Most people associate conversions with the moment a website visitor becomes a paying customer. While a transaction is the ultimate conversion, it’s not the only measure of success. There are other smaller actions that website visitors can take towards …
Most people associate conversions with the moment a website visitor becomes a paying customer. While a transaction is the ultimate conversion, it’s not the only measure of success. There are other smaller actions that website visitors can take towards your main conversion goals. These small steps, known as micro conversions, are “hidden” conversion gold mines […]
Back-to-school is one of the biggest seasons for many retailers, with an average mean spend of 26.9B between 2013 and 2019 according to eMarketer. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball to the world, impacting economy, consumer spendin…
Back-to-school is one of the biggest seasons for many retailers, with an average mean spend of 26.9B between 2013 and 2019 according to eMarketer. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball to the world, impacting economy, consumer spending, shopping and shifting many habits and attitudes. While this year is on track to be the most unpredictable in recent years, and will continue to fluctuate, here are a few things to consider now:
Timing: Return to the classroom
Year-over-year, the Back-to-School season is consistent, with most US students going back between mid-August and early September. In recent years, the back-to-school shopping season was kicked off by Amazon’s Prime Day in July, and the mid-summer timeframe was the most popular time for parents to shop for back to school items. In 2019, almost 71% of consumers had planned to start shopping at least three weeks before the new school year began (NRF).
This year, Prime Day is postponed to September and local school districts, colleges, and universities don’t know if and when students will return to the classroom. Many school districts and higher education institutions plan to return in the fall, but for many in highly populated and hard-hit areas, that may change.
In a recent poll conducted by Dentsu Aegis Network, 30% of respondents said they wouldn’t start back to school shopping until the return to the physical classroom date was announced, whereas 26.8% of respondents indicated they would start shopping in July.
Supply Chain Disruptions
With the worldwide disruptions resulting from COVID-19, it’s projected that supply chain delays will linger for months, threatening not just the back-to-school season, but the holidays as well.
Many goods, including apparel, shoes, and electronics are manufactured in China (roughly 20% of retail chains). While spring and summer goods were shipped before the disruptions associated with COVID-19, goods imports fell 2.3 percent to $193.7 billion in March, the lowest since August 2017 (Reuters) so it’s expected shelves won’t be full this summer.
Spending and the Economy
The impact of this global virus on the overall economy will be larger than anticipated. A monthly Wall Street Journal survey found economists expect the GDP to shrink 6.6% this year, measured from Q4 2019. That is a downgrade from the 4.9% contraction economists predicted in the previous month’s survey.
Consumers spending habits have shifted and have become more conservative and focused on health, wellness, and essential items. As of April 27, 50% of Americans have cut back on day-to-day purchases as a result of the pandemic. According to Harris Poll, 64% of Americans say their shopping habits have changed as a result of COVID-19, and will continue to change even after the pandemic is over.
Based on our Dentsu poll, most respondents anticipated spending the same amount this year as last year. While the per student spend may be consistent with previous years, we may see a drop in the total number of shoppers.
Last year, clothing and accessories represented most of back-to-school shopping (demand and planned category spend). While almost all shoppers expected to purchase supplies, it was the smallest average spend. And almost 54% of the shoppers planned to make a purchase of electronics and/or computer hardware (Deloitte).
This year, we may see an uptick in electronic purchases as some students or districts lean more on remote learning. Parents who might not have purchased spring school clothes, may spend a little more on outfitting the kids when they return to school presumably in the fall.
Some universities and colleges are anticipating a decrease in campus living. Moody's expects college enrollment to drop in the US through next year and many college students, due to financial or health concerns, may decide to commute rather than dorm. This will lead less dorm room shopping for incoming freshman.
In-store vs. Online
Last year, shoppers expected to spend 56% of back to school budgets in-store (Deloitte).
This year, while many retail stores are starting to reopen, or have announced plans to re-open, traffic has been significantly down. Cowen and Company estimated total traffic to clothing retailers specifically had plunged 99.3%. Not all consumers will be rushing back to shop in-store. As of May 3, 49% of Americans have indicated having more of a preference towards online shopping as a result of COVID-19 and As of April 27, 31% of Americans expect to continue shopping online more frequently once the outbreak is over, and 30% believe they will visit stores less frequently (Harris Poll/GWI). While a complete elimination of in-store shopping is unlikely, we anticipate continued increase in online shopping this year.
What Marketers Should Do
So, what does all this mean for marketers and retailers looking to finalize their plans for Back-to-school? In a nutshell – be agile because the 2020 shopping seasons will continue to evolve. Here are a few things you should be doing:
*At the time of this post, the start of the fall 2020 school season is still to be decided in many areas
A geographical approach will be more important than ever for retailers, especially national retailers. One approach will not work for every state, county, and district.
In order to appeal to the various geographic areas - understanding the needs and current status of these areas will be the first step. Not just knowing when and if students return to the classroom is enough. Knowing what schools will look like for students and how retailers can provide what students need to be safe and productive is crucial.
Continency is Key
2020 will also be the year for contingency planning. With supply chains disrupted, retailers need to be agile. Sales and promotions will not be business as usual and any experiential plans around this season may need to be adjusted. Suppliers may not be able to keep up with demand, thus creating a need for retailers to shop around.
When consumers venture out, they will want, and expect, a safe shopping environment. While many essential retailers have already put into place safeguards and procedures, retailers that are just opening will need to address this as well. Curbside pickup and contactless credit card payments will be much more prevalent moving forward.
The pandemic and consumer response is fluid, and will continue to evolve. Join us as we continue the back-to-school conversation in a “live” online panel discussion on June 9, with experts from the retail, media, and promotions and loyalty teams at Merkle. Click here to register.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the works of every organization across all industries. As we emerge from the initial reaction, organizations are asking key questions to get back on track: Which communities are ready to begin spending? What data is need…
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the works of every organization across all industries. As we emerge from the initial reaction, organizations are asking key questions to get back on track: Which communities are ready to begin spending? What data is needed to steer your business toward opportunity?
To inform engagement and re-opening strategies, we set out to uncover the status of overall physical and economic health at the US county level, by examining attributes such as:
In this exclusive interview with VWO, Brooke Baldwin takes center stage to share her experiences, anecdotes, and learnings. This article is a transcription of the ninth session from VWO’s Masters of Conversion webinar series featuring Brooke Baldwin, UX Research Lead at WhatsApp Inc., and Aniruddh Jain from the VWO Marketing team. In this episode, Brooke…
In this exclusive interview with VWO, Brooke Baldwin takes center stage to share her experiences, anecdotes, and learnings.
This article is a transcription of the ninth session from VWO’s Masters of Conversion webinar series featuring Brooke Baldwin, UX Research Lead at WhatsApp Inc., and Aniruddh Jain from the VWO Marketing team.
In this episode, Brooke talks about her passion for UX research, what her professional journey of more than two decades has looked like, and what these years have taught her about the human psyche. VWO learned a ton from her and thought that it was prudent to summarize the key highlights and insights from the conversation:
Brooke’s Professional Journey and How it Led Her to Own a Pivotal Role at WhatsApp
Brooke started working with startups while she was in graduate school and has been in product design and research for a little over 20 years. While she initially had no master plan, she took up every opportunity that allowed her to learn and grow by working with people having diverse skill sets which amplified her innate skills along with helping her borrow skills outside of her T.
A few years ago, she took up an exciting role at Facebook, where she worked for their Ads- Emerging Markets team in London. It allowed her to travel all over the world, spend time and conduct research in emerging markets including India, Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia, and learn more about countries she’s always admired.
About a year and a half later, she thought it was time to challenge herself and look for other exciting opportunities within the company. WhatsApp had just decided that introducing a User Research team made business sense, and she was offered the chance to be one of the first researchers in the team. She thought it was the perfect next step for her given WhatsApp is a huge product in countries she’s always loved, been interested in, maybe have lived in, or have spent quite a bit of time in.
What Keeps Brooke Motivated and Excited About the Work that She Does?
Brooke likes to learn new stuff and would get bored if she has to do the same thing over and over again. She feels UX Research is a job that continually challenges her and offers an immense amount of learning till date. After all, it’s a job tailored for curious souls who are professional tinkerers.
She adds that the experience of witnessing engineers, product managers, or data scientists from her team get their hands dirty in the field with her and see how users in downtown USA or Hong Kong perceive the utility of the countless WhatsApp features is an education above par.
UX Research for a Billion (and counting) People
Brooke highlights that as a company, WhatsApp never tries to move the fastest to get the shiny new feature out. With over 2 Billion monthly active users, it is imperative that they take their time before any release to ensure that the voices of users from key markets and countries are heard. Therefore, UX research, in WhatsApp’s case, typically involves much more than just traveling to one country for a week and talking to 20 users, for instance. She also talks about the fact that WhatsApp’s usage could vary drastically across geographies and analyzing the differences and similarities among such a diverse user population is a very important part of her job.
Evolution of UX Research Over the Last Two Decades
Brooke recollects that when she first started out, her role was titled ‘Information Architect’, and usability testing was one of the foremost and primary responsibilities. Usability Study was one of the first things she learned where she’d expose a group of people to a prototype or simply a design on a piece of paper and have them work their way through it, which would help her figure out whether or not the design worked.
