5 Lessons I’ve Learned Working at CXL

CXL Lessons Learned

After about two years, today is my very last day doing content and growth at CXL.

In celebration of this amazing experience, I want to share the five most important lessons I’ve learned during my time here.

1. Process is everything.

Before I joined the CXL team, I had been working in marketing for quite a few years. I knew a little bit about a lot of things.

That’s why I was so excited about the optimization process, which looks something like this…

Optimization Process

Which looks a lot like the growth process

Growth Process

These structured frameworks can be applied to literally every type of marketing I’ve ever experimented with. I’m talking SEO, PPC, PR, social media, content marketing… you name it. It brings them all together.

This small shift in mindset has forever changed the way I think about and approach marketing.

Once you have the process, everything you do becomes data-driven and the insights you extract from your efforts are more powerful. Ego fades, opinions go quiet and it’s easier to get the entire team moving in the same direction.

Now, if you read CXL on the regular, you’re already well aware of how important process is. Yet, many of you still struggle with the implementation. (There are, after all, a lot of things we know, but don’t do.)

According to our most recent State of the Industry Report, only 32% of small companies have a documented, structured process and large companies aren’t doing much better at 42%…

Documented, Structured Process

A surprising 26% of respondents meet with their optimization team “only when necessary”…

Optimization Meetings

In short, it’s easy to read the guides and the articles, to know that process trumps tactics and gut feelings. It’s more difficult to put that knowledge to use every day.

Ask yourself…

  • Do we have a documented, structured optimization process?
  • Do we meet at least once a week to talk about optimization and growth?
  • If not, why? Who has the power to help me make the necessary changes?

You can read an entire article we wrote on getting internal buy-in to help you sway stakeholders towards this process-oriented approach. But it starts with you. How can you shift from sporadic and opinion-driven to disciplined and data-driven in your day-to-day?

This quote from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, will always be one of my favorites…

Losers have goals. Winners have systems.

2. Thorough and useful are two very different things.

There’s one thing I knew about Peep before I started working at CXL: he was definitely going to call my bullshit.

Peep Bio

I’ll be honest though, I suspected it was a bit of a branding tactic. How much bullshit could there possibly be in one industry? A lot, it turns out.

In fact, there might be more bullshit floating around the optimization and growth space than any other space I’ve had the opportunity to work in. Tell me none of these sound familiar…

  • 101 growth hacks to try right now.
  • 99 things to test right now.
  • The button color test that unlocked a 2,000% uplift.
  • 999 optimizers on their favorite tools.

Case studies with bad math (thus, invalid results) run rampant. We legitimately thought about (and even bought the domain for) a site dedicated to calling out sites that post bullshit case studies. Sample size of 18? C’mon.

So, of course, this translated to how I approached content.

CXL had a reputation for producing thorough, useful content long before I arrived. My task was to maintain the same level of quality while growing the readership.

At the same time, I knew that thoroughness was catching on. Competitive blogs were writing longer and longer articles. Andy Crestodina and the Orbit Media team have confirmed this in their most recent blogger survey.

Marketers are continuously spending more time writing…

Average Time Spent

And they’re continuously turning out longer articles…

Length of Posts

But I fought the natural instinct to write the longest, most thorough article. Instead, I focused on usefulness. The two don’t go hand-in-hand, though they’re often thought to. There’s a lot of thorough bullshit out there. 6,000 words you can’t actually put to work for you.

When you change your mindset here, what you don’t include becomes just as important as what you do include. How you present the content becomes more important than word count.

I started thinking of articles like sales pages.

Sure, some were long-form for a very specific audience who could extract a lot of value. The goal there had to be to keep people moving through the article and make it scannable for those who fell just outside the specific audience.

Many others were not long-form at all… because they didn’t need to be.

This lesson in usefulness vs. thoroughness applies to a lot of other areas as well. Analytics and testing reports, conversion research presentations, etc.

3. Work smarter, not harder.

In my mind, content marketing breaks down into three factors…

3 Factors

If you get each of them right, you’re going to reap the rewards. Prior to working at CXL, here’s how I spent my time…

80/20

That’s what the industry preaches, right? 80/20 this, 80/20 that.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my time here comes from Drew Sanocki’s ecommerce growth course

We get caught in tactical manoeuvre hell, where we look at all these tactical opportunities and get stressed out about optimizing this entire thing when it really only boils down to these three multipliers.

