2Inspire Series – Interview with Brian Massey, Founder of Conversion Sciences

21 minutes

We’re happy to introduce you to our new interview series, called “2Inspire”, where we ask entrepreneurs, managers, creative people we admire, different questions about themselves. How did they get to where they are? What did they do before? What does a day or week in their professional/personal lives look like?

Find out insights from some of the world’s most experienced and successful people out there and get inspired by their stories.

The very first episode features Brian Massey, founder and the original conversion scientist at Conversion Sciences. We discuss about conversion tools, mottos, his team of scientists, the periodic table of elements, cats and dogs, and many more topics! Check out the full interview below.




Geoff: Hi everyone and welcome to our first interview from our “2Inspire series”! I’m Geoff Knapp, I’m the Vice President of Business Development at a 2Checkout and I’ll be your host today. It’s a real a pleasure to have Brian Massey with me today. Hi Bryan, thanks for joining us!

Brian: I am really glad to be here!

Geoff: So for the very few remaining folks who don’t know and I’m sure it is only a few, Brian is both the founder and the original conversion scientist at Conversion Sciences.  He spends a great deal of his time both speaking and writing about conversion.  He’s helped dozens and dozens of businesses transform their sites through a steady diet of visitor profiling, purposeful content, analytics, and testing. In addition, he’s actually done work with us on the past on webinars and you know judging by the registration numbers folks are really excited to hear what he has to say, so we’re excited to have him! Brian did I miss anything?

Brian:  Nope, I have a book if anybody wants to get a nice foundation of conversion optimization and it’s called “Your customer creation equation”. It is available on Amazon so I’d like you to go and check that out.

Geoff: Excellent, thanks for the advice there!  So why don’t we why jump right into it? Tell us a little bit about Conversion Sciences and specifically what made you get into the business and get started? And why conversion optimization? What was your passion there?

Brian:  So I’m a computer scientist by training thus the scientist moniker and I’ve earned it. But when I came out of college, I decided I was gonna go into sales. I had a few social skills and so I spent the first few years in corporate sales working with engineers to sell microchips for Texas Instruments. And so, my job was to figure out what they needed from our catalog of 10,000 different microchips and processors. I rose to my eyes level of incompetence in that role decided to get back into software. Moved to Austin, Texas, one of my favorite cities because I live here, and started my own consulting business. In the days before broadband, we were delivering Google Maps like data across the dial-up networks. It was an interesting time. The dot-com bust took a few of our clients out which took us out and I spent the next five years working with small companies building their web backends, their lead online lead generation process. And you know I don’t know what you do with someone who is a computer scientist marketing and sales entrepreneur other than be a conversion scientist. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. So I bought a lab coat and started Conversion Sciences.  That was in 2007.



Geoff: Cool! So out of curiosity, what was the landscape around Conversion Sciences back when you started and how has it changed now and the last 11-12 years?

Brian:  Yeah well Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg had developed a curriculum around, that was called “The Wizards of the web” was the seminar that they did and I took a several day seminar with them and they started to coin the terms conversion optimization and this was really before we had some of these amazing data research and A/B testing tools. So it was in that seminar that I went “Oh my gosh

this is my calling!”. This is technology plus creativity brought together with data and that was really what was the genesis of the work I did. At the time only the people in that seminar were really talking about this at any level. You know, by then Dell here in Austin had started to look at some of the stuff, so the first thing I did was started talking about this on my blog and it was pretty quick to gestate. Only four years later I really felt like people were starting to get that there was this discipline called conversion optimization and then it did have rules and guides and processes and vocabularies that we could use, even though no one’s put up a website that they didn’t want conversions. That’s what we did we wanted someone to do something from consumer content to buy our products. But it’s a little ironic that it’s only been in the last ten years that we’ve really developed a vocabulary around it. And now the tools are incredible so I think we were making that transition from the early adopters into the main market. But for anyone who is interested in optimizing your site you are probably one of the first in your marketplace and it is a huge competitive advantage, go start doing this!