Over time, she feels that the umbrella of UX has evolved to embrace many disciplines (such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and behavioral economy) that have their own methodological approaches but come together to offer immense value to the field. While this could also lead to disagreement and chaos, most professionals she’s come across have been in favor of codifying and bringing a structure to their approaches. Over the years, working with experts from all these disciplines has truly widened her perspective and skillset in the discipline.
Which UX Research Methodology is the Best? A: It Depends
Formative research is used to generate new product ideas, while summative research is used to evaluate a designed product. Formative research is carried out before beginning the product development to understand users’ pain points and figure out what exactly you can solve for. Summative research, on the other hand, is used to test the efficiency and efficacy of your product design, before spending engineering bandwidth building it out entirely.
Another way to look at formative vs summative research – formative research is useful when the researcher’s purpose is to fix users’ problems with their product to make it more user-friendly. Formative testing should be conducted multiple times over a product’s design lifecycle and should be perceived as a directional compass for “what next” in the product from a usability lens. For example, usability testing of the feel and control of a working prototype of an IoT device is a means of formative research.
Summative research is useful when a product’s design has concluded. After completion, product owners typically try to understand what parts of a product are “high-utility” and the ones that aren’t. This research is best done after designing the product but before spending engineering time building it. An example of summative research is when 15-20 users test a mobile handset for features like battery life, gameplay experience, etc. before the device is launched to the public.
Brooke emphasizes that when looking for what to build next, you must carry out formative research, and to assess your product stickiness, summative research is the way to go.
How Do New Businesses Shoot Themselves in the Foot from the UX Research Gun?
Brooke advises new businesses not to hold back on UX research due to the lack of a large enough user pool. Whether it is your friends or family, you can get anyone who matches your typical user persona to review your product (or its prototype) and share their feedback. What’s important is to pick people who you know will not shy away from telling you the truth.
Brooke stresses the fact that when you are starting out, it is natural to want to hear just positive reviews about something you’ve poured your heart and soul into. However, fighting that urge, as well as the urge to tell people how to use your product, is the hardest part. It is important for you to fight the urge to intervene; let the user figure out your design by themselves and tell you their honest opinion.
Over time, Brooke has learned to embrace negative feedback as she feels it opens so many windows of opportunities for improvement.
The More Different We Are, The More Similar We Are
Brooke is a firm believer in the tenet that we have a lot more in common around the globe than we think. She realized that dreams of having a decent job, doing well for one’s family, saving up enough for a nice vacation, being a respected member of the community, are universal no matter which part of the world you go to.
She emphasizes that the hustle to do better for themselves and their loved ones is something she’s found common in people from every country she’s ever researched in. She finds such deeply universal traits uplifting and comforting.
How to Make the Most of a UX Research Program
Brooke highlights that it’s important to start soon, yet go slow and not expect instant or continuous success. While it’s imperative to get feedback as frequently in the design life cycle as possible to confirm if your efforts are going in the right direction, you needn’t test every single product or feature, every single time. Instead, carefully assess the feasibility of your research program and learn to embrace its imperfections.
Must-have Tools in a UX Researcher’s Stack. It’s Deeper Than You Think
The primary tool that a UX researcher cannot do without is a natural sense of curiosity. Brooke feels that the urge to know and understand people and why they perform a certain task in a particular way is the single most important thing for any UX researcher.
Brooke highlights that the best researchers she knows have a high degree of self-awareness. This means that the clarity that they have about their minds and biases is borderline frightening. They know that they see the world in a certain way, and also acknowledge that maybe everyone else doesn’t.
Building for Trust and Authenticity
Conducting UX Research in a Niche Market
Brooke advises that if it is unfeasible to test directly with your target persona, one can break down the roles and responsibilities of the person in question and then look for the next best representative or proxy who also meets the criteria.
Another approach is Snowball Recruiting, wherein you can ask participants to connect you with their network where you are likely to find similar representatives.
Brooke’s UX Reading List:
The following are some books that Brooke seeks inspiration from, in her typical day at work:
Don’t Make Me Think – Steve Krug
A guide on the principles of intuitive navigation and information design.
Rocket Surgery Made Easy – Steve Krug
A guide on a realistic approach to usability testing that anyone can easily replicate for their site, application, or other product.
Nudge – Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein
An easy-to-understand take on the brain’s decision-making under uncertainty and designing environments that leverage how the brain functions.
Thinking Fast And Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Insights into how humans think, how they make judgments and decisions, and how to unlock the benefits of slow thinking.
Here’s the transcript of the entire webinar. Read along to get a sneak peek into the world of UX research from the maestro.
[00:00 – 01:14] – Introductions
Thank you, Aniruddh. I’m really happy to be here. It’s a pleasure and an honor, and I am so thankful for being invited.
Brooke’s Professional Journey and Role at WhatsApp [01:22 – 07:21]
Aniruddh from VWO:
Without further ado, I would love to learn a bit about yourself and your professional background – how you got into UX research, and how you landed up at WhatsApp?
I feel really lucky. The first thing I’ll say is that I had no master plan. When I turn around and look back at the path that I came, I wonder, how did I get here?I’ve been doing research and design for a little over 20 years. I was in graduate school in New York during the.com boom. It was the tail end of 1999, 2000, when I started working at startups. While I was in graduate school and at the time there was no real differentiation between design work and research. You did everything. So, I got trained to do everything. And over the years, as I changed jobs, sometimes it was because I got laid off (after the .com bust, I got laid off like thousands of other people), I had to figure out – oh God, what do I do now?
So, I just had to go step-by-step. Okay, what’s the most interesting opportunity? Sometimes it was like – What’s the next job I can get? Because I need to pay rent. So, sometimes these were not the most sophisticated, glamorous decisions that I made. But over time, one thing that has sort of rung true is I’m always trying to learn new stuff wherever I’m at. Either I get to work with people who are smarter than I am or have different skill sets. I kind of get them to teach me things. So, over time, I’ve had these opportunities. But it’s not a very exciting story, is it?
Maybe it would make sense for me to talk a little bit about how I got started at Facebook and then eventually landed at WhatsApp. So, I had gotten a call a few years ago from a former colleague of mine who I’d worked with on a project at American Express – a guy I really liked working with. And he said, “Hey, what are you doing? I’m at Facebook, come work with us”.
To be honest, at first, I wasn’t that interested. It’s a big tech company, I’m a little bit older, and I think that’s for younger people. Instagram, that’s for younger people. But then, I started having conversations with them, and every time I had a conversation with them, it was sort of more and more interesting. We spoke about what kind of stuff I would be working on.
They kind of pushed all the right buttons and they recruited me for a team in London that would be focused on emerging markets. As a researcher, this is the most interesting kind of research to get to do – to spend time in India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico, and to really understand what’s going on. So, it was a really amazing opportunity. I was really grateful for that. Then I moved to London and worked on the Ads – Emerging Markets team for about a year and a half.
After that, I kind of wondered what’s next for me. I am one of those people who needs to be challenged and constantly learning something new. I started to look for other roles within the company. Because within Facebook, you can transfer teams, and there is a tonne of opportunities. There’s Libra, Oculus, Portal, Instagram, WhatsApp, and so many places you can go to. WhatsApp had just decided to build a big, robust research team, and it was the perfect opportunity for me. It’s a big product in countries I am so in love with, interested in, maybe have lived in, or have spent quite a bit of time in. So, the chance to be one of the first researchers to come in and start to build
some of the foundational research was something I couldn’t say no to. I was very lucky to have the opportunity and be at the right place at the right time.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Amazing. For a UX researcher, I think there is no bigger satisfaction than seeing your work reach billions of people, and that is one of the perks of the job and working at that scale.
It is. And it’s a scale that very few of us get the opportunity to work on. I never thought of it as a goal because it’s not so realistic. When I was working on the Facebook side, I was focused on very small advertisers, the people who run the shop that’s around the corner or maybe sell food on a cart. These were very small businesses. So, that was not a huge scale, but they could have a large impact.
But at WhatsApp, we’ve got over 2 Billion monthly users. So, then there’s the pressure of ‘Don’t get it wrong, Brooke, because you’re going to mess it up for lots of people’. But I’m excited that I get to be a part of this.
What Keeps Brooke Motivated and Excited About Her Work [07:22 – 09:41]
Aniruddh from VWO:
I have a follow up to that question. You have been in the field of UX for almost the entirety of your career. So, what is it about UX that keeps you interested and coming back to the job every day?
I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world because I’m someone who’s a little bit nosy and someone who definitely likes to learn new stuff. I’ll get bored if I’m just doing the same thing all the time. And it turned out that this is a job that really meets those needs. I get to learn new stuff all the time. Earlier in my career, it was about building my skill set. Oh, can I do usability testing? Can I learn how to do a card sort properly? Am I recruiting the right people? Let me get good at that. Let me get good at doing in-depth interviews and all these things.
And then, as I’ve gotten a little bit older, now it’s about, can I think more broadly? Can I have more vision with the kind of work that I’m doing? And so I get to be tested and learned. It’s really a little bit selfish, right? That I get this sort of personal satisfaction.
The other piece of it is that I have this amazing job that on paper is very sexy. I’m one of the few researchers who works at a company that will pay for me to get on a plane and fly for hours to go spend time and talk to people. Sometimes I even get to bring teammates with me who aren’t researchers.
