January 24, 2008

Accenture buys Memetrics and Maxamine

image More news from the big-dog-eat-small-dog world of online marketing & optimization: Accenture (specifically, its Online Marketing Sciences group) announced yesterday that it's to buy both Memetrics and Maxamine. The Memetrics deal has already closed; the Maxamine deal will likely close within 30 days.

I know the guys at Memetrics and Maxamine pretty well - they're both great little companies and this is a great result (coincidentally, both hail from Australia). Memetrics has been playing in the Enterprise MVT space for several years, with some significant successes at large clients like Amex, whilst Maxamine provides testing & validation services for sites, in particular, checking whether a site's instrumentation tags (e.g. for web analytics, or ad serving) are correctly deployed. Maxamine has been an Omniture partner for years - I wouldn't have been surprised to see them swallowed up by the Omnivore, in fact.

The acquisitions tell us that Accenture is serious about helping companies bridge the gap between their marketing management (media buying, campaign management) and their site management & optimization. Few agencies have the nous or client relationship depth to do this - media/creative agencies tend to focus on the media side, whilst web agencies stick with the site. As a result there are still millions and millions of dollars falling down the cracks between brilliantly executed campaigns and brilliantly executed (but totally unconnected) sites. It'll be interesting to see how Accenture fares.

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October 17, 2007

MVT consolidation continues...

image ... with the acquisition of Optimost by Interwoven. This is an interesting acquirer for an MVT firm - only yesterday at E-metrics, I was saying to someone that until MVT was a built-in option in content management systems that essentially allows users to press a button and have the site "deliver the best content/layout", it will always remain something of a challenge for many people. So clearly Interwoven have seen the opportunity to add value to their CMS platform by embedding this kind of capability.

This means that the MVT market is starting to really tighten up. Offermatica and Optimost (the two biggest players in this market) have both been acquired recently, with Kefta acquired earlier in the year by Acxiom. This really only leaves MemetricsSiteSpect, Vertster and Widemile as independents. It looks like this market could disappear before it's really got started.

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October 03, 2007

An MVT buyer's guide - part 2

hippo Welcome to the second installment of my MVT "buyer's guide". In the first installment, I provided a short introduction to MVT and talked about one of the biggest challenges - that of getting statistically significant results in a reasonable amount of time. Now let's move onto two more key things to look for: analytical power, and segmented optimization.


2. Analytical power and segmented optimization

Once you have your experimental results, the answers should just pop out, right? Well, if you're working in an ideal environment, where you can deliver the same optimized page (or ad, or e-mail) to your entire audience, and you have no external constraints and a simple, universally agreed-upon goal, then maybe yes, you can just pick the winner and bunk off work early. But as you surely know, the real world doesn't work like that.

Heading for a goal

Say you're looking to optimize a key landing page that you're driving traffic to via (say) search marketing. The goal that you could optimize around could be one of the following:

  • Time spent on the page
  • Clicks through from the page
  • Clicks through to specified other pages (e.g. "add to cart")
  • Conversions (purchases) during the session, or subsequently
  • Progress through a defined path (e.g. a checkout process)

So at the very least, you need an MVT tool which allows you to choose whichever one of the above success criteria suits you the best. An even better tool would allow you to pick more than one, and to score or weight them against each other, so that you can achieve a blended optimization across multiple goals. This is essential for organizations that measure the success of their website in more than one way - for example, one part of the organization may be focused on acquisition (and hence be more interested in clicks and conversions) and another more focused on engagement (where perhaps time on site might be important).

Tweaking things

The second thing to look for is the ability to tweak the model once it's run. For example, the MVT engine might report that the purple banner, combined with the lime green "apply now" button, delivers the best results. But the creative director at your agency decrees that this color combination is more than he can bear, and threatens to throw himself off a cliff if you use it. What to do? Well, a smart MVT solution will allow you to say, "what would the effect be if we switched out the lime green button for a dusky pink button?" You may not get absolutely as much uplift as if you'd gone with the computer's first choice, but everything in life is a compromise, and sometimes it's extremely helpful to keep key people on-side during this kind of process, notwithstanding the need to avoid the HiPPO (Highest-paid person's opinion) effect.

One size doesn't fit all

If everybody were the same, we wouldn't need testing or MVT - by now, there'd be a universally agreed-on set of website templates for common online apps ("selling shoes? Make sure your website is blue with yellow text") and that would be it. But everyone is different, of course, both in terms of innate characteristics (male vs female, old vs young), but also in their context - people who arrive at your website from search may have very different needs from those who arrive from a CRM e-mail campaign.

What this means for MVT is that you need to be able to generate optimized results for different segments of your audience base. It may be that by optimizing for a "one size fits all" approach, you'll generate a 15% lift in click-throughs from your landing page; but if you optimize for (e.g.) men and women separately, you see an average 35% increase.

A smart MVT solution will not only be able to optimize on a segmented basis, but should be able to advise you about how to segment your audience for the maximum lift. This involves building optimization models for all the user segment variables that you throw at the system and then seeing which ones generate the best average uplift. It may be that it's not age or gender that matters most in creating the perfect page, but instead the number of previous visits to the website for that user. You shouldn't have to work this out yourself; your MVT solution should do it for you.


