My background is in advertising. Many years ago, I read the classic book by Claude Hopkins, Scientific Advertising. The crux of the book is very simple: that advertising should be based on A/B testing and numbers, not just creative hunches.

Hopkins' Scientific Advertising is one of those books that everyone in the advertising industry has read and raves about. David Ogilvy claimed it changed his life, even stating that no one should be allowed to practice advertising until they'd read the book seven times!

And yet, rarely do advertisers actually heed Hopkins' advice and test their ads, one version against another, to determine which approach works best. Instead, they take what they think is their best idea, and run with it. In other words, they guess!

I believe there are three reasons why A/B testing is so rarely done in traditional advertising:

  1. Budget. It's expensive enough to produce one ad. Producing a second, test ad is seen as wasteful.
  2. Inertia. A/B testing isn't part of the established process.
  3. Ego. To succeed in advertising, you must have confidence in your ideas. To admit you're not sure which approach would work best is… well, something most people in the advertising industry just can't do!

And so, Claude Hopkins' ideal of scientific advertising remained largely unrealized despite its unquestionable validity. Advertisers paid lip service to the book's principles, but rarely implemented them.

All this is about to change, at least in the online world. With Google Website Optimizer, there's simply no reason not to A/B test one page against another:

  • The tool (Google Website Optimizer) is free
  • The cost of producing an alternate web page is low (in many cases, free)
  • Data collection is free and fast
  • In no time, you know which version performs best

The only real hurdle is that learning how to use the tool takes a bit of time. However, given the enormous potential benefit, it's time well spent.

Hopkins wrote his classic book in 1923 and died in 1932. But I suspect that if he were alive today, he'd be a big fan of Google Website Optimizer!