So, the opportunity to bring an engineer with me who is writing code for the product that we’re working on, for her to have a chance to come to the field and talk to people who are using a product that she built, it’s very rare for her to have that experience. And this really could be life-changing for engineers, product managers, or data scientists who I bring in the field with me, and they can really connect and see that the work we do really does impact people. So, I love being able to be a part of that and get to see it. It’s a little bit like a holiday. It’s like Diwali or Christmas. It’s like someone’s opening a present, and they’re so excited.
How Brooke Approaches UX When Building For Such a Diverse Audience [09:42 – 15:00]
Aniruddh from VWO:
Amazing. So, in this pivotal role at WhatsApp, how do you approach UX when you’re building for everybody across so many personas and so many jobs that people do with WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a classic use case because right from small businesses to friends, to people in a relationship, I think a lot of people use it. So, how do you approach UX when you guys, when you’re building for such a diverse use case?
Yeah, it is this very important thing that we take incredibly seriously. So, we as a company and as an ethos are not trying to move the fastest to get the newest thing out. WhatsApp in particular, we will maybe even go a little bit slower to try to really think through things before we release them.
From a research perspective, I have to think about, how do I support that? How do I support the team to make the right decision? So, that means with an app that has 2 Billion monthly active users, I can’t just go like, ‘Well, you know, I’ll just go to one country for a week and I’ll talk to 20 people, and then we’ll know the answer, right?‘ Because there’s such diversity in our user population.
We’ve tried to build one product for every run. So, I am trying to make sure that we’re talking to users all over the world, particularly in our key markets, in the key countries that use WhatsApp the most.
Aniruddh from VWO:
So let’s say if you come across different needs or different kinds of users. Then you have to make a choice, right? You cannot put everything there. So then how do you prioritize? How do you use the real estate of the screen? What features take priority over others? How would you decide that?
A lot of people get involved in those discussions. And those discussions can take place over weeks and months and even longer. I may be the researcher generating the research, but we have product marketing that is looking at markets and opportunities. So, they come in with their own research and data. The product management team absolutely drives a lot of this discussion from their experience. Product marketing may come actually in the field with me. The engineers have a seat at the table, and so does data science. So, we are kind of all together, what we call cross-functional teams, having these discussions from different points of view and sort of weighing through the pros and cons of things and then prioritizing.
What gets prioritized, sometimes the criteria for that can change, but it’s really based on where the biggest need is, where we can have the most positive impact? Is it technically feasible? Are there government entities we need to work with to get permission to do things? So, it can be quite complex. And there’s a lot of people at the table. We just kind of go through and go through to kind of winnow down. What are the right things? And then, something like a pandemic happens, and the world completely shifts. So, then as a business, we have to react and say, “Okay, what everyone’s needs were six months ago, might be quite different today. How do we then change gears as quickly as we can and try to focus on that?” Because there’s just some stuff you can’t, you can’t plan for.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Yeah. Awesome. And I think that’s the hallmark of a great product where different teams come together, and that’s where a lot of great ideas get produced, just from the seeds of initial ideas. Great.
Sometimes people will come to me as the researcher and be like, “Well, you know all the answers”
So, it absolutely is this very collaborative kind of thing. And if one voice in that is missing, it makes everything a little bit less. And so it’s great to have everybody’s point of view because we can tackle problems from a lot of different angles.
How UX Research Has Evolved Over the Last Two Decades [15:01 – 19:53]
Aniruddh from VWO:
Great. Amazing. So, on that point itself. How have you seen the UX methodologies evolve over the years and its adoption across the industries?
There’s been a good amount of change, I think, in a very positive direction. When I started out, UX wasn’t even a phrase. Your title was then ‘Information Architect’, and usability testing was one part of what you did. There might be some other methodologies in there, but the first thing you ever learned was how to run a usability study, right? So you’ve got a prototype, or maybe you’ve got designs on paper and you need to put them in front of people and ask them to do things and then see where the design works and where the design doesn’t work.
I’ve learned to do a few more things than that from that time. And so over time, what’s been great is that the umbrella of UX really embraces so many different backgrounds and industries.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to work with more and more psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and behavioral economists. All these different disciplines come together, and they bring their methodological approaches and so there’s always someone who knows how to do this one thing really well.
I worked with a woman years ago who wrote the best recruitment screeners I’d ever seen. And so I was like, ‘I’m going to learn everything I can from her’. She just always got the best recruits. She got the best participants. I always thought she’s doing it right. And over the years, as I get exposed to these people who have these different backgrounds, my toolbox expands. So, from a selfish perspective, I’ve just gotten to learn a whole lot more. I’ve seen the discipline grow, and I was trying to really codify. Having all those different disciplines there can create chaos and disagreement about things, but I’m seeing more and more folks wanting to codify and bring more best practices and structure to things. And so I think that’s mostly a good thing.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Okay. Can you share your personal experience of how you’ve seen companies adopt the practice of UX research? Because I think a lot of companies never put that emphasis on it. And I think now more and more companies are putting users at the center of their entire product experience. So how have you seen that evolve?
Well, I could just tell you a couple of little stories from early in my career to now. So early in my career, I can remember being in meetings with other teammates asking me what I do, and kind of being very dismissive. I was working on a project in 2000 for a big bank in the United States, and we were trying to build a large payment engine that would allow multinational and cross-national sales and delivery of products and goods on a very large scale. So, if you want to buy a hundred tons of lumber from Brazil, you need it shipped by a Dutch shipping company, and it’s going to be delivered to Mumbai. There’s a lot of different companies going on.
We were working on a payment engine for all of that. I remember being in a meeting with a guy who was managing the engineering team, and we were talking about the features that the product needed to have, and one of them was search. He thought the search was going to be too hard for them to build. I was shocked. I remember saying that we’re going to have people who have invoices and order numbers, invoice numbers, and payment slips. They will all have these different unique numbers on them, and there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of them, and they’re going to need to be able to find their invoice to pay or request payment on and all these things. And he said, ‘No, it’s just too hard, it could just be in a dropdown’.
And, we didn’t quite yell at each other, but it was this allergy that he had that it was too hard to build, so that’s too bad. My perspective has always been that how are people going to use this thing, they’re not going to use it if it’s so painful.
I have really seen a shift over the years, though. One of my favorite people to work with at WhatsApp is an engineer. Partof what I love about working with this guy is that he’s so into research, he wants to build a good product and is always asking me what more I can tell him to help him make the product better. It’s this incredible embrace of the value that research can bring to an organization. So, that’s a huge swing from someone saying, ‘Nah, it’s too hard’ to ‘Tell me more’. It’s lovely. Not all companies are like that, but that’s sort of been the progression for me.
Great. I’m going to ask you a little technical question. How do you see formative UX research, how is it different from the summative approach and which one would you recommend?
Formative research versus summative research is not one or the other kind of answer. So, formative research, let me just give a little bit of background definition for everybody.
You want to make sure you build the right thing, right? So, there would be types of research that have many methodologies underneath them that you’d want to actually use on a full design life cycle.
If you’re trying to figure out as a team, what to build next, you want to do formative kind of research where you’re talking to people about what kind of problems do they have when they are experiencing X, Y, or Z because that’s going to give you ideas around what are the problems you could solve for this. But the summative stuff – usability testing, any kind of product-market testing, click test time on tasks, see how efficient and effective a product is, that’s going to be types of summative research. So, I think you have to do them all.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Okay. So let’s say when somebody is starting out, you would recommend taking the formative approach, and once you get deeper into the UX cycle, then you’d rather use the summative approach.
Yeah, because if you’ve got a prototype or designs in Photoshop that you want to get feedback on, you probably don’t want to generate too many new ideas at this point. You want to just evaluate the stuff you’ve already done – Is it right? Is it not right? What needs to be fixed? Where does it break? That kind of stuff.
How New Businesses Can Get Started With UX Research [22:07 – 27:26]
Aniruddh from VWO:
Also, a lot of our viewers who might be listening to us might be working for businesses that are still getting started, that are still new, or they might be launching new products if they are in established companies. So, my next question is about them and for them. So, user research is kind of very hard to get right for new businesses, right? Are there any frameworks that you use or one you’ve developed yourself to find answers to research questions that you ask participants? As in, how can new businesses get that research part right?
Yeah, it’s hard. Especially, if you’re just starting out, and my first answer is that something’s better than nothing. You do your best. So, if you are building something at night, on the weekends and you think it’s going to work for people, try to find people in your friends and family community who represent your typical user. And then, put the designs or the prototype in front of them and then ask them, ‘I want you to try to buy a pair of shoes on this’, that is if you’ve made a small e-commerce app or something. It’s not going to be the most rigorous thing. That’s okay. But, you just want to get people’s input on things.
I can tell you the first few times I tested stuff that I designed, and people didn’t like it, it was soul-crushing. And I may have cried but maybe not. But, that’s part of the process. You can build a capacity to handle that kind of criticism because the whole goal is to get some people first to test your products, so they help you find all the mistakes before you release it. So, instead of having everyone hate it, it’s good to just have a few people.
Aniruddh from VWO:
And, this is, I think what you just mentioned in response to the question before that, is the summative approach, right? What if somebody is just getting started, they haven’t yet built a prototype and it’s just an idea. So, how would you get started then?
