How brave do you need to be online?

There is, it seems to me, a generalised air of cowardice on the Internet. This struck me again when I was in a conversation this week with a delegate who had attended one of my masterclasses on web success for business leaders. 

His company was in a traditional sector. Like many businesses, his firm had started before the web was invented and many of the company’s direct competitors could be traced back through three or four family generations. Even so, they all had websites, and they all used the Internet to gain business and to connect with customers. 

The problem for the man speaking with me was that he wanted to change his web presence, to make it more dynamic, vibrant and profit producing. But he did not know quite where to start. He said, “Just who am I meant to model my business on when everyone else in the sector is doing the same boring thing?”

Therein lies the problem. Whichever industry you look at, many of the businesses look pretty much the same online. Just search for accountancy firms in your hometown and then try to distinguish between them just by looking at their websites. Take away the company logo, and you’d be hard-pressed to really know who they are, or why they should attract you. If you have the time, repeat the exercise for law firms, or plumbers, or schools, or even Internet experts. What you’ll find is that everyone within each sector has a web presence that is the same as their competitors. Nobody wants to step out of line, it seems.

There are two problems here. When everyone looks the same, it’s hard to tell them apart. When someone sticks out because they are different, they might get ignored because they are “odd”. For both sides of the equation – suppliers and customers – there is a great deal of “safety” in “sameness”. It is far less risky for either side if every possible option is similar.

However, for my masterclass delegate, there’s the problem. He wants to improve, and yet the only models he has within his industry are boring, staid, old-fashioned and safe. How can you grow your business online if you don’t step out of line? And if you do step out of line, what’s the chance that you will be spotted and deemed to be odd and therefore “unsafe”? In other words, attempting to grow your business by being different could work against you.

This is why I think it is all about bravery and cowardice. The business leaders who don’t want to experiment (even a little) online are those who are worried about the potential negative impact. If only they were braver. Firstly, their own businesses would probably improve, and secondly, the whole sector would gain as people looked towards such cutting-edge activity for the way ahead. The lack of brave souls online is probably holding back entire industries from improvement.

So, can you be braver online? You’ll say you can, but then you will do what all humans do which is to avoid excessive risk. So you’ll fall back to the status quo and just tinker around the edges with your online presence.

But there is another way – and, frankly, it is thanks to the Internet that you have this possibility. Without the Internet, it would be nigh-on impossible to do what increases your chances of online improvement while still being a bit of a coward.

It’s called “A/B Testing” or “Split Testing”, and the only real question is if you are not doing this already, why not?

Here’s how it works. You think you’d like to change something on your website, but you’re not brave enough to go all the way and make the change. So, you prepare the altered material and present it to every other person who lands on your website, or perhaps every third or fourth. That way most of the people who visit your site see the same old thing. But using your analytics system, you can judge the reaction to your change. Google Analytics has an excellent system for doing “split tests”, and there is a very good guide on this from CrazyEgg, the company that can show you heatmaps of how people use your website – which parts get the most views as people scroll, where they hover and so on. Another excellent guide to setting up what Google calls “experiments” (their word for split testing) is available at the KissMetrics blog.

You can test all kinds of things – different imagery, alternative colours, another style of writing. Indeed, there is a wide variety of options you can select. So, for instance, let’s imagine you wanted to change your web approach from a “brochure” site to one that involves the use of interactive features, such as user-generated content. In that instance, you can see whether your new (and braver) version of your website works by presenting it to one in every few visitors. Google would automatically deliver your usual site to one group in the “experiment” and your new form of your site to the other group of people. You could run the test for a day, a week, a month – as long as you wanted. Then you look at the data in Google Analytics, and you would be able to see how much engagement there had been in both versions of your web pages. That would give you the data on which to make a decision – to stick with the old site or change to the new one.

What this means is that split testing (Google Analytics Experiments) can help you produce a new web experience that may well be leading edge and vastly different to the rest of the sector in which you work, at the same time as playing safe and not sticking out as different. 

If you don’t want to use Google Analytics, you can opt for specialist services, such as SiteGainer or Optimizely.

And if you are stuck for ideas on what to test, there is an excellent blog post with 50 ideas on split testing.

Whatever you decide to do, if you stick with your current web presence, staying the same as the rest of your sector, then you won’t be noticeable, but you’ll be safe. Luckily with split testing, you can become noticeable for the right reasons, gaining visibility and business, but without having to take risks. Split testing allows you to be just a teeny weeny little bit braver than you are online. So it’s no big deal after all. 

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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones

@grahamjones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
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