‘Get past personas’, and other takeaways from CTA Conf 17

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This June, I spent two jam-packed days at Unbounce’s fourth-ever Call To Action Conference. The one-track event featured some of today’s most influential digital marketing speakers like Mitch Joel, Kindra Hall, and Rand Fishkin.

WiderFunnel team at CTA Conf 17
The WiderFunnel team and I having a ball at the CTA Conf afterparty.

Session topics ranged from integrity in marketing, to performance marketing success, to the marriage of SEO and conversion optimization. But most shared a common theme: Don’t forget about the real person behind that click.

Knowledge bombs were dropped, important conversations were had, and actionable insights were shared. So, in today’s post, I’m going to share some of my most important takeaways from CTA Conf.

If you attended the conference, please share your favorite takeaways in the comments below!

1. Don’t be trendy, be data-driven

Featured Speaker: Oli Gardner

Unbounce Co-Founder, Oli Gardner, kicked things off on the first day.

Fun fact: Due to technical difficulties, Oli ended up acting out his entire opening video sequence (and most of the subsequent videos in his presentation). He handled the hiccup like a pro, of course, and launched into a great session on data-driven design.

One of the strongest points that Oli made was that digital marketing trends self-perpetuate, regardless of whether or not they are helpful to a user.

I know we, as data-driven marketers, ‘know’ this fact. We complain about ‘best practices’, and buzzwords, and yet we still get totally caught up in trends.

Remember when explainer videos became the end-all, be-all for homepages?

WiderFunnel CTA Conf Recap Oli Gardner
Oli pointing out the flaws in an old Unbounce explainer video at CTA Conf.

What happened? Hundreds of blog posts were written about explainer videos, and hundreds of explainer videos were produced to talk about how great explainer videos are. And then, every homepage on the internet featured an explainer video.

But…were all of those explainer videos really what customers needed? In some cases, but certainly not in all.

Instead, Oli spoke about the need to “mend trends”, and make design decisions based on data, rather than the most popular trend at the time.

We hold the same view at WiderFunnel. You can A/B test explainer video after explainer video. But to create truly impactful experiences, you have to go back to the research phase.

Use the data you have to drill into what you think are you most important business problems. And test hypotheses that attempt to solve for those problems.

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2. Choose people, not personas

I’m not a big fan of personas. I’ve never kicked it with a persona.

– Wil Reynolds

But, without personas, how do I write the right copy for my customers at the right time?!

Don’t panic.

Focus on motivation instead

Featured Speaker: Joel Klettke

Conversion copywriter extraordinaire, Joel Klettke, spoke about how to read your customer’s mind. He emphasized the need to get past user personas and keywords, and focus on customer motivation instead.

Joel Klettke at CTA Conf
Joel Klettke on stage at CTA Conf.

We get stuck behind our screens, and start writing about ‘synergies’ and features that our customers really don’t care about.

– Joel Klettke

He outlined a framework for getting your customers to tell you about their pain points, anxieties, desired outcomes, and priorities, in their own words:

  1. Ask
  2. Record
  3. Analyze
  4. Feed
  5. Measure

Note: I didn’t dig too deeply into the framework, here. But Joel put together a resource for CTA Conf attendees, and graciously gave me the green light to share it. Check it out here!

Jobs To Be Done vs. Personas

Featured Speaker: Claire Suellentrop

On Day 2, Claire Suellentrop built on this idea of the dated persona.

She explained that marketers collect many data points about our prospects, like…

  • Gender, age, location
  • Title, company, industry
  • Married, no kids, one puppy

…but asked whether or not all of that data actually helps us determine why a real human being just bought a new backpack from Everlane.

As an alternative, she suggested the Jobs To Be Done framework. JTBD refers to your customer’s struggle to make progress on something. When your customer overcomes that struggle, the job is done, and they have made progress.

The framework looks a little something like this:

“When ____________ (event that triggers the struggle), help me ______ (struggle / job) so I can __________ (better life / done).”

To identify your customers’ struggle, Claire suggests actually asking your customers. She outlined several sample questions:

  • “Take me back to life before [product]. What was it like?”
  • “What happened that compelled you to start looking for something different?”
  • “What happened when you tried [product] that made you confident it was right for you?”
  • “What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?”

3. Tell the story, don’t just allude to it

Featured Speaker: Kindra Hall

One of my favorite speakers on Day 1 of CTA Conf was Kindra Hall. (Not surprising, as she is the storytelling expert).

Kindra dug into strategic storytelling in marketing. According to her, you should use a story every time you need to communicate value in your marketing.

Kindra Hall at CTA Conf
Kindra Hall sets out to define storytelling in marketing.

Storytelling is powerful because real life humans are attracted to great stories. (And marketers talk to people after all).

Stories, according to Kindra, stick with us and make us do stuff because storytelling is a co-creative process.

“As I am telling you my story, you are creating your own in your mind. I am giving you my words, but you are meeting me half way, and we are creating a shared memory,” Kindra explained.

The most powerful moment in her talk came when she challenged the audience with the biggest storytelling mistake:

Too often, we allude to the story, but don’t actually tell it.

– Kindra Hall

She showed two example videos to illustrate her point. In the first, a company founder almost told her compelling story about losing both of her parents, but glossed over the details. The result was a pretty video, with pretty music that almost created feeling.

In the second video, the founder told her full story, explaining how losing her parents shaped her company and product. The difference in emotional impact was kind of incredible.

And making your customers feel is a huge part of making your customers act. Because we — consumers, people, humans — don’t buy products or services…we buy feelings.