Talk to people who you think might be potential users of the product and don’t try to sell them on your idea, talk to them about where they have difficulty in the process of whatever they’re trying to do. For example, if you learn from a parent that when their kids come home from school every day, their shoes are filthy, and cleaning them is pain. So, maybe you’re trying to build a product to make shoes don’t get dirty so easily or it’s easier to clean them or something like that. So, you want to talk to people who have really dirty shoes all the time, right? What are the types of jobs that have dirty shoes?
Go talk to people and ask them about their biggest problem. And listen very attentively. People will tell you their story and will open up like a flower to you if you really are actively listening to what they say, respond to the things they say, and follow up with the things they say. So, treat these people as precious because they really are, and pay attention to them.
Also, you want people to complain to you. So, you want to try to make them comfortable enough so they’ll do that. Because pain points, problems, complaints, that’s very fertile ground for product development. For the development of ideas and to solve problems. Because you have to know what the problem is first. So, talk to people around who have the same problem or a similar problem to what you’re thinking about.
What Years of Research Have Taught Brooke About Universal Human Behavioral Traits [27:27 – 31:26]
Aniruddh from VWO:
Great. And after so many years of understanding how humans make decisions, what are the behavioral traits you have identified, which are common across people?
When I’m out in the field or when I’m talking with other researchers, I usually refer to the fact that people have a lot of hustle too. They’re just trying to do better for themselves, do better for their kids. And I see that over and over and over again without exclusion, in every country I’ve ever done research in. So, for me, that’s very uplifting and comforting. It creates a lot of love inside of me for the world because I see just how much people are trying to do their best and make a little bit better life than they had and for their kids. So, I think those things are deeply, deeply universal.
Aniruddh from VWO:
So, I think empathy as a skill is very, very handy in certain situations when you understand the actual pain of the end-user and then try to emulate that in whatever product or service that you’re trying to build.
Yeah, a hundred percent. Empathy is such a buzzword right now, but it just means – ‘Can you feel what it’s like for somebody else?’ I was born and raised mostly in the United States. English is my first language. I’m very well educated, and there’s a lot of privilege in my life. So, okay, I have to understand that about myself. And to be a good researcher, understand the biases and cultural baggage that I have, right? You’ve met Americans before. You can tell they are American, of course.
When I’m coming into another country where I’m not from, I have to really think about how to put myself in the shoes of a 19-year-old, married woman who’s job is taking in laundry for the neighborhood and she’s got a young child she needs to make sure is healthy and gets a good education. She and I have very different life experiences, but it’s really my job to understand what they feel and care about.
I call this my 90-minute love affair, or however long my sessions are with participants, where I’m not trying to argue with them about what they do and how they have their life. I’m just really trying to feel what they feel and care about what they tell me is important to them and ask them why it is important to them and then just really listen. That helps me build that empathy. It’s something that everyone can build. We certainly all have different starting points. It’s easier for some of us than others, but everybody’s got it.
Great. So, from your professional experience, how would you suggest that businesses design their research programs to get the best value out of it?
Yeah. It’s so hard. I would just say the first thing is to just start somewhere and know that it’s going to grow over time.
There will be times when as a business, you have to make a decision where you know that this is best for users, but because you need to monetize it, you’re going to have to do it the other way. At least make those decisions consciously, and by being fully informed, I would say.
Don’t expect to do all the kinds of research on every single product every single time. It’s not feasible, start slow. I would say the best place to start is that if you’ve already got something designed, or you’ve got some idea in your head, sketch it down on a piece of paper and start showing it to people and then ask them to search for something on it or show you where they would tap. On the piece of paper, you could just see whether they tapped where you put the search.
If they did, that’s good. That means that you probably put it in the right place, and it looks like it’s meant to look. If they’re putting their finger on lots of different places, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. You’ve got to understand that. You’ve asked them where do they think it should go? You have to take that into consideration that however you’ve shown the search, it’s not making sense to them. So you need to go back to the drawing board. If you can come at it with that kind of attitude, you’re going to be miles ahead of lots of other companies.
Great. Thanks a lot for that insight. I would love to also talk to our audience here. 230 plus people are listening to us right now. So guys, if you have any questions, do keep it in comments, and we’ll take as many as we can probably be at the end of the session. So, before we go ahead, I think a lot of people who are listening to us might be starting out in their career, or they might be just growing and budding, and they’re still learning a lot. What would you say would be the most important, must-have tools in a UX research toolkit. Without naming any specific names, but just in general, what tools should one have or use in order to do good UX research?
I’m lucky that I have had the fortune of living in South America. I’ve lived in Asia. I’ve lived in Europe, and so I have been able to live in cultures that are not what I grew up in. When you live in a culture that is not the one you grew up in, you start to learn a lot about stuff like, ‘Oh well, that thing we did when I was a kid, I thought that was normal, but they don’t do it like that here’.You can start to identify where you have biases, whether they’re gendered, racial, or cultural.
The best researchers I know, know themselves and their biases really well. I’ll give you a funny little example. So, in the United States, avocados, the fruit, some in America actually call it a vegetable, but it’s a fruit. We all know this. In the United States, avocado is used for savory dishes. We put it in salads, we make it into a dip. We can put chips into it, but it’s all used for something savory. You put it with eggs, that kind of stuff.
Fast forward to me spending some time in Indonesia, and I love avocados. So, I learned one of the most delightful things, Indonesian culture and lots of Asian cultures actually use avocado as a sweet. And I thought this is the greatest thing ever. I can have avocados for dinner and dessert. Eat it with condensed milk or turn it into a Popsicle, a sweet Popsicle. I didn’t even realize, I had this bias that avocados were only for savory until I got exposed to the fact that they don’t really have to be, right? And as you kind of learn those things, it’s really helpful.
So, the best researchers I know, one of the biggest pieces of their toolkit is knowing themselves and knowing that ‘I’ve got these ways that I see the world, but maybe everybody else doesn’t. And can I be loose about that? Especially when I’m doing my research?’
Aniruddh from VWO:
That was a lovely story. One lesson for me was to keep our biases outside the research room. And because I think users can delight you in more ways than you can think of and they would come up with use cases that you can never even imagine.
Amazing. So let me get a couple of questions from our viewers here. So, the first question is from Autumn. She says, ‘I do CRO, but want to take up a junior UX designer role. Every job I go to wants a graphic designer who knows UX principles but then can code and build tests. What’s the best advice moving forward?’
I’m probably not going to have very good advice because I share frustration, Autumn, with this idea that you have to have all these incredible skill sets. I’m one of those people who think that design, research, engineering are very different skill sets. So, when a job description asks for what we call a unicorn, and I don’t use that as a compliment, I get kind of upset about it, it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t give people the opportunity to really grow into a specific skill set. That said, there is sometimes a lot of opportunity at smaller companies that need someone who’s a Jack of all trades. So, if you can learn a little bit to kind of be dangerous, over time, you’ll be able to grow into things.
So, I think smaller companies that need people to wear one or two or three hats could be a good experience, but it really depends on what they’re pushing you at. I would say, don’t try to learn something that you don’t actually care about because it will show in your work. Don’t kill yourself for that. But, this is a very American point of view. And I’m also way deep into my career, and I sometimes forget what it was like when I first started out. When I first started out, I took what I could get. And, if I think back while I was in graduate school, the first way I got into working at a startup was I took an unpaid internship.
I just showed up for free to do some work so I could get some experience. It was hard. I didn’t have any money, I had to try to work a job on the weekends, and it sucked. But, those things built over time. So, that got me in the door to work at a paid internship, while I was in graduate school. I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re giving me money to come here. This is the greatest thing ever’. So, my expectations were a lot lower earlier in my career because I knew I just needed experience. I think if you’re a junior person, be the best junior person you can be. You’ll be a senior person one day. Don’t worry about that, you know? But if you can get a place that you feel is going to be good and let you try things, that might not be a bad idea. I don’t know if I answered your question, Autumn.
Aniruddh from VWO:
So, the lesson here is to take what you can get and build on top of it.
I mean, the earlier you are in your career, the more it’s about just getting your foot in the door. As you mature through your career and you start to decide what you really like, what you don’t like, what you are good at, what you are not good at, where you want to focus, then be more selective. I’m not saying, just be thankful. The job should appreciate you and all the effort you put into it, and you should feel that.
I think I see a fair amount of folks in the States who have no industry but are very particular about what they want to work on and not work on. And when I’m sitting on the other side interviewing them, that doesn’t come across well because, with no experience, they want to be the one who calls the shots. When you don’t have the experience and maturity to make wise choices, you’ve got to learn.
Aniruddh from VWO:
The next question is by Kartikey. ‘How can we, as a small business, understand our audience when we don’t have enough data?’
When I use the term ‘data’, that can come in both quantitative and qualitative ways, right? And small sample sizes from a qualitative perspective, that’s not a problem. It’s the type of data that you have. So, if you’re talking about just behavioral metrics on a platform, that’s quantitative data, right? And it can tell you what’s happening on the platform and you can see some things. You can see general trends. Where people are dropping off if you’re selling something, where they are dropping off in the funnel.
If you can see that people are getting partway through clicking through products and then they put something in their cart and then nobody converts, or very few convert, that data tells you there’s something going on in that cart experience. So, pay attention there. It may not tell you what.
You have to use qualitative research to get in at that. So, get 10 users, 20 users and bring them in and have them talk to you for 30 minutes or an hour, have them take something through the cart, be quiet, let them try to buy something, and see what happens to find out why they aren’t converting. So, you don’t have to talk to like the volume that I’m talking to.
