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Maturing The CRO Industry: PRWD CEO Paul Rouke Interview

Conversion Rate Optimisation

Paul Rouke is the founder and CEO at conversion optimisation agency PRWD. Over the last seventeen years he’s helped increase the conversion rate of brands like Shop Direct, Booking.com, AO.com, Speedo, Bank of America and The North Face. Paul is also an international keynote speaker, author and a big advocate of self-improvement.

I’ve got a lot of respect for the way that PRWD works. They’re an agency that are obsessively focused on user research, so I sat down with Paul to find out more about how he got started and how PRWD executes.


TL;DR: Highlights from the interview

  • He’s been in this game for a long time, starting as Shop Direct’s first-ever web designer in 1999 before founding PRWD in 2004
  • “Decision makers that we speak to would benefit from…understanding and observing the importance of user behaviour”
  • On CRO: “Businesses need to understand their customers and visitors much more than they currently do. It’s time to walk the walk and become customer centric.”
  • On the skills needed to be a good CRO: “Using positivity and passion to help persuade, convince, educate and enlighten decision makers is really important.”
  • A core tool for the business is 7Geese, an objective and key results platform

The Interview

Q: How would you describe PRWD and what do you do each day?

I founded PRWD as a conversion optimization agency in 2004, and we work with mid-size to enterprise level brands to not only bring in our continuous growth methodology to their business, but also to help businesses evolve culturally. I want them to really harness experimentation and work towards having a growth mind-set, which not many businesses tend to do.

In my role as CEO I set the strategic direction for the business. And on a daily basis, I’m either spending time with my team, including my operations director, who runs the day-to-day of the agency, or I’m working on one of our strategic initiatives, writing our second book, or developing a talk for an upcoming presentation.

Q: How did you get started in CRO? Did you choose to do it or was it accidental?

It was actually 17 years ago and I was working at Shop Direct. They are now the UK’s biggest retailer and I was working in their catalogue print department, so just a traditional catalogue retailer. An opportunity came up to become their first web designer as they began the long process of digital transformation. So that was my first role, my first web design role, and within my first two years, whilst I was redesigning home pages, e-mail landing pages and checkouts, I experienced first-hand something that has proven to be one of the most important things in my digital career and that was watching moderated user research.

Observing these first research sessions made me realize just how important it is to invest time in speaking with end-users to help understand how digital experiences can and should be improved. Now understanding user behaviour is the foundation to what we do as a conversion optimization agency. Fast forward 15 years to today and I think that many, many decision makers that we speak to would benefit from what I experienced in terms of realizing the importance of understanding and observing the importance of user behaviour.

Q: I remember seeing Matt Lawson at one of your events he was talking about how they shared screen recordings with members of the AO management team. And he watched them go “Oh, man, just move the mouse there. I can see what you need to do. Just go there.” Do you still feel like there’s a challenge beyond the CRO and the UX and the marketing teams to get directors to understand the importance of user research?

User research, whether that’s moderated one-to-one or remote user research like what users do on AO.com, which is what Matthew described, is still the most undervalued element of improving digital experiences. It still shocks me as to the lack of user research and consumer understanding within businesses.

In big redesign processes often user research is the part of the project that gets removed because of budget or time constraints. It’s still a huge opportunity area for businesses to become truly customer-centric because so many companies say they’re customer-centric, but when we ask them, “When was the last time you spoke to your customers one-to-one and observed their behaviour on your website?” it can often be 12 months or 18 months away since they last did that.

It’s a really big challenge to get decision makers to realize the importance of understanding user behaviour and watching behaviour. What a lot of this comes down to is there needs to be more humility within businesses, rather than egotism that drives decision making about things, so less of “This is what we’ll do and this is how we’ll do it.”

More senior people need to understand the importance of observing user behaviour and to see the reality rather than the perception of their online experience.

Q: With that challenge in mind is getting user research in front of stakeholders the key to tipping them over the edge, to getting access to more budget and resource?

It’s a wake up call that we need to make improvements to websites and we need to understand our customers and visitors much more than we currently do.