Geoff: That’s great advice. So speaking of tools, what kind of tools do you use and how do you evaluate new tools and the degree you should apply them or test them out?

Brian: Yeah I wish I could tell you that I could evaluate all the tools that I get pitched in a way. It’s four or five a week new tools and I think this is golden. So, in 2011 we wanted to understand how people were consuming different kinds of video. So we did a test comparing talking head video with slide video with drawing animation video. Everything else was the same: the video length and the voice-over were all the same. So we did an eye-tracking study and we were using $7,500 worth of infrared cameras, $2500  worth of software that still required me to go in and manually overlay things in a video editor and it was weeks of work and people coming through the office and watching the videos live. Today with the service called sticky.ai,  I can just put up some kind of some creative and they can have 100 people come and look at that and see where on the screen people’s eyes are tracking. And we’re seeing this across the entire spectrum. So we really do focus on A/B testing because it is the best data that we can collect but there’s only so much traffic that websites have so we have to be careful with what we A/B test. So we have these other tools that are maturing and becoming amazing heat mapping tools, session recording tools, usability testing tools where we can put creative in front of people and see if they’re able to complete tasks accurately or get some qualitative feedback on it on the designs we’re doing.

I can share with your listeners a one-page graphic that shows the tools we use currently at the different stages of design and evaluation I think it’d be really helpful for them to go and explore these tools. They’re easy to use, they’re getting more and more powerful every day as they are so, so inexpensive it blows my mind.



Geoff: That’s great! Digging in on another like the discipline around testing a little bit. So you’ve helped some pretty big companies and I’m sure some small companies and some everywhere in between on this area. How do you work with a with a prospective client or a website and identify what should be tested, what’s noise, what’s the biggest bang for the buck?

Walk me through the consultative process there.

Brian:  So first thing we need to do is make sure that the analytics is set up right, what we call our digital laboratory. So we go in and look for blind spots where analytics are missing certain parts of the website that are important to the funnel.  We look for places where there are links away from the side and make sure that we’re tracking to make sure that you know traffic isn’t leaking away. We install some tools. We love the heat mapping and scroll mapping tools, we love the session recording tools. These really help us pinpoint problems on the site. If we want to install a tag manager to give us some more flexibility in how we’re working with analytics, we’ll do that. A/B testing tool, as I said the best data that we can collect so we will install all those things and we’ll calibrate it all make sure that it’s reporting quickly. So we’ve got a good digital lab if you could imagine it’s equivalent to a chemistry lab or a pharmaceutical lab. You’ve got to have the right equipment or your scientists can’t get the job done. Once we do that we start consuming that data and we develop the long list of hypotheses, we do research to see which of those hypotheses is most likely going to increase the conversion rate or the revenue per visit, depending on the business. And then we have this amazing meeting where we take all of this information and we are not shy about pulling screen captures and taking our audience right into these tools. All of us are wired to understand these tools.




Geoff: So it sounds to me like you obviously know the data in the process is important but also conversion scientists are also pretty important in that process. So talk to me a little bit about your team of experts. How do you go about, you know, choosing people to become scientists? What skills and capabilities you’re looking for and how do you know as a team, and as an organization keep evolving the discipline so that you’re always on the cutting edge and offer the most value?

Brian: Yeah so our best conversion scientists are just dumb, they’re idiots. And what I mean by that is they come into every client as if they had never done this before and this is really, really important. So everybody’s talking about how we use buyer psychology to get more people to buy and a lot of this borders on the line of manipulation and trickery. This is not what we want to be doing.