Aniruddh from VWO:
The next question is by Suruchi, and I think that’s one question that a lot of people might have. ‘How do you build for trust and authentic information on WhatsApp? It can be extended to any of the platforms.’
Yeah, well, trust is this incredibly complicated topic and I have had a keen interest in it for my whole time at Facebook and WhatsApp. I actually used to chair a monthly call of researchers or over a hundred researchers who were focused on different aspects of trust. So, I’ve done research on trust. I’ve worked with a lot of other researchers on trust. I’ve talked with industry experts about it.
The thing I know about trust is that it is so hard to gain and very easy to lose. So, one of the things that I learned from another researcher that’s really resonated with me and I think really makes a lot of sense is thinking about trust in terms of making it easier for your users to make sense of things that they feel are untrustworthy. I’m going to get a little nerdy with how I talk about this.
I would flip it around and anchor it in the negative. It’s much easier to focus on what are the things that cause distrust, and how do we eliminate those, right? What are the things that cause distrust in the technology or the other people on the platform or the content that’s on the platform? What causes distrust or mistrust and focus on those because those are solvable problems.
When we talk about trust signals on a platform, they can be different from person to person. But usually what people are looking for is whether it’s a real person they’re talking to on the other side that has my best interest at heart. Are they authentic? Are they going to do what they say they’re going to do? And if they don’t, is there some recourse where I will have some power in that?But it can really depend on the platform and what you’re trying to do to figure out what trust signals are. So, it’s really simpler, and you can have more actionable things to do if you focus on making sure things that are untrustworthy, you could try to eliminate those.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Sure. The next question is about something you must have faced as well, probably earlier in your career, not as much now. The question is from Shirley Patrick. ‘How can you make marketing include UX into the discussions? And by include, she really means include, because typically there’s somebody from UX who might be present but their voice may not be heard as well. So how do you ensure that you include that person into the discussion?’
Shirley, that’s a great question. It could even be expanded to, how do we make sure that UX or research gets to be a part of any of the conversation around product stuff? I’m going to probably give a boring answer. The places I’ve been where I’ve been able to have the most impact, one of the things it really comes down to is interpersonal relationships, the hard stuff that takes a long time. Part of the ways I’ve tried to help is that if the marketing team is like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Brooke, go away’, then
maybe part of what I can do is figure out what the marketing team is up against or maybe I represent something that is scary to them. So, I try to understand why they have the approach that they’re having that may not be including me because I want to be included.
So, what can I understand about where they’re coming from, right? Also, can I demonstrate value? Can I solve some problems for them? Because there’s a bunch of stuff that market research can do, right? Such as opportunity sizing, profit product, market fit, but there is stuff that UX research can bring to the table that others can’t. What are all the nuances of it? If we do this, then what kind of reaction will people have? So, can I bring something that’s valuable to them, to the table and trying to sort of slice that in.
At some companies, you need to find a champion who’s more senior, who you can kind of, get to be an ally to get involved. Maybe senior people have to talk to each other to say, ‘Hey, everybody needs to play nice together’.
It can really run the gamut. And I think a lot of it’s predicated on the culture of the organization that you’re in. Because some have just got these barriers and walls that teams don’t work together at all. Marketing does marketing. Engineering does engineering. We just throw stuff over the wall. And if that’s the case, it’s a lot harder. It might be a more hierarchical organization, and so you might need to kind of go up the chain to be able to go over and back down the chain.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Okay. The next question is from Nahush. The question is, ‘How do you do user research with enough confidence in a niche market? And it’s not really a less number of users, but a niche market where it might be difficult to find users to talk to and test with?’
This is a great question, and I’m glad it got asked because it’s happened to me before too. So, at WhatsApp, we’ve got a big user base, but I’ve worked on products that are very niche. Maybe the user of the product is a chief financial officer at a company, and they’re notoriously difficult to recruit because they make a lot of money so you can’t offer them a bunch of money or they might not be allowed to be paid because of whatever kind of laws are going on. So, how do you find this? You know, beg, borrow, and steal.
But then you can also think about proxy or representative users, right? So, if I can’t get my hands on a CFO, and I’m just making that up as the niche, person or group you need to get at, then is there someone maybe a little bit down the chain, but he’s still pretty senior that I could get at it widens my circle.
Essentially it’s a recruiting pool that we think about. So, what roles would have like behaviors? If you’re looking for someone who’s a decision-maker for X, right? Well, so break it down. If they’re a decision-maker for X or they are in charge of, you know, a Z amount of budget, maybe you can start to look at breaking those things down, and it might widen your pool, so you get more representative. Not exact. That’s really the way we do it.
There’s also another way – if you’ve ever heard of snowball recruiting. Ifyou can find one person who represents the type of people you need. This, I think, comes from anthropology. You will ask the participant, ‘We’d like to speak with other people, could you tell me three or four other people who you know, who do this kind of thing and ask if we can contact them please?’So it’s like a snowball, as it rolls, it gets bigger and bigger. That’s why it’s called snowball recruiting. So these are some ways to do it.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Okay, great. The next question is from Kuda. The question is, ‘Do you also do quantitative research, like AB testing for new features?’
Yeah, so I am considered in the Facebook/WhatsApp world, a qualitative researcher, and we have kind of our own definitions of that. I do what I call baby quant. So, l do A/B testing time-on-task testing, first-click testing. One thing I did last year in a bunch of African countries is we had an advertisement type, and we had to figure out what the right label needed to be on a call to action button. We had a couple of different ideas, but we were not sure which one was going to get more clicks and increase more revenue. So, we A/B tested that and I put a few qualitative type questions in with that research.
So, we figured out which one was better based on what people clicked to do X, Y, Z. But then, I would also ask them which one they would prefer out of the two and why? Because that ‘why’ is really, really useful because we have to make other design decisions after we’ve done this research. That’s like golden information for us to pull from, to make wise design decisions afterward or development decisions.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Yeah, we have a lot more questions, but in the interest of time, I think we can take two or three more. The next question is from Ankur Sharma. The question is, what books are you currently reading, and what are some of the favorite books around UX that you would recommend?
I read a lot of fiction for fun. Right now, I’m reading a bunch of science fiction stuff, which is not everybody’s thing. I will say when it comes to UX, a few things I would really recommend – Steve Krug’s, ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. It’s a really easy book to read if you’re getting started and you want to figure out something like – ‘How do I run a usability test?’ I just think he has a lovely way of breaking things down and he’s also a really nice person.
At a conference one time, I gave a presentation, this was years ago, I was super nervous and he was in the audience. I saw him, he came up to me afterward and he spoke to me, and he gave me a huge compliment. He’s just a lovely person too and it’s very encouraging for people getting started in their career.
So, I think very highly of him. And the way he breaks things down, and he makes it much less complicated than it needs to be. So, ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ or ‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy’. His two books are good.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are looking for really nerdy stuff, for the last few years have been quite interested in behavioral economics, and so I would say pretty much anything that Richard Thaler or Cass Sunstein has written. Richard Taylor wrote ‘Nudge’, and Cass Sunstein has been a co-author with him on a bunch of stuff. The way he writes is really accessible, and you can understand he’s talking about decision making under uncertainty. How does the brain make decisions so you can design things that take advantage of how people’s brains actually work, and they want to make decisions?
If you want to go a little bit deeper, then go to Daniel Kahneman. He wrote ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’, but don’t start there because it’s a hard book to read. Those are just off the cuff suggestions.
Also, there’s a great woman, and she happens to be Indian American, Sheena Iyengar. She is a research scientist at Columbia University, who has written a bunch of books about choice and decision making, and she has one of the sharpest minds when it comes to understanding. She’s a psychologist by training. She’s got a couple of amazing Ted talks. I’ve actually seen her talk live. She’s so sharp and just such a crisp mind, I really love her. So, I want to recommend anything she’s done.
Aniruddh from VWO:
The next question is from Magdalena. The question is, ‘How do you measure your product design and what are the best practices that you would recommend?’
Well, so we look at a few different things because I think essentially what you’re asking is, is it good design, is it the right design?And so as we’re going through the design life cycle and we’re doing maybe usability testing on it, we’re looking at factors like ease of use, satisfaction, do people use it and walk away going ‘Yeah, I got done, but I hated it’ or ‘No, that was easy, I like that’.Or you know, describing it as simple to use or not. And not all products have to be simple to use. You can build really complicated software that has to be complicated for a reason like flying a helicopter. So, there may be time on task, how effective people are, can they actually get the task done?
And then measures of efficiency – how long it takes them to get things done. Satisfaction – how good or not good did they feel about the process they had to go through to finish the task? So there are all those kinds of things, and you can keep doing those. Once we release a product though into the market, we’re looking at stuff like, if it’s an app, how many people are downloading it? How many people are using it daily, weekly, monthly, how many complaints are we getting, and what is the nature of the complaints we’re getting of things to help us understand that we just released something and then all of a sudden we got more troubled tickets that come up. And it’s the same theme, and we’re hearing lots of people don’t like this.
So, we got to go back and figure out what went on. It’s really going to be somewhat product specific because we’re going to tie these to business outcomes, right? The business may say these are our goals, revenue goals, active user goals, satisfaction goals. So, we’re going to be measuring against all of those and monitoring and then, looking at them within a threshold to make sure that we were managing all of that stuff.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Amazing. I think there are about 40, 50 more questions we’ve received. Since we don’t have time to cover all of them in the session, is there any way that these people can reach out to you in case they have questions?
