need to become much easier for marketers to deploy optimization strategies. Different from software usability (although that certainly plays a role), it just must become easier for the PROCESS of optimization to occur. This means both innovation in services, as well as applications and integrations need to make it easier to both perform optimization, understand the results and (most importantly) take action based on that insight. Digital agencies are already starting to offer this as a discreet service.

And, the last thing is that we marketers must know both when to start -- and when to stop. Just like with Web analytics -- just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Taking the time to come up with what we really want to know about our Web site users, or how we want to optimize their experience is what’s key. And, for those of us that don’t get monster levels of traffic, being patient with our tests to derive statistical relevance will be important to our insight.

There is no doubt that content optimization can improve results. And it’s certainly a best practice that we should start to actually practice. As The Forrester Wave Report stated, fully half of the marketers polled reported increased online conversions as a result of content optimization.

In the end, however, remember while it’s important to develop a content optimization plan -- our focus on creating compelling content is what’s key. Remember, testing only shows you what’s better -- not what’s good.