The psychology you really need to worry about is your own. All marketers, all marketing managers, anybody involved with communications of the company is bringing their own biases and this is really limiting them. They assume that everybody else thinks like they do and so they’re going to choose designs that they prefer, they’re going to choose designs that they heard some feedback from one of their friends recently was best, they’re going to choose UX experiences based on the last successful UX experience that they had rather than “Oh how is this audience different?”. So the science that the conversion scientists put in place is specifically designed to get us out of the mix. So we, as open-mindedly as possible we collect all of our ideas. Now we have play books for all kinds of businesses and we make sure that those hypotheses get moved on to the hypothesis list but other than that we want to come with an open mind. We have a very serious way of ranking hypotheses specific things we look for  in the research and so at the end of the day we’re looking at the ranked list the things at the top of the things that are most likely to move needle and then we can start formulating a strategy for how to test our way or alter our way through those sorts of things that is the value that they bring and you know our motto is “Don’t think no” and our other motto is “Do what you say when you’re going to do it”. So the conversion of scientists are not only good at putting a process in place that keeps us from making uninformed decisions but they get the job done so they are shepherding the team all the way through. So we get this momentum where we’re testing on a frequent basis because we want rapid growth and if you test and wait a few months you’re not going to get kind of momentum and consecutive insights that really drive growth in revenue or growth in leads.



Geoff: Thanks, Brian! You talked about, besides the psychology of removing your own biases and coming in without any sort of then, are there other you know psychology basics that are important to kind of apply to the process?

Brian: Yeah so whatever you’re designing copy or images you know there are some basic things that you have to take into account. And you can take advantage of some of them as well. So you know relevance is very important.  So a lot of times people will do designs which are really designed about building credibility and authority in those first few seconds when somebody comes to the site. They’ll build what they think is important instead of what the visitor expects. So that’s that’s what’s different and that’s why sometimes very beautiful, awesome designs lose to “ugly” because the ugly design was closer to what was expected by the visitors. We like to test things like scarcity so if there is a limited time on an offer if there is a limited quantity if you’re an e-commerce site and quantities can be close to zero going ahead and communicating that in a bold way adds this scarcity. Sometimes we’ll actually put things in the way of taking action which adds an exclusivity to it and really can appeal to transactional buyers who are always looking for ways to game the system and find a way to get another 5%, 10% discount.  One of my favorite psychological effects is something called liking and Robert Cialdini talks about this in his book “Science of influence”




Geoff: Sure, that’s a really good insight. So let’s shift gears a little bit. Like the periodic table for instance. You like to reference AR(argon) a lot, so talk to us a little bit about some of your clients who kind of struggled with abandonment and some you know tips that you’ve given them or some insights that might broadly apply?

Brian: Yeah so technically speaking, abandonment is one some when somebody starts a checkout or a subscription or a registration process and doesn’t finish that process. And we have great tools now that are allowing us to do form analysis so we can see if there’s something on a form that is a killer. Everyone struggles with abandonment and there are really two kinds of abandonment. So we’ve got what we call good abandonment and bad abandonment. It’s like your cholesterol. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Good abandonment if you can imagine that, is somebody who wasn’t going to buy but they went into your checkout process to find out what the final price was, to just make sure you have stock, questions like that. They’re adding you to their decision set but they are not going to buy from anybody at this time. Bad abandonment is when they get surprised by what they see in the checkout process. So you ask them for information that they felt was too personal or there’s an extra charge that they hadn’t expected. For instance, if you don’t address shipping on an e-commerce site outside of the checkout process you’re going to have higher abandonment. And it’s the wrong kind of abandonment, we want people going into the checkout process already confident that they’re gonna be able to finish that transaction and excited about the product they’re getting at the price they’re giving. Forms play a big role in this process. So we look for what we call killer fields and there are two broad categories…




Geoff: So when you think about a lot of businesses, particularly e-commerce businesses that are beginning to kind of shift to their buying model or their selling model from the one-time purchase to maybe some more of an ongoing subscription or membership type of the basis, how is your evaluation of the optimization or the relationship changed and the advice that you offer to merchants thinking about subscriptions versus or the one-time purchase?