They can, I will just say be gentle with me. I get a lot of requests on LinkedIn. I will do my best to get to you as soon as I possibly can. But, if you want to reach out to me, make sure you have a crisp, sharp question, and I will do my best. You have to imagine, with COVID 19, WhatsApp is a little bit busy right now. So, my day job is keeping me a little bit busy. You can also just follow me on LinkedIn or connect with me there. That would be great. Happy to.
Aniruddh from VWO:
Great. Thanks a lot, Brooke and thank you all the 200 plus people who joined us for the session. I’m sure they got to learn a lot from you, and I got to learn a lot from you. So, thanks a lot for that and guys, tune in for the next session of Masters of Conversion. Check your email boxes. You will get a notification very soon and thanks a lot for watching. Thank you.
Thank you. Bye, everybody. Thanks, Aniruddh. I really appreciate it.
While UX research in today’s age is no blackhole, it needs a clear distinction to separate the noise from the signal, and voices from industry-leaders such as Brooke keep the domain evolving at the breakneck speed it does. Whether you’re just starting out in the field of UX, or are a seasoned professional, Brooke’s timeless advice is something to internalize and live by. We hope you found this edition of Masters of Conversion insightful.
If you want to start a blog, website, or E-commerce store, you’ve probably heard that you need a domain name, along with other things like web hosting. You can think of a domain name like the address of your house or apartment. Behind every…
If you want to start a blog, website, or E-commerce store, you’ve probably heard that you need a domain name, along with other things like web hosting. You can think of a domain name like the address of your house or apartment. Behind every domain name is a string of numbers called an IP address. […]
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Coronavirus lock-down measures may have stopped the global economy in its tracks, but workers around the world were quick to adapt to new technologies, pick up where they left off, and carry on. Many UX designers and researchers made the switch to remote moderated user testing to keep their website design projects on track. […]
There are only a few things I love as much as link building. Owning a new pair of high-end shoes has to be one of those. Damn, I’ll admit—I even have a tradition of treating myself with a beautiful new pair after a successful business trip or client acquisition. As a result, my closet is […]
Owning a new pair of high-end shoes has to be one of those. Damn, I’ll admit—I even have a tradition of treating myself with a beautiful new pair after a successful business trip or client acquisition.
As a result, my closet is full of shoes that I’ve bought and worn only once. Above, you can see one of my fav pairs of those red-soled shoes (you got the brand, right?) that I took for a walk only once—but they’re so beautiful!
High-fashion, much like link building, is driven by trends. What was fashionable yesterday is old news today.
Take this email pitch I received recently. This person asked us to add a barely relevant link to our blog’s category page:
Sometime, somewhere, they read that they were following “best practices.” But they’re wasting their time.
I’ve been in the B2B link-building game for almost five years, and the true value of link building isn’t quick fixes. It’s investing in long-term, scalable strategies that help you acquire high-quality links.
We’ve tested every tactic. Below are my tried-and-true strategies, including the pros and cons of each. If you’ve seen some of them before, it’s because they worked then—and still work now.
1. Guest blogging
Let’s start with an obvious one. Even if you never did it on your own, you probably know someone who wrote a piece or two for someone else’s blog.
Guest blogging entails searching for industry blogs that accept guest contributions, pitching a list of topics, writing content, sending it back to the editor, and finally getting your post live.
This all might look like an easy, stress-free way of acquiring links, but let me use one of the phrases SEOs like the most: ”It depends!”
Why? There are several factors:
Who’s sending the pitch? Is it a well-known author with tons of previously published guest posts? If the answer is “yes,” then the chances that it’s going to be accepted are good. But most of us—myself included—aren’t guest blogging superstars.
Are you capable of delivering (or paying for) really good copy? The second most common reason why your pitch might be rejected is the quality of your copy. If you plan to outsource your writing, be prepared to spend $300 to $1,000 per 2,000 words of copy. B2B copywriting almost always requires more skill and time compared to B2C.
Have you built a relationship with the editor? In most cases, an established relationship with an editor is a fast track to publication.
Every situation is unique, but the variables listed above are the most common. If you decide to use a guest blogging strategy, here are some other things to keep in mind.
Pros of guest blogging
Guest blogging is great! We’ve been using guest blogging to build quite a number of links back to our own site.
Plus, I often guest blog to showcase my knowledge and share interesting findings with fellow link builders. Being featured on sites like Search Engine Journal (SEJ), Moz, Entrepreneur, and HubSpot is solid social proof.
A more practical value of acquiring links through guest posts is that you control the anchors and pages on which you get links. There’s also a chance for referral traffic and leads.
For instance, my post on Moz about the economics of link building, which included our link-building rates to help readers compare costs, brought me a number of inquiries. Still, those leads weren’t really turning into clients, which leads us to some disadvantages.
Cons of guest blogging
Guest blogging can be an expensive strategy—especially if you’re not a professional writer. You need well-written content, or you’ll end up being associated with lame guest posts, which won’t help you build a brand (or links).
Whether you plan to write the copy internally or hire an experienced B2B copywriter, the cost per 2,000-word post can surpass $500, even if you’re doing the bulk of the work yourself.
Normally, I need a few days to complete an in-depth guest post. After that, I send it to a copywriter who also needs a few days to polish it. It’s a process that can include a lot of back-and-forth.
Also, keep in mind that well-known blogs won’t allow you to link back to blatantly commercial pages, as those links are “promotional” (i.e. don’t provide value). In some situations, like with SEJ blog, I couldn’t even link back to my own (informational) content.
2. Linkable assets
While commercial content is almost always frowned upon, certain types of content are naturally good at acquiring links—“linkable assets.” A linkable asset is a piece of content created specifically to attract links from other relevant sites.
Quizzes, surveys, calculators, interactive videos, and games are all examples of linkable assets. For example, SPD Load has a separate landing page with interactive resources, such as different calculators and guides, that people in their target audience might find useful and naturally link to.
You don’t need to hire a developer to design your own calculator or quiz; there are plenty of tools, like SurveyAnyplace and LeadQuizzes, that let you create quizzes or surveys from scratch or customize ready-made templates.
If you have the budget, you could go with something more complex. Unique, engaging content usually means more links. Growth Design does an amazing job at this. They’ve taken case studies to the next level with their interactive comic book format.
Another great example of linkable assets are pages that aggregate industry stats, like this one. They’re easy to link to when you’re looking for data to back up your claims. The downside is that they’re simply a collection of stats that don’t really bring as much value as the initial source.
Personally, I’m a big fan of in-depth content—definitive guides and insightful research. This content can help you build tons of links, if done right.
Brian Dean’s blog, Backlinko, is a perfect example. He publishes only quality, in-depth content, which is why his graph of referring domains keeps growing:
Even if you’re not as famous as Brian Dean, investing in detailed guides and how-to’s definitely pays off. Last December, my good friends created this guide, which has already earned more than 40 referring domains:
Another hack to cut costs for industry studies? Give a new spin to already-published ones. For example, Reputation Management took a study produced by Forrester Consulting and updated it with new numbers and findings.
Pros of linkable assets
Other than having a great piece of content that looks good on your website or blog, linkable assets carry other benefits:
High-quality content can help you establish authority in your niche. Original research positions you as a credible and linkworthy source. If it’s something truly unique, you can even pitch it to journalists (more on that later).
Linkable assets keep users on your site longer, increasing engagement and your chance to earn links, shares, and leads.
Cons of linkable assets
Creating linkable assets can be quite expensive, especially if it requires professional design and development. Even if resources aren’t a barrier and you’ve created a great piece of content, content—no matter how good—doesn’t build links on its own.
To illustrate, let’s take the Moz blog. It has hundreds of in-depth posts, but only about 25%—out of more than 1,400—have earned at least 100 referring domains:
Indeed, only two posts have earned more than 1,000 links. One thousand links is a huge number, but 99.9% of posts—on one of the industry’s best-known blogs—don’t reach that level.
3. Content for round-ups and listicles
The above strategies are based on the following logic:
You create something link-worthy.
You pitch it to other sites.
This strategy requires a different approach. First, do pre-outreach. Pre-outreach helps you learn exactly what target blogs want to include in their content round-ups.
Create content only after you know what to create. Nothing’s worse than winning zero links with a piece of content you created solely for that purpose.
If you have no idea how to find blogs that publish posts like “XX resources to learn Topic A” or “Weekly Digest of XYZ,” take one of the following approaches:
Use advanced search operators to find sites publishing such content. Here’s a good post on the Ahrefs blog that should help you.
Look at your competitors’ backlink profiles by searching for specific terms in page titles. In the example below, I searched for “news roundup” in titles of referring pages:
Once you have a list of sites that feature content round-ups, it’s time to connect with their editors. The best way to do so is usually through LinkedIn. (I’ve found people are much more responsive there versus email.)
Before connecting with them, promote one of their recent posts on your social media accounts. (Don’t forget to tag them!) For maximum visibility, tag other companies that were featured in their post.
Here’s a good tweet by Mark Scully that sheds some light on why outreach must be genuine:
While getting these links may seem like low-hanging fruit, keep an eye on the cost per link. There’s no point spending hours to build a few mediocre links.
Pros of round-ups and listicles
For one, there’s always a chance that the sites you’re reaching out to are also actively building links. You could end up building a relationship, not just a link, which could yield more opportunities.