Get the user research videos and the evidence of the need for change and the need to improve an experience. That is so important because it’s that perception versus reality, and recognising that actually we don’t know our visitors and our customers as well as well as what we thought we did.

To add weight onto this, when people are looking to gain some traction and gain some impact within their business what we’d advocate to do is when you do the research on your own web experience, to also do the research on one or two of your key competitors. So the same scenarios, but with two of your big competitors because that does two things.

Firstly it allows the user to compare and contrast different experiences and to identify strengths and weaknesses and things they like and dislike.

Secondly when you’ve got this evidence and when you’re getting this in front of decision makers, it provides a greater level of a shock tactic because you’re showing your decision makers, “Look at how people are using our website versus how well they’re enjoying our competitor websites.”

Q: So when you’re looking to hire someone into your business, are you interested in formal qualifications?

Qualifications are not the first thing we look for when we’re hiring, but we look at what people have studied if they’ve gone to college or university and the grades that they’ve got. The grades can be a really good indication of their dedication and passion for the subject matter that they were studying.

The things that we’re looking for are a hunger and desire to learn and become the best you can be, alongside having some industry experience. It’s more about their natural abilities like drive, determination, humility, having an inquisitive nature, critical thinking, open-mindedness. Then the cultural fit is extremely important. We’ve got six brand values: be open, be the change, be genuine, be experimental, be happy and be expert. During our interview process we get a really good understanding of whether a candidate will fit our culture and our brand values.

For hiring I use the classic HiPPO term, which previously meant the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion. I published an article online that summarizes the characteristics that are hugely important to us and I think probably to any business that really wants to move forward and have a growth mind-set, and that is Humility, Integrity, Passion, Positivity and Open-mindedness.

Q: Is a good employee in a CRO agency, or in a business, one that can convince stakeholders? Is that skill now a requirement of being a CRO?

Yeah, very much so. In my reinvented HIPPO, the P and the P, the Passion and the Positivity is so important because ultimately if you’re passionate then this can help breed engagements for conversion optimization. When you’re passionate about something of course you will enjoy it more and have more impact.

Positivity is something that’s so important because you need to embrace the fact that everything isn’t going to be all plain sailing. We don’t need to win with every test but we should be looking to learn from tests that don’t win. On an individual level and business level being positive and focusing on the long-term impact that you’re creating is far more important than just purely focusing on the quick wins and the short-term fixes.

Using positivity and passion help persuade, convince, educate and enlighten decision makers is really important.


Q: What kinds of tools and processes are an important part of your day-to-day work?

To get content out into industry and into the world we use Infusionsoft to help deliver our marketing strategy alongside the main social channels: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.

We’re a very open agency, and the team here share a wide range of content on different mediums, including our own blog, the Econsultancy blog, webinars, podcasts and presentations. In 2015 we published our first book: The Growth Strategy That’s Being Ignored which features 16 industry thought leaders in conversion optimization who all answer the question: “What is holding companies back from growing through conversion optimization?”

The book features insights from everyone in CRO, like Craig Sullivan, Peep Laja, Oli Gardner, Bryan Eisenberg, Talia Wolf, Angie Schottmuller and Roger Dooley. And we’re talking a lot at the moment about our CRO Maturity Audit tool.

Trello is an important tool for us, Slack has proven to be a really valuable, particularly over this last 18 months where the team has grown significantly. Personally, I’ve used Mindjet MindManager, I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t using a mind mapping too. I use it for everything from planning articles and talks, all the way through documenting and prioritizing key themes from user research.

Another core tool for the business is a tool called 7Geese. And this is our Objectives and Key Results platform, as well as providing our colleague recognition and our one-to-one solution as well. OKR is something that’s been brought in by Google and Facebook and some of the huge, enterprise-level brands. It’s all about having transparency of what the business is looking to achieve, but then how everyone in business has a role to play in achieving the objectives. So it’s a very open and transparent way of creating the right kind of culture within a business.

7Geese also allows us to provide 360 feedback. At the moment that’s internal and it provides upward feedback for myself and my management team. Looking to how we can harness that feedback internally is important.

For our clients we’re tool agnostic, so we use a variety of testing tools dependant on the suitability of them for the different clients and their maturity.

