Performable Wants to Take the Guesswork Out of Web Marketing

Being a large Web company has its benefits. If you have hordes of visitors to your website and hordes of programmers on staff, you can afford to study potential site changes using “multivariate testing”—a fancy term for presenting different pages to different visitors and measuring which ones induce the behaviors you want, be it clicking on an ad or signing up for a newsletter.

Really big Web companies like Google take multivariate testing to an extreme, relying on user data for the tiniest of decisions. Indeed, visual designer Douglas Bowman left the search giant in a huff last March because, he claimed, the company studies everything to death—including, at one point, testing 41 different shades of blue for the toolbar on Google pages.

But most companies don’t have the technical or financial resources to test even two variations on a theme, let alone 41. Making multivariate testing more accessible to the masses [tweet] is the mission that Performable, a new startup based in Amesbury, MA, has chosen for itself. Created by David Cancel, the founder and former chief technology officer at Boston-based Web marketing firm Compete, Performable has spent the last several months introducing beta clients to its platform, which automates the creation and testing of “landing pages” designed to help with customer acquisition or lead generation.

Cancel says the platform allows users to test as many variations as they want. The more they try, the more traffic is required to generate usable data. But Cancel says you don’t need Google-scale traffic to do the simplest form of multivariate testing—comparing just two options, a practice also known as A/B testing. “In reality, most people just want to do a simple A/B test, looking at one variable on a page and then refining and iterating on that,” Cancel says. “It depends on the number of variables, but as long as you have monthly page views in the hundreds or more, it’s feasible.”

David Cancel, CEO of PerformableLast week Performable revealed that it has raised $3 million in Series A funding from Waltham, MA-based Charles River Ventures. The startup doesn’t really need that much money, since it has only three employees, four contractors, and no formal office, Cancel says. But he says he agreed to take the whole $3 million after CRV partner Izhar Armony—who also funded Cancel’s previous company, a Facebook ad network called Lookery—promised not to pressure the startup to spend it.

“We really need to focus on finding a scalable model, making sure the product fits the market, and finding the right price point and the features and options that have to be there, before we step on the gas pedal and hire a bunch of people,” Cancel says. “Luckily we found Izhar, who wanted to build the business this way and supported us. We didn’t pitch anybody else.”

Cancel says the idea for Performable came from his work at Compete, which he left in 2007. Most people know Compete as a source of Web traffic comparisons, but the company’s real focus is on services to improve the performance of clients’ online marketing campaigns. Says Cancel, “One of the most frustrating things on the services side of Compete was when we’d go into a client, and they would pay us a ton of money, and we would tell them things like, ‘You need to change the copy on this microsite.’ And they’d always say the same thing: ‘We can’t. We have no control.'”

To make substantive, or even trivial, changes to their websites, Cancel says, clients had to work through layers of Web designers, developers, and outside advertising agencies—which usually meant the changes never happened. “It’s great to talk about marketing tactics, but the truth is that even at the high end, most marketing departments can’t do any of that on their own,” Cancel says.

That suggested an opportunity. After leaving Lookery—a company that Cancel says he and former Compete colleague Scott Rafer started “as a project, not a business,” and that eventually spun down after selling off its ad network to Adknowledge—the serial entrepreneur was ready for … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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