Also, you may not have to create anything mind-blowing to get included in the round-up. Because “medium quality” content doesn’t require a ton of time and resources, you could play the quantity card here and try to secure more links in less time.
The pre-outreach strategy increases the chances of securing links.
Cons of round-ups and listicles
Easily acquired links are easy to acquire for a reason. Sites that are publishing round-ups and listicles probably aren’t the very best sites in your niche.
Additionally, as the pages you’re building links to have mediocre content, most probably won’t rank well on Google. This is especially true in highly competitive niches.
HARO (Help a Reporter Out) connects bloggers and journalists with expert sources. HARO is a great workaround for businesses that want to be featured in media outlets but aren’t in a position to launch a proper digital PR campaign.
(Confession: I don’t give digital PR too much credit when it comes to link building. The cost per link can go through the roof, and traditional PR campaigns are able to get links only to specific pages, often your homepage.)
Once you set up your HARO account (it’s very straightforward), you can subscribe to journalist queries relevant to your business:
After this, you receive a daily list of topics with a brief summary of the info journalists and blog editors are looking for. To give you some context, here’s a recent HARO email:
If you click on any topic, you’ll see a more detailed overview that includes a short summary, contact name and email, niche, media outlet, deadline, and query description:
At first, you’ll be excited to get these daily emails, and you’ll work hard to get featured everywhere. After a week or so, you’ll realize that you’re spending days and nights sending insightful answers into the void.
It won’t be long before you realize that you should use your limited resources wisely. To get the most from HARO, evaluate opportunities by:
Quality of the site where you get featured (e.g., domain rating, monthly traffic, etc.).
How long it takes to provide an answer.
My good friend Taru Bhargava from Genbook shared are a few tips to increase your chances of getting your HARO answer considered:
Submit before the deadline.
Make your answer succinct and actionable.
Show domain expertise by quoting personal experiences, backed with data.
Add a two-liner that lets the Editor/reviewer know who you are—a short bio or social media links to help them assess your authority quickly.
Connect with them on LinkedIn and follow up (but don’t harass).
Select only those topics that are really relevant to your experience. For any given answer, you’re likely competing with true experts; editors will pick only the best of the best.
Pros of HARO
For businesses just starting out, HARO might be one of the best sources of links. You get link-building opportunities delivered straight to your inbox. All you need to do is send in a few paragraphs (a lot less than an in-depth blog post).
You don’t need to do link prospecting, pre-outreach, and other standard link-building tasks. HARO also connects you with sites that are regularly looking for and featuring experts (giving you credibility), as well as media outlets that you couldn’t get into with traditional outreach tactics.
Cons of HARO
HARO can be time-consuming and comes with no success guarantees. Even when you get a link, most point to your homepage, which is okay if you’re just starting out but less valuable if you already have thousands of links.
Those links may not justify the amount of time it takes to write up a good answer. Even then, your answer might get rejected or the site may not link back to you (or offer only no-follow links).
Simply following well-known practices, however, probably won’t result in many links. The goal, then, is to put a new spin on the strategies below:
Find your images across the web and ask the website editors to add linked credits. This strategy is especially handy for niches that produce unique visual assets on a daily basis. It’s no secret that some sites use others’ images without adding a source.
A Google image search or tool such as TinEye can easily find a list of sites that include uncited images on their pages.
Once you identify such pages, reach out and ask webmasters to add a link back to your page.
Create infographics and images to improve the linkability of your content. While most link-building experts claim that infographics should be classified as a linkable asset, I see it as an image link-building strategy.
An infographic can also help you turn a pretty generic piece of content into a good source for links. For instance, here’s a post comparing PPC vs. SEO for startup marketing. While the topic itself isn’t super exciting, the infographics turn it into a great post:
Create images/infographics to exchange for links. Images and infographics can also be used as a link-exchange currency. Some websites will give you a link in exchange for an image that you designed specifically for them.
Myriad sites use ugly stock photos. Offer blog editors improved, original images in exchange for a link back to your site. Even if you’re on a shoe-string budget, you can use tools like Canva or Visme to create beautiful visuals without design skills.
An easy way to persuade blog owners that they should care about images: Check their social media preview snippets on major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
This is probably something they care about, and it doesn’t take tons of time for you to deliver a set of good-looking images to support their social media distribution. On Facebook, you can use the Batch Invalidator to check a list of pages:
Most people are visual learners, which encourages website owners to make their pages as visually appealing as possible. More visual content means better image link-building opportunities, too.
If people use your visual content without linking back to you, then it’s a quick way of building links. People are sensitive about copyright infringement and, in most cases, will just agree to link back to you.
That’s a stronger motivation compared to, say, convincing a blog editor to add a link to your content in an existing article.
Cons of images
Some niches just don’t rely much on visual content, which reduces your opportunities for image link building.
If you’re not a professional designer yourself, producing images also requires some additional resources. To do it at scale, you probably need to hire someone full-time to create those visuals.
Another harsh truth: Links from images are not as valuable as contextual links. You need to balance acquiring links from images with those embedded in text content.
6. Unlinked brand mentions
Some sites will mention your brand because they like it—they might not think about links. You need to find and convert those unlinked brand mentions.
Some editors leave brand mentions unlinked on purpose, so don’t be surprised if such people ignore your emails. To make the most out of this strategy, follow this step-by-step plan:
Uncover your company’s brand mentions with tools like Google Alerts, Mention, Brand24, and so on. The only downside of literally any brand mention tracker is that only a few of them show historical data. (The rest collect data once you set up your campaign.)
One solutions that does provide historical mentions is BrandMentions:
Once you have a list of pages mentioning your brand, send an email asking to update the brand mention with a link back to your site. Write to the author of the post rather than the website owner.
Exclude guest posts from this list—those authors won’t have access to past posts. Also, start the conversation on LinkedIn, then switch to email. Another workaround is to share the post on your social media platform and tag the author.
If you have tons of unlinked brand mentions, it makes sense to use a tool like Pitchbox. Upload all the uncovered URLs with brand mentions to filter out spammy sites or those with a low Domain Rating:
Pitchbox automatically searches for email addresses associated with a particular site:
It also allows you to see how well your link-building campaign is moving through stages and helps you track your daily efficiency:
Pros of unlinked brand mentions
A brand mention means that someone already loves what you do. To drive additional benefits, you have to convince them to add a link to that text.
In most cases, your link-building request seems legit. I mean, if they’ve already mentioned you, the chances are high that you actually deserve a link. You don’t need to prepare any special piece of content, either—only a good pitch.
Equally important, you’re building relationships with industry peers who are already familiar with your brand and, as a result, might be interested in working with you on other projects.
Cons of unlinked brand mentions
You need a brand worth mentioning. Unknown brands won’t have many mentions, linked or unlinked.
You’ll also have to hope that you’re able to contact B2B marketers who understand why links matter, and you may be asked to provide something in return. (As Sujan Patel, co-founder of Right Inbox notes, making any interaction mutually beneficial increases success rates.)
Once again, your link-building target is usually limited to the homepage.
7. Broken link building
This strategy identifies sites that link to inactive (i.e. broken) pages, reaching out to those sites, and suggesting that they link to your content on the same topic.
This strategy requires really well-written content—no one wants to link to mediocre stuff. Plus, it’s not easy to scale identification of broken pages that still have a lot of links pointing to them.
There’s no point creating solid content to get only a link or two. Remember, only a subset of the potential links will pan out, so a broken page with 100 links may net only 5 for you.
To speed up the process, check industry blogs for broken links in Ahrefs:
Among SEJ broken links, I found this URL with more than 100 quality referring domains:
Once you’ve found a target page, it’s time to see what kind of content it used to contain. With the help of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, you can easily get an earlier snapshot of the page:
Now, go and write a quality, related piece of content to pitch to sites that link to this 404 page. The most time-consuming and difficult-to-predict step is pitching the process itself. Check out this post, which sheds some light on how to structure your email outreach campaign.
Pros of broken link building
When it comes to broken link building, it depends on the type of opportunity you discover. With a little luck, you could dig into a gold mine of link-building opportunities.
One advantage is that you’re usually building links on established, well-written pages. Moreover, analyzing other sites’ broken pages might help you uncover new ways to build links and scale your strategy.
Also, you kill two birds with one stone—creating in-depth content and building links back to it.
Cons of broken link building
Ideally, you’d be able to insert existing content in place of the broken link you found. But if that’s not the case, and you need to create a new high-quality piece of content specifically for this purpose (and then scale the process). That requires a solid investment.
Also, sites that link to broken pages aren’t always willing to link back to your site. This is especially true if a broken page is located on a well-known site and your brand doesn’t ring a bell.
8. Relationship-based link building
Each of the seven tactics above are just that—tactics. When it comes to long-term strategy, you need to think about relationship-based link building. This is the always-on, ever-improving part of your link-building work. It may not start a program or meet near-term needs, but it should anchor your efforts.
So what is it? If you’re really into link building, you’ve most probably noticed that it takes a gigantic number of hours to establish a relationship with a new site. And if the process of building one link is so time-consuming, you need to maximize the efficiency by:
Connecting with sites that are also actively building links.
Getting more than one link from a site (e.g., guest posting regularly, connecting with partner sites).
Start by joining industry groups where people are looking to promote their content. A popular one is the B2B bloggers boost group.