Q: For those wanting to start in CRO what would you do differently? Are there any learnings that you would tell a younger Paul?

Looking back it’s more about how can I share my experiences with other people who are maybe at an earlier point in their career, so I can provide them with some valuable learnings and maybe some inspiration. So the things that I’d be telling people just starting out in this industry is to take it seriously, don’t just jump on the bandwagon with CRO becoming such a kind of highly in-demand discipline within the digital industry.

Harness relentless creativity and inquisitiveness, and ideally you want to be replacing your egotism with humility. And that brings about having more respect from other people and listening more than you talk. These are just some of the foundational elements that I would be recommending people think about for them to have a really successful career in this industry.

Q: When you talk about egotism, what is your experience of it related to CRO?

It’s a kind of feeling that I know best, the unwillingness to either listen to your colleagues or listen to users and a failure to be open-minded to other people’s ideas and suggestions. Egotism can affect people at different levels of a business, whether it’s the CEO all the way down to the person that’s just started.

You always have to be mindful of it, especially as you’re increasing your experiences and increasing your learnings. You’re going to be much more informed than other people earlier on their career, but that doesn’t mean that you have all the answers. So it’s just keeping that open-mindedness continuously that you value and respect the ideas of other people and you listen to other people.

Q: How important are online communities to you? What do you take from them?

There is an immense amount of online noise for conversion optimization. Just take one look at the CRO hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see just how much content there is to get through. But not just content about conversion optimization, it’s what Peep Laja would call “bullshit content.” This is what he shared in our book The Growth Strategy That’s Being Ignored. So it can be really hard for marketeers to have confidence in how intelligent and reliable the content is that they’re reading.

There’s two communities that I’d recommend. There’s a group set up by ConversionXL and Peep on Facebook and they’ve created a large, open group which provides really interesting discussions for people involved in conversion optimization.

There’s a closed group on Facebook that I created entitled We Are Growth Leaders. This is for people who are actively looking to become the advocates of change within their business, irrespective of their position, and for people who want to help make this culture change within the business. There’s less egotism, there’s more of a growth mind-set, there’s more humility, and there’s more customer-centricity.

PRWD CRO Maturity Audit

Q: When you’re an agency in the CRO space how important is it to be building things and sharing them with the community?

I created our conversion optimization maturity audit in 2013 because businesses three years ago were investing in optimization, but they just weren’t really getting the value, learnings or impact from it.

Now we’ve developed it into a free to use online application, so anyone around the world can use it for any business. This helps them mature their business, and helps to mature the industry, because many agencies of different skill sets and backgrounds are offering conversion optimization to their clients, but typically don’t have a full and rich understanding of how to do this properly and what impact that they need to make culturally within their clients’ businesses.

This process is around four pillars of growth for strategic optimization. So the first pillar is strategy and culture, the second pillar is tools and technology, the third is people and skills, and the fourth is process and methodology. Sat within the pillars are a range of assessment points that businesses can ask themselves and answer. And for each of the assessment points, there’s actually five levels of maturity, so it isn’t just a yes or no answer.

So the five levels of maturity are beginner, aspiring, progressive, strategic and transformative. So this allows businesses to answer one question, a range of questions. I’ll give you one as an example; “Can you describe the mind-set of your business?” The answers range from, “My business mainly focuses on what it has always done and how it has always done it,” all the way through to the transformative end of the maturity level, which is that your business has a true growth mind-set. So it’s anti-fragile, encourages great decisions, overcomes short-term challenges, moves quickly, and understands and embraces unpredictability.

Now, you can probably imagine from that, that there’s not too many businesses that would probably fit into that transformative category. Most businesses are probably at the lower end of maturity in this area. But that’s just one example.

For the state and maturity of the industry we’re sharing this for free, and I think it’s important part of being in this community, to build things and share things.

Core to PRWD and me personally is helping bring about the necessary change and maturity of conversion optimisation within businesses across the world, in what is a slowly evolving conversion optimisation industry.

Our 10 minute online maturity audit can be used whether you work client-side or agency side, and using it and taking action will help lead to more businesses becoming customer centric and embracing a culture of experimentation – and ultimately more businesses for us all to work within.

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