Brian: There are two ways we can go about this. So we have e-commerce clients that are really focused on the long-term value of the client and so what we want to do is we don’t want to increase the number of purchases but decrease the quality of those kinds of customers. We will take the first purchase but we really want to be optimizing for is getting people into the process and having them have such good experience that they continue to buy over and over again. So much of the time we will optimize for long-term value LTV or often sometimes called lifetime value. And what we want to do is allow the test data to bake for a period of time to see how repeat visits work, or we can use proxy variables and see a month out two months out three months out. Are we increasing or decreasing lifetime value as we find changes that improve at that moment first-time purchases, first-time conversions. One of our e-commerce sites though they know how to do this. They know how to use email, they know how to use retargeting, they know how to use shopping ads to get people back. So, while long-term value is what they’re all about from a conversion site standpoint, all they need is more people. So they really optimized for conversion rate. So I think it really depends on how good you are at generating those follow-on sales and turn rate is the other thing you can optimize. So for those people that haven’t nailed it yet, we can help them optimize to reduce churn rate and that’s a combination of great emails, great landing experiences and being very educational. A good onboarding process for like an online service will oftentimes generate longer and longer subscriptions because people are have been successful with the product.



Geoff: Thanks! Can you maybe talk us through an example of a really tough challenge that you guys face, related to the conversion optimization and how you went about you know solving the problem? Or maybe given up and moving on? Something that’s really unique and interesting?

Brian: So that I think the toughest challenges are if you’re optimizing a funnel that doesn’t have a lot of transactions. We call it a low traffic strategy but it’s really about how many transactions you’re getting. What does that make it thousands and thousands and thousands of visits a month but the different funnels break off people and so you’ve got hundreds of conversions in each of those funnels and so optimizing any one of them takes a little bit longer? So we don’t want to be running tests for three months to wait for it to come to fruition. And so though that those are situations where you really have to steal your inner scientist and be ready for this because you’re gonna run seven tests for every winner, you’re gonna have six inconclusive tests, some of those might even reduce the conversion rate. But the reason is because in a low traffic situation or a lower transaction situation you are looking for home runs and you’re not gonna reach statistical significance, so you’re looking for things that in four weeks or two weeks you can see. One of the ideas is just is just going for the fences and those are rare so that requires a great deal of patience on our part, it requires a great deal of patience on our clients part, and that’s typically our biggest challenge. it does work though and for




Geoff : So when you encounter a situation like that, do your scientists coach patience and discipline to hope that you get a good result or I imagine the toughest challenge right to your point is the people who are running a business like that are looking for the silver bullet or the home run and may sort of lack some of the disciplines to get it done right?

Brian: Yeah, and I think this is happening less and less now. People are realizing they’re investing in a process but certainly early adopters for the last probably five years that we’ve been doing this have been coming in going “Alright there’s probably something really easy and obvious here, you guys can find it and then we’ll be happy, we’ll make more money thank you very much”, and so there was this educational process as we roll out our hypothesis list. And there’s everything from add ratings and reviews to your site which is a huge task, to change the fonts that your product pages are using make it bigger. They start to see some of those smaller ones they’re going like “Wait a minute what are we signing up here for?” and the goal is to find out what really works for your audience.




Geoff: Okay so shifting gears a little bit. Do you have some role models or influential people that sort of you look to for inspiration or to challenge yourself on a daily basis?

Brian: Well that’s a great question. So my greatest inspiration, and I continue to go back to the material that they developed back in 2006, Jeffrey and Brian Eisenberg. They live here in Austin. I don’t get to visit with them very much. I’m fortunate that I live in the conversion capital of the world, Austin, Texas. For whatever reason we have some of the biggest conversion optimization agencies, a large number of them and just a wealth of people who are practicing this, so on a monthly basis we all get together and compare notes. I guess because we’ve all worked so hard to communicate the value of these practices in this discipline and these tools over the years and you know, there’s plenty for everyone. We become friends with all of our competitors and most of them are here so that’s really where I get most of my inspiration. Being able to sit down and talk about what tests are working and not working it’s really really important we have an Open Office setup here because the cross pollenization of ideas is so important. Something that works for one e-commerce site should be on the hypothesis list for another site.