That's it for this installment. Check back for more on this topic, including:

  • Results automation
  • People
  • Getting started
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September 26, 2007

An MVT buyer's guide - part 1

I'm on the flight back from OMMA New York, where I've been speaking on a panel about the resurgence of e-mail as a performance-based marketing channel. It really has been a flying visit - I arrived yesterday (Monday) at 8pm and was back in a taxi to JFK at 3pm today. But at least 5 hours on a plane gives me the chance to write a blog post.

One of the things I did get to do in New York was go for a very pleasant lunch with the equally pleasant Bob Bergquist of Widemile. Widemile is an up-and-coming MVT vendor based in Seattle (so somewhat amusing that I should have to go 2,500 miles to catch up with Bob), and we had a lively conversation about the state of the market, particularly in the light of Offermatica's recent acquisition. I surprised myself a little (though perhaps not you) by having quite a lot of opinions about the merits or demerits of the various players; so I thought I'd wrap some of them up into this post as a kind of MVT buyer's guide. I'm not going to comment on the specific players, but instead offer some characteristics of MVT tools that you should look for if you're looking to make an investment here.

This is too much content to include in a single blog post, so I'm going to break it up into a number of parts. I'll come back and add an update with links to the different parts to this post when I'm done.


Before we dive in, though, here's a very quick primer on the essentials of MVT. MVT (Multi-variate testing) is a process by which you vary multiple elements of something (e.g., a web page) and measure the effectiveness of each permutation at achieving some goal (for example, a click, or a subsequent conversion). Its appeal is that you can test multiple ideas simultaneously and quickly optimize a page's layout and content against your desired outcome. The different versions of the elements are usually referred to as variants; the resulting page (containing multiple variants) is called a treatment.

The tyranny of statistical significance

All quantitative tests (whether MVT tests of a web page or field tests of a new cancer drug) have to achieve statistical significance before you can base any decisions on the results. Statistical significance is a formal statistics term meaning that there is a 95% chance that the result you're seeing is a true result and not just a fluke. That still means that one in twenty times the result you're seeing will be a fluke, which is a sobering thought.

The friend of statistical significance is data - the more data points you have, the more reliable your results are. In a web MVT test, the amount of data you have is a function of how busy your site is, and how long you run the experiment for. The less busy your site, the longer you'll be waiting for results. It's an immutable law and you ignore it at your peril. Much of the differentiation in the MVT industry is in the area of working around this issue.

Ok, you're all primed. Let the unasked-for advice begin.

1. Experimental design

Ok, this perhaps isn't the easiest MVT topic to kick off with, but I think it's the most important, and so I wanted to get to it before you lost interest.

image Imagine you're running an MVT test on your homepage, and you're testing three variants of four different parts of the page. The total number of possible page 'treatments' is 3 to the power of 4, or 81. (Don't believe me? Click on the image to the left). Raise the number of variants per page part to 4, and you're dealing with 4^4, or 256 permutations. Add another area into the experiment, and the permutation count goes up to 625.

To test 625 treatments you have to break your audience into 625 groups, serve each treatment to its respective group, and measure the results. Unless your site is pretty busy, this is going to take some time until you reach statistical significance across all the groups. And what if you want to try to find an optimized page for visitors coming from search vs those coming from e-mail or display ads? Now you have 625 x 3 groups, or 1875, that you have to get statistically significant results for. You could be there until Christmas waiting for the result of the experiment to pop out.

The answer to this problem is Experimental Design. This refers to the ability of the MVT tool to avoid having to test every single possible treatment permutation, either because you've explicitly said that certain combinations should be avoided (e.g. the headline that says "Get 30% off now!" and the call-to-action button that says "Click here for 45% off!"), or (more cleverly) because the MVT tool has the smarts to implement something called Fractional Factorial design (the alternative - testing all the treatments- is called Full Factorial testing).

Fractional factorial experimentation is a clever mathematical trick where you can test just a fraction (hence the name) of the possible permutations of a page, and then use mathematical interpolation to work out which treatment - even if it wasn't explicitly tested - is the winner. It can radically reduce the  amount of time needed to get to reliable results - for example, an experiment with 1,024 possible treatments can be run on a fractional basis with as few as 64 treatments.

So when you're talking to a prospective MVT vendor, ask: "Does your tool employ fractional factorial design? Or is it full factorial?". If the vendor says full factorial, or looks at you blankly, you may be in trouble, unless you want to run very simple tests where the number of treatments is low.

Smart delivery

As a bonus, the MVT tool you use should be able to spot treatments that are generating terrible results and automatically drop these from the test. As well as making the overall experiment shorter, it saves you from having to explain to your boss why revenues are down 10% this month because you were running an experiment with some really bad treatments in it.

And finally, another delivery finesse you should look for is the ability for your MVT tool to just carve off a subset of your audience (randomly selected) to run tests against, leaving the rest of the audience seeing your default treatment. This is important to enable you to be a bit more adventurous with your experiments - if you are only subjecting (say) 10% of your audience to the experiment, the impact of any negative effect will be reduced by a factor of 10. But then, so will your experiment traffic - so fractional factorial testing comes in handy again.


That's it for part 1. Tune in again soon for parts 2 - 37, covering the following topics:

  • Analytical power
  • Segmented optimization
  • Results automation
  • People
  • Getting started

Update: Part 2 of this diatribe now available: click here.

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