I’ve been struggling with this question a lot lately as I talk to companies trying to figure out how to organize internally for testing. Some companies want to own testing and start running from day one, while others want to ramp up slowly with a few resources working part-time on it. Some are content to run just a few tests a year through IT, and still others want to outsource the whole operation to a vendor or agency.

Should Testing Be Outsourced?

That last segment is the one I grapple with the most. I don’t think the question is whether you can outsource testing and optimization, but whether you should. For any company serious about their online channel, I believe that their marketers should already be thinking every day about how to improve the site and all acquisition efforts leading to the site. Those ideas should be the fuel powering the optimization engine, so what would make a company want to turn that over to somebody else to manage? Does that mean there’s no fuel in-house, or that the fuel is bad grade? If so, that seems to point to a larger problem for the company than just whether testing can be outsourced.

None of this is to say that I don’t believe in the value of vendors, consultants and agencies contributing to your optimization efforts. I’ve seen many cases where 3rd-parties have helped produce fantastic results for their clients. They bring their extensive experience with other companies and fresh insights to help marketers think about their decisions from a testing perspective. But I’ve also seen companies slash those parties off the budget without thinking twice because nobody at the company actually cared about testing. Here are the main reasons why I don’t think testing can be fully outsourced:

1) No Testing Culture - There is a huge unquantifiable benefit to having a testing culture instilled at a company. It means that people are more thoughtful and less careless because they are forced to make data-driven decisions. It also means that they feel more empowered to have ideas because they will get to see them in action on the site. An employee who sees that he or she has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for their company through a great idea that got tested on the site will certainly be motivated and motivate others to produce more stellar results!

2) Less Learnings - If a 3rd-party is managing a company’s testing efforts, then all the learnings that come out of that testing don’t usually make it back out to the rest of team, especially if those tests produce negative ROI. They are still incredibly valuable though, as they can inform how designs should be planned moving forward. Imagine if an agency tests a big hero image against several small product images and finds one much more compelling than the other. That could change how other marketing efforts such as site redesigns and direct mail pieces are designed, but only if that information is circulated.

3) Easily Removed - As I said before, divorcing optimization from the company makes it easily removable as a nice-to-have instead of a must-have. This issue is not isolated to just outsourcing the operation though. I’ve also seen it happen many times when there is only one person at a company managing testing. That champion might be generating many testing successes, but once they leave, nobody knows how to run it or wants to take on extra work. Beware of tribal knowledge! The most successful testing companies maintain a knowledgebase so they can easily reference previous learnings and not be back at square 1 if a subject matter expert leaves.

4) Less Collaboration - Testing forces people to talk to each other. Disconnected landing page experiences are often a result of disconnected marketers. An acquisition marketer is incented to get people to the landing page. A site marketer is incented to drive people to conversion. There needs to be some common objective that forces them to talk to each other. I’ve also seen testing help align marketing and IT. Instead of asking IT to simply put another tag on the page, marketing should explain what that tag’s purpose is and that it is a 1-time effort that will actually make their lives easier moving forward. That helps IT understand the value of implementation and provides context for why it’s different from the other tags on the page.

Again, there are amazing resources out there to help you start testing successfully. This post is not meant to detract from the immediate value they offer to jumpstart your optimization program. Take advantage of the best practices learned by others and use the valuable strategy, advice and creativity they can provide. But please, consider the benefits of using 3rd-parties to get your testing legs under you so that you can run on your own eventually! Spread the love and bring people into the optimization process. It’s more fun to have a running partner than to watch other people running laps around you.

Photos credits:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/cindy47452/144655993/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/avalonstar/163502744/

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