Web marketing: Moving beyond moving pictures

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The world's first Web site was little more than an electronic memo -- a static page that described the World Wide Web project and how it might eventually change the world. It now seems quaint that such a transformative medium began in such a humble format.

However, when I think about the business we're now in, I can't help making an analogy to the origins of another world-shifting industry: the film industry.

For thousands of years, human beings' main form of entertainment was story-telling. Eventually story-telling developed into an art form called the "play," and that art form has remained roughly the same since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Of course the only drawback to the play was that to share a story as widely as possible, we had to gather as many people as we could in a single place at a single time.

In the late 19th century, a new advancement shook up this medium of story-telling. This was a technology called "film." Film allowed storytellers to create a permanent record of the story, but more importantly, allowed narratives to time-shift and place-shift - giving storytellers the ability to communicate in new and creative ways.

We no longer needed to gather as many people as possible in one place at one time. So, what happened when film was introduced? The first filmmakers just decided to film the plays! Humans were conditioned for so long that the play was "the way" to entertain, it took many years for us to realize that we had been freed from those very constraints which caused the play to be that sole entertainment medium in the first place!

So, where is the analogy to Web marketing? In the early 1990s, I was working for a magazine publisher. Publishers were strong direct marketers - the job of the "circulation" department was to get more subscribers. Direct mail was the vehicle of choice, as it was straightforward, easily measurable, and testable.

Typically, a circulation department would send out a handful of offers to various samples of mailing lists. We'd then see which offer performed best, and then use that version for an entire mailing list. Physical constraints limited us to conduct what we would now call "A/B Testing." Offers had to be created on paper, we used the U.S. Postal Service, and then someone had to open the mail and tabulate the results.

Fast-forward fifteen years to 2006. We're still direct marketers, but we generally don't need to use paper, we don't deliver via the post office, and we have a server to do our automatic tabulation. However, it's amazing how many direct marketers say "I want to do A/B testing on my Web site."

Although the desire to test is certainly laudable, doing A/B testing on your web site is like filming a play - you're playing by old rules, which were based on constraints that no longer exist. You're using a constrained methodology on an unconstrained platform.

Multivariable testing, on the other hand, truly takes advantage of what the Internet is good at - targeting an almost unlimited mixture of offers, copy, layout, and other content on a Web page to see what combination works best for what audience.

Multivariable testing frees us from the inertia of history - and like filmmaking, one day it will be difficult to imagine how we couldn't have done it any other way.

Even though it took decades for storytellers to fully utilize the potential of their new medium, hopefully the Hitchcocks, Kubricks, and Spielbergs of the Web marketing world will emerge faster than did their namesakes in the world of film.

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