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Resourcing for CRO? Hiring In-house vs. Agency

Let’s just admit it: CRO is a hot topic right now.

Conversion rate optimization – otherwise known as CRO – is quite the darling in digital marketing because, to use simple parlance, companies don’t want their websites to suck (or at least suck less). 

Until recently, digital marketing efforts were largely focused on driving traffic to their websites with activities like SEO, PPC, and social media channels. But the home base for a digital marketing strategy – the website itself – was all too often neglected.

As the pandemic has pushed more customer interactions and purchases online either partially or exclusively, company executives are going, Wait. I’ve spent all this money on digital but our site is a hot mess. Likewise, more website managers are feeling the pressure with traffic up, conversions down, and the business’s next few quarters riding on them to save the day.

Enter CRO with its promise of transformative properties to turn more site visitors into customers. The right CRO team can improve experience and conversion rates, but companies are facing the question of whether to hire an agency or go in-house. In this post, we discuss which is the better route for your business.

What You Need to Build an In-House Team (A Lot)

Prepare to get a team together if you’re going in-house. In the vast majority of cases, it isn’t feasible to combine all of the skills required to implement a successful CRO strategy into one position. You’ll need to find a band of people with the following skills:

  • Coding: a full-time developer or potentially part-time or shared inter-departmentally (and with the interest and ability to jump in and out of the project as necessary)
  • Analytics: a data analyst highly proficient in Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager
  • Testing: a testing expert that can use various A/B testing platforms like AB Tasty, Optimizely, and the like
  • UX Design: someone who can convert analytics and testing data into an optimized user experience design, and often ecommerce specialization
  • Strategy: it’s one thing to build a test, but quite another to fully run an entire testing program, understanding business inputs, prioritizing ideas, and roadmapping tests and you’ll more than likely need a full-time CRO Strategist to be at the helm
  • Project Management: all the aforementioned people need a process to keep the engine turning, like adequate task management, documentation, and communication 

All of this is to say that getting an in-house team off the ground takes considerable time and money:

  • Time: Finding and hiring CRO experts that align with your company's needs will take months (and that’s if you’re lucky). Launching the program itself will take even longer. In total, this process can take at least several months to a year.
  • Investment: Expect to spend at least a half a million on new employees and CRO software as your startup costs. That’s for a “skeleton team.” Add in bidding wars for desirable talent and high-demand, low-supply resources. Oh, and factor in employee benefits, paid leave, and bonuses. You get the drift.

The Long-Term Challenges of an In-House Team

Once you get over the hurdles of launching an in-house CRO team, ongoing in-house CRO operations present their own challenges:

  • Multi-Testing Bottlenecks: CRO work flows are cyclical in nature. Parts of the cycle eat up all of a team’s bandwidth, while other stretches of the workflow do not require much, if any, employee time. When the team is all-hands on-deck, additional testing that could significantly improve outcomes cannot be pursued in a timely fashion, creating delays or bottlenecks for launching multiple tests. 
  • Idle Time: During the idling part of the cycle – like during long code freezes especially – when the team has little to do, you are paying a team with, well, little to do. 
  • Retaining Talent: CRO experts are in demand and are few and far between. Holding onto a valuable team member, and your investment in them, is not easy, especially in a fluid job market.
  • Losing Freshness: An in-house CRO team knows the brand and marketing strategies intimately. While this knowledge can lend itself to seamless collaboration between team members and departments, one thing it can also mean is the CRO team is too close to the product. Without an outside perspective, CRO experimentation, analysis, mockups and designs can get stale and not deliver on your conversion goals. 
  • Money, Money, Money: The costs to onboard CRO professionals is considerable, as is continuing to pay them. Expect to continue to pay the half a million dollar price tag for your team year-over-year.

The Advantages of an In-House Team

If you are a $1B+ brand – or better yet a company with several brands in your portfolio – with the website traffic, funds, and need for an all-in, in-house team then this might be the right approach for you. Just be ready to play the long game. 

The Alternative: Agency-Lead CRO

Choosing a CRO agency essentially solves all of the problems of an in-house team by quickly providing the tools and resources to support your marketing objectives. With a CRO agency you get the distinct advantages of:

  • Speed: Simply stated, you will see results faster with a CRO agency. Your startup time is virtually nil with a team that can hit the ground running.
  • Agility: A CRO agency can scale the program up or down, or turn it off temporarily, thereby reducing bottlenecks and eliminating unnecessary costs when CRO processes are unnecessary.
  • Consistency: You’ll have consistent CRO capabilities with an agency, in contrast to the workflow disruptions and deliverable delays due to losing team members and recruiting new talent. To be fair, these disruptions still occur in agencies, but a solid agency will operate on repeatable process and have backup resources available. 
  • Proven Capabilities: Assembling an optimally effective in-house CRO team is not guaranteed, even when hiring apparently talented employees. Maybe the team doesn’t have the synergy that converts to success. Maybe the skill sets don’t quite mesh or the newly-developed protocols aren’t efficient. With a proven CRO agency, you avoid these performance issues common to newly-created teams.
  • Innate Diversity: Often CRO agencies – because of the roles and specializations outlined before – will have a host of experts in other areas like usability, user research, UX design, and web analytics, which can be typically swapped in our tacked on to CRO engagements to quickly solve for the pain points around finding and vetting these experts.
  • Innovation: A CRO agency brings a fresh perspective to a company’s marketing strategies. With outsiders’ eyes on the testing, evaluation, framing and design, a company can expect a more innovative approach.
  • Performance Enhancement & Cost-Effectiveness: Adding it all up, the advantages of an agency are having a CRO program that both performs better, scales faster, and is more cost-effective.

Final Thoughts

Companies are increasingly eager to board the CRO train, but for most, starting an in-house CRO program is not a quick-hire-fix. Hiring a CRO agency is usually the quickest and most profitable option. What’s more, a CRO agency can serve as an initial step prior to the formation of an in-house CRO team, with the agency being leaned on until the company’s own team matures. Furthermore, a blended approach could be the right path for you – a few key stakeholders in-house that oversee and drive strategy and top-level execution while the outside CRO agency deploys against this vision, continually iterating and collaborating together.

When shopping for a CRO agency – watch out for silver bullets and tried-and-true guarantees for ROI. These razzle dazzle tactics might only work for the first month. Instead, as about the agency’s testing methodology, process, resourcing approach, pricing tiers and client referrals. The right agency will be transparent and have clear ideas on how their processes can take your conversion rates to the next level.