Unlike closed LinkedIn communities, Facebook allows you to see a list of group members. The next step is to connect with them on LinkedIn by sending a message like this:
Review your current circles that include partners, clients, and even leads. (I detail this strategy in my email outreach guide.) Those people are much more responsive—they’re familiar with your brand and might already be building links on their own.
You can also scrape SERPs for keywords that have decent competition and volume. Many of the sites that appear in those SERPs are actively building links. For example, if you look through pages that rank for “content strategy,” notice that some pages have a lots of links but not a high domain rating:
That’s definitely a signal that those sites are in the phase of acquiring links. However, to ensure that they’re building links right now, check their growth of referring domains.
If you see a graph like this, then they’re obviously working hard to acquire links:
(At the same time, check that they’re getting those links from quality sites—high “link velocity” from bad websites is a telltale sign of spammy link building.)
For this strategy to work, you need to find a way to link back to those sites—that’s what they’re looking for. I don’t like any strategy that involves a direct link exchange, which goes against Google’s recommendations.
Building relationships alone is well worth your time and effort. Building links while doing so is an added benefit.
You don’t need to produce tons of content to build up to 100 links per month. You simply need 10–20 partners writing guest posts on industry sites.
Your partners can then connect you with their partners, potential clients, etc. This way, you’re expanding your circles and building a solid community around your brand. This results in more links from relevant, quality sites on well-written posts.
Cons of relationship-based link building
Building relationships isn’t easy. It requires skills. You can’t fake it (though many try).
Another potential deal breaker is that you need to return links to your partners. This means that you need to contribute to other blogs or get them links through other partners.
Lastly, it’s not scalable beyond your niche. We still struggle to build links in niches beyond our circle of relationships.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, you won’t know what really works for you without spending hours on getting through a how-to stage. You’ll likely settle on a combination of strategies.
Following well-known link building strategies—without giving them a new spin—won’t bring you thousands of high-quality links. Literally any marketing strategy that can be found on Google is unlikely to drive you past the competition.
A few final tips:
Track all acquired links. Sites have a tendency to turn them into no-follow links or even remove them completely. We use Pitchbox, but you could give less expensive solutions, like the SE Ranking Backlink monitor tool or Linkody, a try.
If a site looks suspicious, check the top traffic-generating keywords and newly acquired links. I use a combination of Ahrefs and SEMrush. In Ahrefs, I review the newly acquired links; in SEMrush, I look through pages and keywords that bring traffic to the website.
Don’t build links for the sake of links. Build links for the sake of future growth. You don’t need links from sites that aren’t investing in their online visibility. At the end of the day, those links will turn into dead weight.
Don’t follow strategies that could backfire. Don’twrite shitty guest posts that you would never show a potential client/partner. Write less but with a strategic focus to grow your backlink profile and brand.
Search for your own ways of getting things done. The more creative you are, the better results you’ll get. Some companies are sitting on an enormous number of untapped link-building opportunities. Which unrealized opportunities does your site have?
Unlike my shoes, which go out of style after only a few months (that’s just my excuse to buy new ones, but shhh!), I’ve been using these B2B link-building strategies for years.
I can vouch for one thing—they’re not going out of style any time soon.
There are over 430,000 Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) referred to as advanced practice providers (APPs) in the US. While MDs are often disease-oriented, APPs are extremely patient-oriented and provide more patient education. T…
There are over 430,000 Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) referred to as advanced practice providers (APPs) in the US. While MDs are often disease-oriented, APPs are extremely patient-oriented and provide more patient education. These, and other differences between physicians and APPs, mean pharma marketers must develop a separate APP communication strategy and adapt to specific changes in the APP market caused by the pandemic. Let’s looks at the facts:
Creating a website is simple; anyone can do it. There are so many website builders and other tools out there that make it easy to create a new site from scratch, regardless of your technical skill level. But most websites haven’t been optimized from a …
Creating a website is simple; anyone can do it. There are so many website builders and other tools out there that make it easy to create a new site from scratch, regardless of your technical skill level. But most websites haven’t been optimized from a design perspective. Why is design so important? It takes just […]
Upper funnel Google ad formats like Discovery, Gmail, Local Campaign Ads, and Showcase ads can be quick and cost-effective ways for search advertisers to increase brand awareness. Discovery and Gmail are sources of push marketing, giving us the opportu…
Upper funnel Google ad formats like Discovery, Gmail, Local Campaign Ads, and Showcase ads can be quick and cost-effective ways for search advertisers to increase brand awareness. Discovery and Gmail are sources of push marketing, giving us the opportunity as search marketers to find customers before they’ve started the search part of their journey. Local and Showcase ads are pull formats, but they capture the customer at the beginning of their journey, targeting short-tail search terms.
Discovery ads are served on Google Discover Feeds, Gmail, and the YouTube Homepage. Discovery ads don’t rely on a search to be served. You cannot set CPC constraints, but you can still report on CPCs and are charged per click.
Gmail ads are served in the promotion sections of Gmail inboxes. Similar to Discovery ads, Gmail ads don’t rely on a search to be served. Gmail ads are a very cost-effective way to increase traffic. They typically have extremely low CPCs and a strong expansion CTR. During Cyber Week one advertiser saw average CPCs of $0.05 and an average CTR into the email of 89%, with 1% of those clicks going all the way to site. For Gmail, the advertiser is charged only for the first click into the email, not the click to site.
Showcase ads are a type of shopping ad that are primarily shown on mobile. They appear on the SERP for short-tail search terms. For example, you may get a Showcase ad when you search “backpacks”, but you would be unlikely to get a Showcase ad if you searched “blue backpack with laptop sleeve”. For showcase ads the first click is free, meaning you are only charged when someone expands the ad and spends 10 seconds in the carousel, or if someone expands the ad and clicks on a product and is taken to site.
Local Campaign ads, not to be confused with Local Inventory Ads, are both Display and Search ads. Local Campaign Ads are shown on Maps, Web Search, YouTube and as Display Ads on the GDN. The goal of local ads is to drive store visits, which is done by linking your Google My Business account or by selecting affiliate locations. On Maps and the Search Network, local ads are served based on the user’s search term and its relevance. These ads, similar to Discovery and Gmail, are charged on the first click.
With any ad format, you’ll want to make sure you’re setting your account up for success. This means establishing realistic performance goals ahead of time, understanding your account’s attribution model, applying the right audiences, and having strong creative assets.
Establish Clear KPI Targets and Measurement Methodology
Because upper-funnel ad formats are primarily awareness drivers, they aren’t typically as efficient as traditional search. Consider using metrics that aren’t focused on return, like new customer acquisition or clicks, to help gauge success. No matter what targets you set, it’s important to establish KPIs early and let the ad formats run for a few weeks to go through bid strategy learning periods before making any adjustments.
Additionally, capturing consumers at the beginning of their journey usually means that they’ll encounter a few more touchpoints along the way. Considering that sentiment, upper-funnel formats typically see stronger performance from a data-driven attribution model as opposed to last-click attribution.
Reach the Right Shoppers
In order to see strong performance, no matter the attribution model, it’s important to target the right audiences. With these ad formats, if there are no audiences applied and targeted, it’s easy for the reach to grow larger than what’s effective, especially if you’re using a maximize clicks bid strategy. Using Customer Match audience lists will allow you to retarget existing customers on different platforms. Similar audiences, in-market audiences, and affinity audiences are great ways to go after new customers who are more likely to convert and prove to be more effective than not having any audiences applied.
Build Compelling Creative
Finally, in order to set yourself up for success, you need to have strong creative. These ad formats have slightly different specifications for each, but general creative best practices remain the same. You need to have high-quality images that showcase your product and entice the consumer to visit your site. For Discovery, Gmail, and Local you are able to add text overlays to your imagery. This is a great way to emphasize your brand, and it provides the opportunity to test creative with or without text in the image.
With so much of the control of these formats being black box and automated, it’s important for advertisers to find ways to optimize upper-funnel ads. For Discovery and Local Campaigns, we can’t segment performance by platform so there’s no way of knowing which platforms are performing best, but we can easily control the creative used. Since having good creative is extremely important, and it can be expensive for teams to create, you can do creative testing to determine what’s best for your account and get the most bang for your buck.
In order to do this, it’s important to label all creative that gets loaded into the account so that you can easily determine which versions have the highest CTR. This labelling process can be used for Discovery, Gmail, and Showcase, but can’t be used by Local Campaign ads. For Local Campaign ads, you can only see performance data at the ad group level, not at the image level. Local Campaigns rank each piece of creative you load in as Best, Good, or Low, based on Google assets ranking (another black box process). Even though you can’t determine how creative in the same ad group perform against each other in terms of CTR, if you create more than one ad group, you’ll be able to look at hard performance data between ad groups. For example, you could test promotional text overlay performance against normal product assets in separate ad groups to determine which creative resonates best with consumers during large promotions.
Looking at competitors’ creative is a great way to find opportunities for potential testing. For example, for one beauty client we noticed that many competitors were using imagery that didn’t show models’ faces. We introduced this as a creative test to our client and found that CTR was slightly higher when model faces were shown in ads.
Upper-funnel ad formats are a great way to drive brand awareness for most advertisers. Putting time in up front to establish clear goals, target the right audiences, and build a variety of strong, testable creative will set you up for success to complement your lower-funnel search tactics.