4. Pay attention to people signals

For goodness’ sake, solve the searcher’s problem

Featured Speaker: Wil Reynolds

Founder of Seer Interactive, Wil Reynolds, danced his way onto the stage, and delivered a really strong talk on SEO, conversion optimization, and the importance of people signals.

Wil Reynolds at CTA Conf
Wil remembers when he f*ed up, and forgot about the HUMAN element.

He didn’t mince words, explaining that marketers too often put conversions before customers. We ask “how do I get?” when we should be asking, “how do I help my customer get what they need?”

When you do an amazing job on search, you get to help people who are lost solve their problems.

– Wil Reynolds

Wil painted a picture of how we, as marketers, are letting our own wants override solving our customers’ problems. In the world of search, Wil pointed out that Google rewards pages that solve the searchers’ query. So solve the searchers’ query!

Much like we allude to stories, but often don’t tell them, we talk about listening to our customers, but often don’t really listen.

Instead of showing them product comparisons when they search “best CRM platform”, we pay to show them a landing page that claims “My product is the best! Get in my funnel!”

This isn’t just an issue in search or performance. In conversion optimization, there is an emphasis on velocity over user research. There is pressure to test more, and test faster.

But, we must take the time to do the research. To get as close to our customers’ problem, and tailor our marketing experience to their needs.

Win at SEO and CRO with a long-term vision

Featured Speaker: Rand Fishkin

Building on Wil’s session on Day 1, SEO wizard, Rand Fishkin, gave the audience actionable tips around how to optimize for searcher intent.

Rand pointed to conversion optimization.

At its core, conversion optimization is about getting into your customers’ minds, and testing changes to get closer to the best possible customer experience. To give your customer what they need, you must soothe their pain points, and provide a solution.

You can apply this same concept to SEO: If you 1) gain a deep understanding of what searchers are seeking, and 2) determine why some searchers come away unsatisfied, you can optimize for searcher task accomplishment.

Rand Fishkin at CTA Conf
Rand demonstrates how establishing trust leads to ROI.

Unfortunately, Rand pointed out, there is still a conflict between SEO and CRO, because conversion rate and searcher satisfaction are sometimes in direct opposition.

For example, let’s say you want to get more blog subscriptions, so you add a pop-up to your blog post. This may lead to a higher conversion rate on the page, but lower searcher satisfaction. Some readers might bounce, which may lead to lower organic traffic.

But, Rand ended on a high note:

You can win with long-term thinking. By always asking, ‘are we building a brand that’s helping people succeed?’

– Rand Fishkin

5. Don’t fear disruption. Own it.

Featured Speaker: Mitch Joel

One of the final speakers on Day 1 was marketing thought-leader, Mitch Joel, who shook things up a bit. Mitch spoke about what it means to be disruptive (and how to not fear disruption).

Mitch Joel at CTA Conf
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone.”

When I ask C-Suite marketers to define disruption, the definition is never consistent. In fact, I often don’t get a definition of disruption, I get a definition of destruction.

– Mitch Joel

He asked, if disruption is the big bad wolf, who are the heroes in this marketing story?

Well, like the three little pigs, Mitch discussed three ways to be disruptive rather than be disrupted:

  1. Transformation: Business transformation is not your products or services, etc. It’s inside out. And it starts with technology. You need to be using the same tech, same form of communication that your customers are using.
  2. Innovative marketing: Innovation is not re-allocation of resources. It isn’t investing more in Google Adwords versus another channel. Real innovation is about making and creating new products and experiences that we can use to market with.
  3. Micro-transactions: Marketers and businesses get caught up in the macro transaction, in the purchase. But we live in a world of micro-transactions. This is the customer journey, and it is extremely important to understand.

Mitch Joel emphasized the fact that if you can apply these ‘three little pigs’ to your business model, you will be in a great place, though he recognized that it’s not always easy.

But nothing great is ever easy.

6. Be bold enough to be wrong

Featured Speaker: Michael Aagaard

Senior Conversion Optimizer at Unbounce, Michael Aagaard, closed out the two-day conference. His message was a simple but powerful warning against the trap of confirmation bias.

We, as humans, are not interested in information, but confirmation.

– Michael Aagaard

Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to search for and recall information in ways that confirm our existing beliefs, hypotheses, and expectations. And it is a threat to data-driven marketing.

Michael Aagaard at CTA Conf
Michael takes us back to ye olde London to make a point about the enduring power of confirmation bias.

When you A/B test, you are searching for objectivity. You are trying to figure out which variation your users prefer, outside of your own opinions and beliefs about what works best.

But it’s rarely that simple, even if you are a pro.

Michael showed us a landing page that he analyzed for a client, featuring a stock photo hero image. He said he had railed against the photo, and shown the client examples of the hundreds of other stock photos featuring the same model.

But, when he tested the landing page, he found that the original version, featuring the ‘terrible’ stock photo, was the clear winner.

“Maybe,” he said, “users don’t spend hours scouring the internet for stock photo sinners like I do.”

He urged the audience to be bold enough to be wrong, to challenge our hypotheses, and get out of the marketing bubble when we are trying to solve problems.

If we don’t get out of the marketing bubble, we end up making assumptions, and designing experiences for ourselves.

– Michael Aagaard

Go hang out with your customer success teams and sales teams; get outsider input on your ‘great’ ideas. Go find your own natural skeptic, and challenge your hypotheses.

Were you at CTA Conf 17? What were your most important takeaways? Who were your favorite speakers, and why? Let us know in the comments!

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