Tim Ash is an experienced Internet marketing entrepreneur and is the co-founder of several Internet companies. He is currently the CEO of SiteTuners.com , as well as founder and chairperson of ConversionConference.com. Tim is also a frequent keynote speaker and author of bestselling Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide To Testing and Tuning for Conversions LandingPageOptimizationBook.com (which has had multiple re-printings and been translated into six languages). Prior to starting SiteTuners, he co-founded Internet incubator firm Future Focus and worked in a variety of management and technical roles at larger organizations including SAIC, HNC/Fair Isaac, NCR, and the US Navy.
SiteTuners.com launched in 2002 to improve the technology used for conversion optimization and has developed a comprehensive portfolio of both consulting and conversion optimization testing services. Dubbed as the “landing page optimization specialists,” their services include conversion consulting, full-service landing page testing, and tools for diagnosing and fixing conversion issues. Clients include such companies as Google, Facebook, Canon, Sanyo, Nestle, Symantec, Rhapsody, CBS Interactive, Texas Instruments, Verizon Wireless, and many more. SiteTuners is self-funded, profitable, and privately owned.
Tim, your name has come across my inbox many times in recent weeks. Once in an “Amazon.com recommends” email for your book, another time for the regular column that you contribute to Website Magazine. You write a blog, are active on Facebook & Twitter, host a weekly podcast on WebmasterRadio.fm, speak at conferences around the world, teach Tai Chi, and spend time with your family. Where do you find the time?
I don’t. I am stretched very thin and inevitably something has to give. When my daughter was born (seventeen months after my son) we were in the middle of a major yard remodel, I was writing my book, and running my company. I had to stop teaching my Tai Chi class and pull a lot of all-nighters. That was a pretty grim few months, and tested the limits of my endurance. Last year I had thirty speaking engagements around the country. When I came home after each trip the first things the kids would want to know is what little gifts I had gotten them (usually from the airport gift store on my way to catch a flight). I would love to spend more time with my family, and to practice and teach Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. If my wife was not a real trooper with a lot of patience and a sense of humor, things might be very different right now. Still trying to figure out a way off of the hamster wheel…
Typically, for anyone who has an area of specialization, there is a path that led them to it. What are the experiences and circumstances that led you to an entrepreneurial path and to landing page optimization?
I think that with the perspective of many years, I do see a larger pattern to my entrepreneurial odyssey. The impetus to strike out on my own was clearly due to my immigrant roots. My parents gave up their lives in Russia (Soviet Union at the time) and came to the U.S. so that my younger brother and I would have a better life. They gave up family, friends, and a familiar culture for that to be possible. That was a very high price to pay in spite of their successes in America. Compared to that kind of initiative and courage, my risk-taking pales in comparison. All I did was quit a PhD program and start my own company. My fallback position was to go back to a six-figure nine-to-five job. I have been at it for fifteen years now and am officially unemployable.
The subject matter of what I do is also something that I trained for. My undergraduate double majors at UC San Diego were in computer engineering, and cognitive science. One dealt with hard facts and objective reality, and the other with the squishy soft stuff inside of our skulls. In a way I have always embodied this combination of rational and emotional. I guess you could say I am an interdisciplinary synthesist. In Internet marketing I get to indulge both of these passions. On the one hand, Internet marketing is infinitely measurable and trackable. On the other hand all marketing, despite using the newest technologies, still comes down to a deep understanding of people’s irrational emotional selves.
What exactly is landing page optimization and why is it important. Does this apply to small businesses as well as large ones?
Landing page optimization (also called “conversion rate optimization”) is the process of making online landing pages and websites more efficient. Regardless of how you drive traffic to your pages, presumably you want people to take some kind of action once they get there. This might be to click through to another page, download a whitepaper, sign up for a newsletter, or to buy something. The percentage of web visitors who take this desired action is know as the conversion rate. Landing page optimization seeks to influence people by the changing the presentation of information on your page. It involves a combination of graphic design, usability, copywriting, psychology, and persuasion techniques.
There are two main ways to improve conversion rates: applying best practices (usually from independent outside consultants), and testing (presenting different versions of your pages and seeing what your audience responds to). It is critical to the success of all online marketing programs since it cuts across all of your traffic sources and marketing campaigns. You can think of it as a “force multiplier” that can change the economics of your business overnight. We have helped well over five hundred clients to significantly boost conversion rates. The main difference is that the smaller businesses may not have enough traffic to do large-scale statistical landing page testing. But a lot can be accomplished through best-practices consulting.
