10 Questions with Chris Goward on Conversion Rate Optimization

When it comes to marketing, there are so many articles and resources for what you search, but the chances of finding what might actually help you are quite rare. There is so much wisdom out there that it can be a little exhausting.

That’s why we came up with Freshmarketer 10. This is our own humble attempt at fighting this marketing clutter and delivering a little value. We ask 10 questions each to marketing professionals who’ve been there, done that. So you can learn from the pros!

We’ve talked about different marketing topics with marketers who’ve had hands-on experience. We go over marketing campaigns that worked and didn’t. Also, there are great tips and advice in there as well. All of that in 10 questions. No more, no less.

10 Questions with Chris Goward on Conversion Rate Optimization

Our next marketer is Chris Goward. He is the Founder of WiderFunnel, a conversion optimization agency. He’s the brain behind the LIFT Model® and Infinity Optimization Process™, growth marketing strategies that consistently lift results for leading enterprises.



1. It’s been 12 years since you founded Widerfunnel. What were some of the key learnings?

The journey of entrepreneurship is always interesting. I think that you learn a lot as an entrepreneur about what’s really important in a business. I think some of the themes of what I’ve learned is that culture is so important. People are everything in the company.

For the first few years, I was really focused more on strategy, conversion optimization tactics and how to get results. But I’ve realized that it’s more important to attract and grow great people. People who have the ability to be curious, learn and continue to improve what we’re doing and have a cohesive culture of good people around. So that was one of the most important things.

I think also realizing that we have to keep innovating since competitors will just copy what we do. All of our best ideas get copied. So we have to keep pushing forward and continue being on the leading edge of what experimentation means.

In the same vein, we’ve never actually just arrived. There’s no arrival point where we’ve got ultimate success and stability. So we always have to keep challenging ourselves to take the next hill and keep moving.

2. Do you think businesses understand the importance and practice of conversion rate optimization today? 

When we started WiderFunnel in 2007, we had to sell everyone on the concept of experimentation and conversion optimization. Nobody understood. Nobody had a line item on their budget for conversion optimization. So we had to really sell the industry as a requirement. 

Today, companies understand. They know that they need to have experimentation as a core competency in their business. And they’re looking for how to do that. They know that it’s important, but there’s still a big gap in the skill of creating an experimentation program. A lot of companies have been focused on the tactics needed for testing and personalization, but actually building a program is much more evolved than that. There are many components that have to be in place to have a great program that works across the organization.

3. How does one make sure that their  conversion rate optimization experiments are effective? 

I believe that there is a better way to do things in terms of experimentation than others, and it’s not obvious — we’ve been focusing on how to create the process of optimization.

So what we’ve been developing is (a lot of it is public and I’ve published a lot about the process) the experimentation operating system. A couple of years ago, we released the Infinity Optimization process that shows a framework for how to alternate between 

  1. an expansive mindset of looking for opportunities, and 
  2. a reductive mindset of validating and testing and looking at the data and making evidence-based decisions. 

Within that Infinity Optimization process, there are many frameworks that answer the individual questions that any business owner needs. For instance, how do I know what to test first? How do I identify opportunities for optimization? 

So we’ve developed frameworks that answer each of those questions. There are many more frameworks that we’re continuing to develop as we come across these business questions. A lot of these things are publicly published, but the practice of understanding the expertise of having a process is one of the important things that any business leader needs to understand and learn.


4. You’ve helped many businesses improve their conversions. What are some of the common mistakes you’ve observed? 

Actually, that’s something that I’ve been trying to answer over the last couple of years. We’ve been doing a lot of research lately, looking at the best organizations and experimentation versus those that are just getting started or haven’t achieved a high level of expertise. And we found five components that they need to have in place to have a great program. And I call it the Experimentation PACET. It’s P-A-C-E-T. 

