Performable Wants to Take the Guesswork Out of Web Marketing

1/20/10Follow @wroush

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 his next move. With Elias Torres, a Lookery colleague who is now Performable’s chief technology officer, and a Newburyport, MA-based interface designer named Joshua Porter, he started exploring the then-burgeoning topic of A/B testing.

“We created a ton of landing pages and campaigns, and started to test a whole bunch of different concepts, and the more we got down this road the more we realized that even for people like us, who are very technical, this is an insanely difficult process,” Cancel says. Serious multivariate testing on the Web requires not just choosing which messages or design elements to test, but setting up the test pages themselves and measuring what visitors do once they find them (not to mention refining the test pages based on the incoming data, then testing them some more). “It’s a path that very few people can get down on their own,” says Cancel. “So we started to build a platform to do a lot of that automatically.”

Performable’s Web-based system—which Cancel says is already being used by “some great companies” that the startup isn’t quite ready to name—makes it easy for non-technical marketing professionals or website managers to create marketing-oriented Web pages customized for their own industry, be it healthcare or wireless communications. Since Performable hosts the pages, users don’t have to change anything about their main websites—which is a huge plus, given the rigmarole required to implement website design changes even at small companies.

A Performable user simply selects an action he wants to carry out—he may want to capture visitors’ e-mail addresses, or get them to download an application or a whitepaper. Performable gives the user a template optimized to induce that action, along with a URL that can be integrated into a marketing campaign. “And if you click ‘clone,’” says Cancel, “you can duplicate that page and start testing multiple versions with different marketing copy. You could create 20 versions of a page in 10 minutes, if you wanted to. We’d automatically start routing traffic to the different pages, then tell you which ones are performing better.”

Normally I could point you to a company website explaining such details in greater depth, but Cancel says his team has been so heads-down working with clients and improving the platform that it hasn’t had time to build one.

Cancel says the software is evolving with input from Performable’s early users. One feature the company has added is a set of guidelines or best practices for multivariate testing. “What we find is that a lot of people don’t even know what they should be testing,” Cancel says. “We dive down through the process. We ask things like, ‘Do you have much traffic?’ If the answer is no, then don’t even consider multivariate testing because you will never have enough traffic to be significant. If you do, try a simple A/B test—and maybe start by testing the button text in your call to action. We suggest what we’ve seen perform best for that industry and the action you’re trying to evoke.”

As another way to promote awareness and understanding of A/B testing, Performable launched ABtests.com, a community site where members can share their own A/B testing results and learn from others’ campaigns. Interestingly, Cancel says the site has attracted large numbers of copywriters and Web designers, who feel that it gives them “a way to make sure the things they’re recommending to clients have measurable benefits—and to show why their work is worth more than a $15 template created by somebody in Romania.”

Cancel says Performable won’t expand much, and won’t even work on raising its public profile or building out its own website, until it’s had time to get its large backlog of beta clients up and running on the Performable platform. “There’s a large amount of consulting involved in bringing new clients on,” he says—a sure sign that the system isn’t quite automated or scalable enough. “Until we figure that out, we’re not going to accelerate.”

Meanwhile, Cancel had some unrelated news to share this week: He’s sold Ghostery, a small business he formed as a side project while working on Lookery. Ghostery is a Firefox browser plugin that alerts Web surfers to the hidden scripts websites use to track visitor behavior. As PaidContent first reported yesterday, the Better Advertising Project, a New York startup promoting accountability in advertising, has purchased the app for an undisclosed price.

Cancel says it was Sim Simeonov, a former partner at Polaris Venture Partners who now runs executive consulting firm FastIgnite, who provided him with an introduction to Better Advertising. He isn’t at liberty to disclose how much the company paid for Ghostery, but wrote in an e-mail late Tuesday that he is “very happy with the sale price,” especially considering that he “didn’t spend anytime marketing it or thinking about it as a business.”

The audience for Ghostery “grew 100 percent organically, instead of pushing a rock up a hill like with my businesses,” Cancel writes. “Ghostery got press and users despite my ignoring it…I’ve heard from many ad networks and publishers like the WSJ and NY Times that their entire ad operations teams use Ghostery internally to track which networks are running on their sites and on competitive sites. Totally amazing to me that they’ve picked it up and use it as part of their day to day workflow. This was all accidental.”

So while Performable is all about making Web-based marketing and selling less accidental, it seems that good things come even to those who don’t study things to death.

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

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    I always have time for a good interview with David Cancel. I like the way he thinks–he’s given me great advice when I’ve asked. I like that he can straddle vision and big picture while always having his feet solidly planted on the ground. That came through in this article.

  • Online marketing tanácsadó

    David cancel is great. Online marketing can only work if it is constantly examined and worked on. That is what my experience dictates. There is no single solution to different problems or results online.