Geoff: That’s great, it kind of keeps you challenged and always there looking at new ways of doing things.

Brian: Yeah and sometimes what we’re doing is we feel like we’re placing bets. Like we have three good ideas here which one of these are we going to test when we’re placing bets on that and making real money on it too.


Geoff: I guess, to that end, how important is the concept of fail fast when you’re thinking about your tests or the money that you lay on those bets?

Brian: I mean ultimately that is what we are trying to do: fail fast. So as we get more tools that help us with our research we’re using that to cross things off with a hypothesis list faster. We can only test so much with the traffic we’ve got for any client so there’s a real barrier there. But we want to make sure that we are always in tests, that will always have something else queued up unless we’re needing to pause – to bake in some results or something like that. So fail fast is really important and that doubles down our need for a scientific approach because failing fast, we can very easily make snap decisions that we’re either calling something a winner when it’s not or we’re calling something a loser when it would have won, so we’ve really got to get our biases out of the way because the faster you go, the more your brain wants to make decisions with the lizard brain, the limbic system of the of the brain and that’s what we’re all about mitigating.



Geoff: As you started your business and built the business over time, now what’s some of the best advice you receive from others that kind of help you along the way?

Brian: There’s so much that goes into it I think that I think there was a point I distinctly remember where I  realized how important was to get comfortable with inconclusive tests. I mean that’s it’s probably the hardest thing that we deal with. You know I wish I could draw a specific a specific amazing quote for you let me think about that a little bit more and maybe we’ll we can cut that in a little bit later and see what comes up.



Geoff: Do you have a favorite motto or expression that you like to throw out there, that people associate with you?

Brian: My favorite motto is: “Never pet a burning dog”, which can have various meanings. What it means to me is don’t do something that’s obviously dumb and while that may sound like terrible advice, we see it all the time. We have data that shows, but they like “Yeah but we’re not going to do that”. And I’m like “Okay so you’re gonna walk away from 20% of your revenues?” – “Yes because I like this one better”. That’s petting a burning dog. The other interpretation of that is, when a dog’s on fire he doesn’t need to be pet, he needs to be put out. So we are often brought in while people are struggling because they’ve had a downturn in their advertising and their keywords are getting too expensive or we’ve run out of keywords, we can’t grow this, can you guys come and help us? And their tendency is always to keep investing in more and more traffic when they have a conversion rate sub 1%, they’re just not getting their money back out of it. If they could increase their conversion rates then they could afford to buy more keywords because they could bid more because their acquisition cost is lower and so that’s a situation where if we came in and say “Oh yeah we’ll help you with your AdWords campaign”, we’d be petting a burning dog. They really just need to put the fire out and it’s a conversion fire.



Geoff: I can assure you that that is an expression I will use. I love it!

So if you’re talking to a merchant or someone who’s run an online business and you know you see him at the coffee shop or something, what are some like typical basics to kind of get started for somebody who’s totally confused and overwhelmed by all the options there. What would you say? Sort of: “Hey look, you crawl first, then walk, and here’s what crawling looks like”.

Brian: So I’m going to tell you a story. The first thing that I tell anyone is: You are already wired to be a scientist. You’ve already got the wiring you do not have to have a Ph.D. in data science, you do not have to go to Google Analytics University, although I think you’ll find it very interesting once you get the idea that you are already wired for this.