The process has to be in place the right accountabilities, the right culture, the right expertise, and the right technology. That’s kind of one of the latest frameworks that we’ve developed, which is about looking internally at your organization and identifying what are the areas of focus that you need to have to increase your experimentation success and velocity. So by looking at that PACET, you can identify where are your constraint points, which is, where are your bottlenecks within your experimentation program that are stopping your velocity? And usually, an organization will have one of those components that’s the most important thing that’s blocking them from having success.

It might be culture. Maybe you don’t have organizational buy-in. It might be accountability. You don’t have the right roles in place or the right metrics. Or the overall evaluation criteria. You might not have the right technology or the right expertise.

So by identifying those, you can focus on them and widen that area. And then once you’ve done that, something else will become the new constraint. This is based on a pretty old concept from the ’80s. There was a book by Eliyahu Goldratt called, “The Goal,” and in that he talks about this idea of the theory of constraints, which shows that in any manufacturing process (and I think of experimentation as a manufacturing process) you’ve got potential insights at the top end and then validated insights at the bottom. And the theory of constraints is that in any manufacturing process like that, there’s one constraint point. So we’ve identified these five PACET areas that are the main constraint points so that people can understand how to conceptualize where their barriers are.

5. Without enough traffic, it doesn’t make sense to spend time on conversion rate optimization. Do you agree? 

I’ve been focused on high traffic brands because it’s a lot more fun to be experimenting with a lot of website traffic. And we can validate more things with statistical confidence. But I’ve realized that there are high-value companies that might not have a lot of that traffic. So in the past couple of years, I’ve been focusing on how to answer that question.

I don’t think there’s any reason for any company not to be focusing on evidence-based decision making. I think of conversion optimization as one component of evidence-based decision making. Even if a company doesn’t have enough traffic to get high confidence in their experiments, there’s no reason they can’t be using small sample size feedback on variations. And there’s no excuse for putting out ideas or variations without having some sort of testing involved.

So what we’ve been focusing on is small sample size motivational testing, sort of like user testing except tapping into motivational drivers. We’ve developed a process called Motivation Lab where we can gather that kind of emotional feedback about how people respond to different variations based on their motivation type.

When you’re testing, you’re getting a lot of high validity, but all you know is yes or no. Like, which one won and which didn’t? You don’t know why.

So with small sample size motivational feedback, you can actually get a very deep and rich understanding of response from customers without having the confidence and validity of statistics, but very rich potential insights that you can then apply and continue to iterate on. So iterating small sample size is the best method for low traffic, as well as focusing on driving traffic so that you can then do statistical testing.

Bottom line: Behavior = motivation x ability x trigger

6.How to hire a CRO expert? What are the skills required? 

What I’ve learned is that skills can be learned. Ideally, if you can hire someone that has all of the skills and experience, and they’ve seen a lot of different patterns, been able to test and optimize different business models and all of that kind of stuff — that’s great, that’s ideal. But more important than that is the right attributes and attitudes.

We’ve developed some of the world’s leading experimentation conversion optimization teams, and what we do is not actually look for skills. We don’t look for people that are trained and people that have a lot of experience. We look for people that have the right raw material and then allow them to develop as they explore the opportunities. So I look for things like curiosity, humility, intelligence, never giving up until they find an answer, having sort of a maverick attitude of not accepting old ideas and challenging the old ways of doing things, having a sense of integrity of doing what’s best for everyone around them on the team and for clients, authenticity, and communicating their truth.

If I can find that in a person, they’ll quickly develop. And when they’re pointed in the right direction into one of the leading experts in the industry, it doesn’t take that long for them to build the skills they need and the technology and framework thinking, and all of the behavioral science and behavioral economics ideas. Well, they can read books and learn that stuff. That’s not difficult. If they’ve got the right attitude, they’ll get there.

7. Tell us about some of the conversion rate optimization experiments you’ve worked on. 

What I’ve seen is that the pattern of what’s most interesting in experimentation right now is that it’s moving beyond UX-based conversion optimization.

Most CRO practitioners are still thinking in terms of user experience tactics. They might be thinking about form fields, pop-ups, buttons, headlines, images, and messages. And that’s good, and it’s important. But that’s just the base layer of facilitating transactions. What’s more interesting is when you get into the science of behavior and why people act the way they do. That means digging into the motivation.