These aren’t multipliers (we’ll get to them in a minute), but they do compound. And almost no one is talking about that third factor, content optimization.

Here’s how I spend my time now…

33%

Back to the multipliers. Another major thing I’ve learned at CXL is that you need to measure close to the money. I still remember laughing the first time I heard Peep say, “If you want to improve your conversion rate, all you have to do is make it free.”

It was an aha moment… optimize for more revenue, not more conversions.

So, I applied that philosophy as well as Drew’s concept of three multipliers to content marketing. It looks something like this…

Content Multipliers

The idea is that instead of focusing on (a) pageviews and (b) the conversion rate of Popup A, you’re focusing on actual revenue generated from content marketing. Further, if you simply focus on improving each of the three elements by 30%, you’re going to more than double revenue generated from content in a year…

500 leads captured x 0.5 purchases per lead x $10 value on average = $2,500

vs.

600 leads captured x 0.65 purchases per lead x $13 value on average = $5,070

(I haven’t talked about this concept publicly before, so let me know in the comments if you think it’s, well, bullshit.)

Of course, there’s Drew’s intended ecommerce application, but I’m willing to bet the same concept can be applied to a lot of different types of marketing, not just content.

4. Insights come from analysis.

I suppose it seems obvious when it’s written out in a subheading like that, huh? Unfortunately, like a lot of marketers I’ve spoken to, I was once in love with out of the box metrics.

Out of the Box

I more or less expected to open up Google Analytics and have the insights jump out at me. The fact that I actually had to go digging and analyze the data to find anything meaningful was a harsh reality.

Now, I learned that lesson before joining the CXL team, but working at CXL really taught me how to go about that exploration and analysis. (Here’s an article I wrote on the topic of web analytics analysis, if you’re interested.)

Actually, shortly after I joined the team, I did a conversion research project for a CXL agency client with Peep and Alex. A big part of that project was web analytics analysis. Watching the reports Peep dug into, the filters and advanced segments he applied, etc. really helped guide me.

(I’ve also had the luxury of talking to Chris Mercer and Yehoshua Coren a few times in the past. Their quotes and guest contributions on the topic were incredibly enlightening.)

The conversion research project framed everything I learned from then on. Anyone can conduct user testing or run a survey or conduct QA on a site or open Google Analytics… the skill is in the analysis.

Customization

The skill is in asking the right questions, knowing where to start looking for the answers and turning data uncovered into meaningful business insights. It’s a whole different game.

While we’re on the topic of uncovering insights, I should mention that I also learned that there is a lot more to optimization than A/B testing.

Before you get out your pitchforks, let me say that I worked exclusively with startups prior to CXL. Almost no one talks about optimization with startups because…

  1. They don’t have a lot of money. (Thus, not a high value client.)
  2. They don’t have enough traffic to test. (Thus, not a solid long-term client.)
  3. They need big lifts to see big results. (1-3% means a lot to an enterprise.)

So, yeah, I essentially equated “CRO” and “A/B testing”. Little did I know, a lot of familiar practices fall under the “CRO” umbrella…

  • PPC
  • Copywriting
  • UX / Design
  • Psychology and Persuasion
  • Analytics

And there’s a lot of familiar ways to optimize your site outside of just running tests…

ResearchXL

5. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

Shortly after I was hired, we started working on CXL Institute, an optimization and growth training program. Peep, Alex and I focused on promotion. We needed that initial traction.

Things started to really, really take off.

Who Uses CXL Institute

Then CXL Live came along. Article deadlines were constantly looming.

Long story short? I had thousands and thousands of dollars worth of world-class (everything’s taught by expert practitioners) educational content at my fingertips and I wasn’t using it.

These days, I try to dedicate an hour every night to learning something from CXL Institute. Why? Because if you’re not actively making yourself better, you’re getting worse.

Optimization and growth is a young industry. Actually, 50% of the marketers we surveyed last year had been working in the industry for less than three years. 20% of them for less than one…

Experience Level

It’s easy to understand why the industry is changing so quickly. That’s why Peep is always saying the half-life of optimization know-how is 2-3 years.

If you’re not putting in the effort to keep up, you’re falling behind.

This lesson was easy and difficult to learn all at once because it’s something I think I knew all along. After all, I never really stopped learning, I just slowed. I was less purposeful. I let the “I’m busy” excuse fly more often than I should have.