And the story is the following. My 14-year-old son was building his first computer. Now the kids don’t go to the mall anymore, they meet online, they put the headsets on, get Skype on and they drop into League of Legend, Fortnight, World of Warcraft(when he was younger it was all about Minecraft) and they drop into these worlds. And that’s where their social world is. And it’s amazing problem-solving space. So if he got this computer wrong, it was gonna be a brick, he was gonna be stuck with it until he could cobble together another thousand dollars. At 14 he had pulled a thousand dollars together for this. He was meticulously specking everything he wanted for this amazing gaming computer, down to the motherboard. And he had two choices. Both of them were the same price and they both had the features he needed but one was rated 5 stars, one was rated 4 stars. So if you’re not a natural scientist you go “Well 5 is better than 4 so I’ll buy the 5-star motherboard”. But even at 14, he knew to go and check how many reviews were driving those ratings. It turns out there were only 5 reviews driving the 5-star rating, and there were 250 driving the 4-star rating. So at that young age and every one of the people listening here know, they’re calculating sample size which is what we’re talking about the number of reviews making some assumptions about the population if there are only 5 reviews, how many of these things could have been sold? Does it suck? Is it new? And you also are calculating the error range, so with the sample size is five, this could be a one-star motherboard; with a sample size of 250, might be a 3-star motherboard, might be a 5-star motherboard. None of us is thinking these terms, none of us is thinking confidence levels, sample sizes, population sizes. We’re already wired for it.




Geoff: That’s great advice! Stepping back away from conversion for a second and going back to your entrepreneur experience. There are thousands of online businesses starting up every day. What advice would you give to an entrepreneur out there that is just getting started?

Brian: Yeah, I actually do a lot of work with entrepreneurs. I am a mentor at the Founders Institute, I’m a teacher at Tech Ranch here in Austin which has a program called Venture Forth that allows people to start dive into their first businesses. So you mentioned earlier “fail fast”. No entrepreneur is gonna be surprised by “fail fast” but “fail cheap” is also what I prefer. So most entrepreneurs have heard of the concept of MVP, Minimal Viable Product. I take that a step back and say you should be starting with the MVMP, a Maximum Viable Non Product. You should be putting up landing pages that sell your product, that sell your service, and invite the visitor to buy and see how many people do that. You can that very inexpensively. You can do that by buying traffic. You can do that if you have an existing mailing list if a partner will allow you to mail to that mailing list. But you need to be using these tools because underneath that is running Google Analytics which is telling you what your conversion rates are and how many people are bouncing etc. You can be running your heatmap tools under that. So you can see how people are interacting. Maybe there’s something structural wrong with the page. It’s not your idea, it’s not the way you’re presenting it, there’s something structural wrong with the page.




Geoff: So beyond your book, which I’ll give you an opportunity to talk about again here in a second, are there are other books or resources that you’d recommend either entrepreneurs or folks looking to optimize their website?

Brian: Yeah the book that really catalyzed and I continue to use for especially for things like quickly doing personas is Jeffrey and Brian Heisenberg’s book “Waiting for your cat to bark”.  So we’ve got a lot of cats and dogs going on here today. I would recommend starting there. For landing pages, Tim Ash has a great book called “Landing page optimization” which really got me up several learning curves when we started testing. Online training there is, and I got to talk about my competitors but that’s what we do. Right here in Austin is the home of the ConversionXL Institute and it is the best training on analytics conversion optimization. Peep Laja has really put together a fantastic resource there so go and check that out. Those would be the starting places for me and I’m kind of a learner by doing, so do anything that builds your creativity and curiosity because what you’re gonna find is that when you know how to use this data it becomes a safety net.



Geoff: Remind our listeners or viewers one more time the title of your book and where to go find it?

Brian: Yeah so on Amazon: Your Customer Creation Equation: Unexpected Website Formulas of The Conversion Scientist.

Geoff: Excellent, thanks Brian, appreciate the talk! Any last thoughts?

Brian: Yeah I was gonna say that we are a teaching organization, we present all over the world and you’ll find amazing information on our blog at conversionsciences.com.

 Geoff: I really thank you for your time, I certainly enjoyed it! I know our attendees will enjoy the webinar as well and yeah, you have a great day!

Brian:  Thank you thank you!

Geoff: Now thanks to everyone for listening and we’ll see you next time on our to “2Inspire series”!



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