We’ve developed a behavioral science department where we’re developing practices around these ideas. When you have behavioral science-based insights that lead to the experiments that then validate which ones work for different types of personalities and emotional drivers, it gets really interesting.

There are some case studies that we’ve published, like with Heifer International, a nonprofit organization in the US, and we were able to increase donations by simply putting a survey on, like a popup survey that asked people to identify themselves as a regular donor, a first time donor, and choose the kind of donor that they are. We wanted to create a sense of personal identification with being a donor. So that if they don’t donate, it would create cognitive dissonance in their mind, and they would feel that they’re not being true to themselves. So once they have identified as a donor, they’re actually 5% more likely to go ahead and donate within the same session.

So these kinds of insights can lead us to understand the motivational and emotional drivers of why people act. And then how they do it is simply a detail.

8. How do you think businesses can shift to an experimentation mindset and consistently experiment and improve? 

There’s a skill set involved in creating experimentation and optimization as an organization-wide process. There are lots of different components, and I’ll refer back to the framework for thinking about how to create a great optimization program — it’s all about the PACET components, looking for the right process, finding the right accountability structures. The culture is really important, and this has to be driven from the top-down. So getting senior- level buy-in, support and direction for this as a strategy is really important to have everyone’s support throughout the organization. Since experimentation does involve many different departments, you have to have design, brand, IT and technology, product, and marketing, and they all have to agree who’s going to be responsible for each component and how you’re going to move things forward quickly.

So having that cultural buy-in, needs to be there, and then you have to have the right expertise in each of those areas to coordinate properly with the right accountabilities, and then, of course, the technology to facilitate that quickly. But I think a lot of times people look for technology first, versus getting the right strategy and the right support in place first.

9.What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started with conversion optimization? 

I think it depends on how much support they have and what their barriers are. If it’s someone that’s just becoming a champion, so assuming that they don’t have a lot of organizational support yet and they have to go and sell this in, it’s really going to be important for them to build a strong business case that they can seed the motivation and momentum within the organization.

So starting with what we can call Skunkworks Tests, where they can go and maybe carve out a little bit of traffic that no one’s going to notice, run some experiments, get some quick wins, and then start shopping around with identifying who are the important leaders in the organization that you need to get support from, and getting them on board to being advocates for this as a strategy and a program.

I realized a few years ago that this was one of the most important barriers. It’s not about the results, it’s about organizational buy-in. There’s actually a blog post that people can look at if they want. I wrote nine tips, that’s “Nine CRO Champion Strategies.” And there’s a lot more that they can get into. But it’s really about buy-in and momentum at the end 

10. What is conversion rate optimization in 2019? 

Yeah, it’s changed dramatically over the years. In the early 2000s when we started, it was really an analytics exercise, it was a tactic within the analytics department. And now — Forrester reports on experimentation being a core of the insight-driven business as a strategy. They talk about being customer-obsessed, being insight-driven businesses. These kinds of businesses get dramatically better results than businesses that don’t have this customer obsessed insight-driven strategy. And at the core of the insight-driven strategy is actually experimentation; that’s what Forrester talks about.

So this is now a strategic level imperative, not just a backroom tactical thing. Companies realize as a strategy, we have some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies coming to us and saying — hey, we know we need this as a strategy; help us to build this program within the organization.

That’s completely different than it was in 2007 when it was like — hey, we need to find out what the best button color is. So it’s a different mindset.

Now it’s not just a UX testing on landing pages. It’s about an organization-wide understanding that when you have an idea, you have to respond. Like I said in my book in 2013 — ‘You should test’ that. So everyone should be testing all of these strategies as well as the tactics. And what’s exciting now is that everyone has bought into that idea. Now we just need to help them to implement it throughout the companies.

That’s our 10 questions on conversion rate optimization with Chris Goward. Do you have more questions apart from what is discussed here?  Just leave your question in the comment section. We’ll get them answered by experts. Make sure they’re related to conversion rate optimization 🙂