AttentionWizard.com is SiteTuners latest product offering. What is it, and how can businesses use it to improve their sites?
One of the biggest problems with landing pages is the visual clutter. We marketers pile on too much stuff in the hopes that something will catch the visitor’s eye and convince them to act. In fact, the opposite usually happens – the brashness and competing visual elements on the page drown out the important information and the call-to-action. This actually lowers conversion rates. In other words there is “good attention” (focusing on the call-to-action or hero-shot of your product), and there is “bad attention” (all of the visual embellishments and gratuitous graphics on your page that distract from its business purpose).
So how can you tell what people are paying attention to on your page? Up till now, the gold standard for this has been eye tracking studies. These requires you to sit down a test subject in front of a special computer and record their eye movements as they interact with your page. You get a lot of very rich information, but it is very expensive and time-consuming to run these kinds of studies. A more recent innovation is to track people’s mouse movements as they interact with your page. Since many people use their mouse as a pointer, this can offer a pretty accurate substitute for eye tracking. If enough people visit your page you can create “attention heatmaps” based on their combined mouse movements.
We have developed a third alternative to eye tracking and mouse movement tracking. It is a software simulation of where someone will look during the first few seconds on your landing page. In other words, there are no people involved, and we are using a lot of vision and brain research data to predict where someone would look. It is obviously not quite as accurate as eye tracking, but it has a number of compelling advantages. First of all, it can be done instantly – you get your results in minutes. Second, it can be done on a screen-shot of a live page, or just on a mock-up of a new design (without having to build the page or spend money driving traffic to it). Third, it is very inexpensive. You can try it for free, and then create heatmaps for a couple of bucks apiece. We want to make it available to everyone, and have found that many people are using it several times to fine-tune their landing pages before deploying them live. Why would you ever deploy a landing page knowing that it has visual distractions that lead to lower conversion rates?
ConversionConference.com is an international conference series that you founded and chair. Tell me about Conversion Conference and what attendees can expect at the conference.
I have been crying in the wilderness for many years about the importance of conversion improvement. There has not been a home for people interested in this topic. We have created an international conference series to give the industry a focus. The first event in San Jose this spring was a huge success with 26 session on a wide range of conversion-related topics from some of the top experts in the field. The keynotes were conducted by Jakob Nielsen, Bryan Eisenberg, and me. The sold out expo hall was packed with leading landing page testing and conversion improvement tool vendors. The networking events brought together people from all over the word including the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Israel.
Upcoming events include a one-day version as part of Connected Marketing Week in San Francisco this August, the East 2010 event in Washington DC in October, followed by Hamburg and London this fall, and San Francisco next March. People who come to the event will learn a lot from the fast-paced sessions, live landing page critiques, and open-mic Q&A sessions with the experts. The face to face networking with peers, and interacting with all of the exhibitors also make it a unique experience. All of the information and the agendas for the upcoming events are on the website.
As a successful entrepreneur, what skills do you feel have served you the best in your progression to your current place in life? How can others emulate that?
I’m not sure I am successful since that is not just a financial gauge. It is difficult to balance the important things in life. Now that I have a family, my definition is very different. If we are taking about financial measures only, then I would still not consider myself successful. If I had already achieved it, I would probably not do this interview because I would be on a beach in the Caribbean… [laughs].
Seriously though, I don’t think it is not a matter of “skills”. That implies that something can be practiced or transmitted to others. My take on it is that you have to have a specific personality type and certain character traits to be an entrepreneur. But that this is really not a choice – it is more like an imperative, and how you express yourself in the world. The most important is perseverance. If you get knocked down, you have to not only get up again and again, but also attack what ever is in front of you with the enthusiasm of your whole being. This is a marathon, and an emotional roller-coaster at the same time. Stamina, hard work, and commitment are key. You also need a lot of ego strength and the ability not to follow the crowd. In other words, you need the courage of your convictions even if everyone around you is telling you that your ideas are harebrained. So you have to be able to say “f*ck you” and do what your gut and vision tell you anyway. On the flip side, you have to be ruthlessly flexible and be able to shift on a dime (and sometimes abandon years of work) in the face of critical new information that you may not want to hear. So it is a constant tension between self assurance and reality slapping you in the face.