Don’t let yourself make excuses. I’m actually going to end on this cheesy Seth Godin quote…

How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable?

Conclusion

These lessons stand out as the most important to me, but there have been so many more along the way. I hope they serve you as well as they have served me.

For those wondering, I’ll be heading to Shopify at the end of the month. I’ll be getting back to my roots, helping entrepreneurs / small businesses with marketing and growth.

I guess all that’s left now is to say thank you…

  • Thank you to Peep for giving me this opportunity.
  • Thank you to anyone who has read even one of my articles.
  • Thank you to the optimization and growth experts who have so openly shared their expertise with me.
  • Thank you to the CXL team for never making me feel like the smartest person in the room.

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Hi Shanelle,

    Thank you for sharing these insights with us.

    Sorry to see you leave CXL but happy you’re landing in a good spot (is this where everyone goes after CXL? Say hi to Tommy).

    It was great meeting you at the last two CXL Live events and I wish you nothing but the best with your endeavors.

    Who will be our fantastic note taker at next year’s event? ;)

    Congratulations on the new gig and we’ll see you around the blog.

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      It was great meeting you too, Carlos! Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate the support!

  2. Shanelle,

    First off, great post. Lots of good learnings from it.

    Second, I agree with you on the 33% split on content. There’s a lot of opportunity on the optimization side – whether it’s improving CTAs to capture more leads or improving posts to increase rankings in search… not many people are talking about it, but more people should. I’d love to see you write about that more.

    Lastly, sad to see you leave, you’ve done a great job with this blog and I’ve enjoyed reading all of the content you’ve produced. Good luck in the next step of your career.

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks Benji. I definitely will! I’m also planning a presentation on it right now, actually.

      I really appreciate the promo support over the last couple of years, my friend. Thanks again.

  3. Congrats on your big move, Shanelle.

    There’s a bunch of BS in this industry but never in your posts. I’ve always loved the style of writing here. It’s clear, concise (not necessarily short), and accurate. The perfect mix of what I like about academic and marketing writing.

    So, which Shopify office will you be working out of? They’ve got a killer one where I live (Waterloo Ontario).

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks a lot, Josh! A big compliment coming from you.

      Toronto! But I’m sure I’ll make it up to KW from time to time when I’m closer.

  4. I could have copied and pasted ALL of point two! I’ll resist, except …

    “But I fought the natural instinct to write the longest, most thorough article. Instead, I focused on usefulness. The two don’t go hand-in-hand, though they’re often thought to. There’s a lot of thorough bullshit out there. 6,000 words you can’t actually put to work for you.”

    Wow. I’m gonna emblaze those last two sentences on my heart, mind, and (if I can convince my lovely wife it’s okay) my skin.

    And OM to the G … I am so excited about your next move!

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks Aaron, I really appreciate it. Can’t wait to see your new ink! ;)

  5. Thanks Shanelle for all the great posts. Take care!

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks for reading, Ronald! You too.

  6. Aaron sent me here via his share on Facebook. I don’t have time to read much these days, which makes me very selective. But I’m glad I stopped by for this one.

    A great read with some insights and timely reminders, I love the quote “Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

    I also really like the compounding content marketing/optimisation idea, but what happens to the last 1%? ;-)

    Ed

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks for taking the time, Ed.

      The remaining 1% goes towards procrastinating on Twitter, I imagine! ;)

  7. Another great post! You’ve consistently raised the bar on great content. I regularly read your blogs, knowing I’ll be getting actionable insights (rather than the high-level fluff that often prevails in the industry and content marketing in general). Kudos on all the great work you did during your tenure at CXL! Best of luck on your next venture.

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      I really appreciate that, Kate. Thank you! I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.

  8. What a fantastic last blog post Shanelle.

    “This is also why it’s useless to copy A/B tests from sites like WhichTestWon, and hope for the same result. Stop that. Websites are highly contextual.”

    So true. It’s easy to play “copycat” with your competitors but there is no quick fix and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another.

    All the best at Shopify.

    Phil

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks Phil! I’m glad you liked it.

      I couldn’t agree more. The ResearchXL article Peep put together was just incredibly valuable.

  9. Congrats on the new move Shanelle! Always time well spent reading your posts. Thanks for all the lessons so far and excited to see what you do moving forward!

    Reply
    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks so much, Harrison! Just happy you found the content helpful.

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5 Lessons I’ve Learned Working at CXL